Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Zucchini Bread

I'm a big fan of putting vegetables in my baked goods.  Makes me feel like I'm eating healthy.

Last year, I discovered a recipe for zucchini bread that was kindof out-of-this-world good.  When I read the recipe, though, I was like, "Uh, curry powder in zucchini bread?  I don't think so, lady."  But Heidi Swanson hasn't done me wrong yet, so I thought I'd give it a try.  Turns out, this stuff is amazing.  I brought it to a dinner party this weekend and a little girl there kept asking, "Can I have some more of that cake?"  And you know you've done well when you've gotten a 4-year old to think something with veggies in it is "cake".

The Recipe
Even the batter is pretty.
101 Cookbooks is one of my go-to websites when I'm looking to try a new recipe.  It's written by Heidi Swanson, who has written a book called Supernatural Cooking, which I am also a fan of.  She just looks so organic and wholesome on the front cover - her food has to be good, right? Anyway, her recipe is called My Special Zucchini Bread Recipe.  (Ok, she could use some help in the creative branding department, but that aside...)  I followed her recipe pretty much exactly, except I didn't have lemons, so I used lime zest instead.  Personally, I think I liked the lemon better.

The Verdict
Awesome.  It's moist and chunky, and the combination of flavors is so delightful.  I especially like the poppy seeds - there's nothing more fun then surprising little crunchies in your baked goods.  (Unless, of course, the crunchies are actually egg shells...)

I'm thinking this could even pass as a cake, actually, if you put it in a cake pan and frosted it with something cream cheese-y.  Kinda like carrot cake, no?  Try it and tell me what you think.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Banana Bread

I realized this morning that I need to start buying butter by the ton.

In the US, people can claim that something is "the best there is" without really backing up their statement. One of my favorite examples of this is when an Argentine steak house moved into my neighborhood, and before they were open, a sign in the window boldly declared, "Best Steak in Minneapolis!" According to whom? The chef's mother? They weren't even open yet!

Anyway, it seems that everyone has a "best there is" banana bread recipe, but I have yet to find one I truly like. Today I am trying out the Moosewood Cookbook's banana bread. It includes two sticks of butter (gasp!) in addition to some interesting flavors - almond extract, orange zest, black coffee, and sesame seeds. We'll see how it turns out.

The Recipe
Beat together in a large bowl, beginning with the sugar and butter, add eggs one-at-a-time. Add remaining ingredients and beat until light in color:

1 cup (two sticks) butter, softened
1 1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
3 eggs, room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 tsp grated orange rind

Sift together the following ingredients:

2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups white flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground cinnamon

Puree together the following:

3-4 ripe bananas, mashed
 2/3 cup black coffee

Add flour mixture and banana mixture alternately to the butter mixture, beginning and ending with flour (flour-banana-flour-banana-flour). After each addition, mix gently to combine, but do not beat or otherwise overmix - this toughens and dries the bread.

Generously butter two loaf pans and sprinkle with sesame seeds (they'll stick to the butter). Divide batter into the two pans and bake for 40-50 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

The Verdict
The flavor is very, very good. And I love the addition of sesame seeds on the bottom. However, it isn't as moist as I'd like for it to be (suggestions?), and I think I might add chunks of something next time, like maybe banana or walnuts. Mmmm. I think we're getting closer to "best there is".

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares

(One of the reasons I will remain single well into my 40's is that instead of going to something fun/social like the dance party at the Bedlam or Boyz II Men at the State Fair (ha ha), I stay home and bake.)

Tonight I was feeling like staying in, and while reading a book about a woman who quits her job and goes to Le Cordon Bleu for a year, I suddenly had a hankerin' for cheesecake.  So I went to my latest favorite cooking blog, Smitten Kitchen, and found a recipe for Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares (or "Bars" as this Minnesota native will call them).

I had never made cheesecake before, and I wasn't sure if was one of those things like angel food cake that everyone thinks is such a nightmare, but it turns out it wasn't so bad.  The only annoying part of this recipe was the making of the dulce de leche.  I didn't have a double boiler, so I improvised with two pans, which seemed to work fine.  The other thing I didn't have was patience, which is what made it annoying.  But flipping back occasionally to look at the picture kept me motivated.  Damn those bars look good.

One thing to note is that the cheesecake part might look like an earthquake about to explode before you take it out of the oven.  I was worried that the whole dang thing was going to be lopsided, but as it turns out, once the cake cools, everything levels out.  I also think I might have over-cooked it - the recipe says to bake it until "the center has just set"... uh, you know what?  Now that I go back and read the recipe again, it says I was supposed to bake it in a hot water bath.  Hm.  Maybe that's why the edges are all brown.  *sigh*  Follow directions, Johnson.

Anyway, stupid mistakes aside, they turned out aesthetically beautiful, but not quite as tasty as I had hoped.  For as much butter and sugar and bad-for-you ingredients as I added (even corn syrup - yikes!), you'd think they would have been tastier.  But my assessment is that the cheesecake bit was kindof spongy and flavorless, and the graham cracker crust - which had been so crunchy and yummy at first - got soggy and gross.  It's very possible that these shortcomings are all due to user error, I know, but nonetheless, I am disappointed that I won't be having cheesecake for breakfast.

Lessons Learned
I had never made graham cracker crust before - it is ridiculously easy, and definitely one of my favorite flavor combinations - graham crackers and butter.  (Right up there with chocolate and peanut butter.)  Additionally, the glaze on top was quite simple, and quite tasty.  Maybe corn syrup isn't so bad after all.  (Though I welcome any suggestions for more environmentally-sustainable & "healthy" substitutes.)

Also, for comedic effect, I am including a photo here of my photography strategy - the lighting in my kitchen sucks for nighttime food photos, so this is my solution until I get a fancier camera.  I am a big nerd.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Best Cocoa Brownies

For Christmas last year, one of my employees baked for me this brownie recipe, and I do believe I ate the whole batch in one afternoon.  They were incredible.  Afterward, I kindof went a little crazy, trying to make the recipe even more perfect.  I probably baked three batches a week for an entire month.  I brought the brownies to work, to my writing group, and even to the bar on trivia night (to which a skeptical lady in her mid-50's inquired, "Are they... special brownies?")  In the end, I did decide that the original recipe was really quite awesome, but I prefer to add three tablespoons of ancho chili powder to give it a little zing.

Don't tell my landlord.
Today I have a potluck for my new crew of AmeriCorps members, so before eating breakfast this morning, I whipped up a batch and stuck them in the oven.  Earlier this week I baked a strata, which kindof ended up all over the bottom of the oven, so to keep from waking up my neighbors, I've rigged up a system for disabling my smoke alarm.  It's very Jayme Johnson.  (Yes, that is a shower cap.)

Observations & Tips
If you're going to try this recipe, I recommend using parchment paper to line the pan, as opposed to greasing it.  If you're like me and you hate to wash dishes, this method is awesome.

Also, you may be tempted to eat/share these brownies when they're piping hot from the oven, but they're really at their best when completely cooled - gravity pulls the ingredients together, creating a more dense, chewy, tasty brownie.  (However, I do recommend eating them warm if you're serving them with ice cream.  Julie's Organic is the best - available at the co-op.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Conventional wisdom dictates that one should never "test out" a new recipe when company is coming over.  I'm not one to follow conventional wisdom, so I've decided to try out a few cupcake/frosting recipes for a co-worker's bridal shower tomorrow.

Chocolate Beet Cupcake with
Chocolate Buttercream
The first batch I made was based on the beet cake recipe I made yesterday, only this time I omitted the ginger and chocolate chunks.  They turned out pretty well, actually, especially since I took them out of the oven a little before they were done.  To these cupcakes, I added Chocolate Buttercream Frosting from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.  I've never made frosting from scratch before, so this was a fun experiment.  I'm not so sure the flavors (cupcake + frosting) go together, but dang it if the whole works wasn't moist and lovely as can be.  I think next time I'd do something a little heartier for the frosting, like a dark chocolate ganache.

Coconut Cupcake with
Coconut Cream
The second batch I made was... less successful.  Coconut Cake with Coconut Cream Frosting, both from Bittman again.  (By the way, if you don't have his cookbooks, you should - he uses few ingredients and talks very accessibly to readers.  Plus his flavor combinations are yummy and often unexpected.)  First, I didn't exactly follow the directions when fluffing the eggs for the cupcake, so it never reached the point where the egg whites "form[ed] soft peaks".  Second, I left them in the oven too long, so instead of being all-around fluffy and moist, my cupcakes have crispy exoskeletons that are a little on the dry side. Finally, I must have messed something up with the frosting recipe, because the consistency resembles a combination of marshmallow creme and taffy.  Also, it's overwhelmingly sweet (but that might be because I tried substituting honey for the corn syrup.  Just the thought of corn syrup makes me gag a little.)  So.  Point being this: maybe it's best to start by following the recipe carefully the first time you make something high-maintenance.  Then next time you can take some artistic license and mess around with substitutions.

Now all I need to do is come up with some cheesy bridal shower games.  Anyone got ideas?  (Also, if you have a use for four cups of marshmallow creme, see me.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Eat for Equity

Tonight for dinner I let someone else do the cooking - an organization called Eat for Equity.  This group holds monthly dinners at various locations around the Twin Cities, and each month your donation for the meal goes toward a nonprofit organization that is building equity for/with people in need.  Tonight's donations benefited the American Refugee Committee, which supports the basic survival needs of people in refugee situations.  Specifically, tonight's donations were given to relief efforts in Pakistan, where major flooding has displaced about six million people and have killed nearly 1,500.  Appropriately, we were served a Pakistani-themed dinner of beef pulao, cucumber raita salad, and cardamom kulfi.  It was fantastic.

I should also say that aside from the food being tasty and the cause being worthy, I've met some really cool & progressive people at these dinners.  If you're interested in coming next month, or would like to find out more about Eat for Equity, check them out on Facebook.

Chocolate Chip Beet Cake

During the summer of 2001, I lived in a house with six other women.  The house only had three bedrooms, so one of us slept in the basement, and the rest of us slept on mattresses in the attic.  (Ghetto, I know.  But rent was $140 and I was a college student.)  Oh, also?  It was mother-effing hot in that attic, and we did not have air conditioning.  I don't think I slept for three months.

One day I came home from work to find one of my roommates deep frying naan on the stove.  It was 101 degrees outside.  Due to my lack of sleep and generally pissy 20-year old attitude, I think I said some not-very-nice things to my roommate, probably including something like "Can't you just make a goddamn peanut butter and jelly sandwich??"

Farmers' Market Beets
Needless to say, we didn't remain friends.  But I'm reminded of her today as the temperatures are in the 80's and I have an overwhelming need to bake something.  I'm going to blame it on the Midtown Farmers' Market and the three bunches of beautiful beets I bought this morning.

The Recipe
I've decided to make a Chocolate Chip Beet Cake, roughly basing my recipe on this one from Heavy Table.  I don't think I've ever cooked with beets before, so I hadn't anticipated that the boiling of the beets would take so long.  (These are things I'm still learning.)

Tip: Don't peel the beets before boiling them - the skin will slide right off when they've been cooked long enough.

You should know, too, that I'm experimenting with a few substitutions - I like to put a little splash of my own creativity in every recipe I make:
  1. I'm using dark brown sugar, which always looks so much more luscious than the other stuff.  
  2. I don't have applesauce, so I'm using and plain yogurt instead (making this recipe not-vegan).  
  3. I added a tablespoon and a half of minced ginger because, well, why not?  
  4. For some reason I'm opposed to semi-sweet chocolate chips, so I used pieces of a dark chocolate bar instead.
The great thing about cooking with beets is how gorgeous the batter is.  I think I might even dare to call it "sexy".  The not-so-great thing about cooking with beets is how the juice gets all over everything, including your clothes.  Just make sure to wear something that looks good with magenta flecks all over it.

The Verdict
So how did it turn out?  Well, it tastes good, but unfortunately I didn't grease my pan well enough, so the whole top of the cake is still stuck there.  (Hey, I never claimed to be an expert...)

Hey, where's the rest of it?

Other observations
I think my oven gets a little hot, so I have to remember to set it a little cooler than the recipe calls for.  In general, the cake has good consistency, and the sweet flavor of the beets really makes it a unique dessert.  I'm thinking it would be good with a nice glass of Valpolicella, too, on a crisp fall evening.  My only beef with it is that I really prefer my cakes with something wet - you know, like ice cream or frosting or something.  But this one is so sweet on its own that I think adding anything else would be really overdoing it.  I'm open to suggestions.