Tuesday, December 28, 2010

7-11 Snow Day Banana Bread

Until this Monday, I never really internalized what was meant by the concept of being ‘snowed in.’ Once, in college, I was trapped in Wellesley, Massachusetts after a debate tournament and had to survive on peanut butter sandwiches from the dining hall and slept in the double of one of the debate team members, with the teams of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, and Princeton.  Combined. But I was really too busy learning the drinking game “I never” (which I played without alcohol, because I’m dork) to get overly anxious about the closed roads.

We’ve had bad snow in the New Jersey area, but the recent 9 foot drifts have been the only time, thus far, that I can recall in my adult life, that I’ve had to face completely impassable roads, and a car that was literally covered in a snowdrift of frozen, rock solid ice.  Despite shoveling during the night, to simply open my door I had to take out the glass from a window, climb through, and then shovel my way BACK to the door, to free myself.
If only I could be a hawk in the snow, and have no need for a car!




I haven’t driven since Boxing Day, and I’m still waiting to get plowed out. There was a wall of ice, kindly left by the township, in front of my car, because I live on one of the few roads that ARE plowed.

I always used to laugh at the people who bought boxes and boxes of frozen pizza, beer, and Doritos every time the weatherman breathed the word ‘snow.’  And people who ‘stocked up’ in general. But now I understand better why, in snow-prone regions of the country, it’s terribly tempting to buy massive quantities of preservative-laden food, in case your door is iced shut, or your car is covered with an impassable drift.

I work from home, so I have been productive, but I do miss the things that make working bearable—going to my stable, my yoga classes, even seeing people at grocery store, Staples, and the post office.  Little breaks during the day and after work.

To break up the monotony of the ‘Snowmageddon,’ and the still-incomplete shoveling I took a slippery walk to the local 7-11 and the Dollar Store.

7-11 Snow Day Banana Bread

The dry

1 1/2 cups white whole-wheat flour or all-purpose white flour
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder

The creamed

1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce (not chunky)
3/4 cup brown sugar

The wet
2 overripe convenience store bananas
1 large egg
1/2 vanilla, unsweetened almond milk (or soy or dairy-based milk—if you use just regular milk, add a teaspoon of vanilla extract)

Optional
1 teaspoon of cinnamon 




Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 inch cake pan with parchment or 6-8 muffin tins with cupcake liners.

2. Whisk the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl

3. Pulverize the bananas as much as possible. Mix in the milk (and vanilla, if adding the extract) and the beaten egg.  Cream together the sugar and the applesauce.  Fold into the banana mixture.  Then mix the bowl of the ‘wet’ ingredients (sugar, applesauce, banana, egg, almond milk) into the ‘dry’ (flour, baking powder, salt).

4. Once combined, pour into the pan or muffin liners. You can also use a loaf pan, but that will extend the cooking time.

5. Bake approximately 30 minutes for a cake pan, 20 minutes for muffins, until a toothpick comes out clean. Sprinkle with cinnamon while still warm from the oven. Let cool.  Glory in your power to make something better than a Slurpee from 7-11.

The bread is fairly low in fat and sugar, as well as particularly tasty warm. I estimated that, for 8 servings, it's approximately 200 calories a slice. So it’s a relatively guilt-free indulgence. Just pull your shades down to ignore the mound of snow level with your kitchen windows.
Banana bread is always ugly, and always tasty.  Unlike snow, which is always beautiful, but often a pain.

Friday, December 24, 2010

chewthefat: Sea Salt Brownes

chewthefat: Sea Salt Brownes: "Recently, I was debating what to bake for my yoga teacher as a gift. I was uncertain what would be appropriate: green tea shortbrea..."

Sea Salt Brownes


Recently, I was debating what to bake for my yoga teacher as a gift.  I was uncertain what would be appropriate: green tea shortbread, perhaps?  The food I make for myself is fairly low in fat. With the exception of eggs, I rarely use animal products, even dairy. 

On one hand, I wanted to make his Christmas present seem ‘special’ and out of the everyday, low-fat banana bread category-ordinary. On the other hand I didn’t want to offend.  Fortunately, I overheard him saying that he loves cheese.  When asked what he would respond, upon conversing with more aesthetic yogis, he said he’d reply:

“Well, I am Italian.’

I breathed a sign of relief, and immediately began planning to make my version of Bake or Break’s Sea Salt Brownies. 

They seemed like ideal ‘guy food’ (my yoga teacher is a pretty athletic dude)—salty and not too sweet.

I understand about Italians and food. Although my maternal Italian grandfather died when my mother was still a child, I do remember some of my mother’s distant Italian relatives: I called them Uncle Louie and Aunt Menina, although they weren’t my Uncle or Aunt. Everyone called them that—the people who rented rooms from them, the people who worked in Uncle Louie’s terrazzo tile company.

Uncle Louie was thus ‘in construction,’ but not ‘in construction’ Italian as in having mysteriously smooth hands, a habit of paying in cash with wads of hundred dollar bills and horse heads-showing-up-in-the-bedclothes-of-people-he-didn’t-like kind of construction. Louis’ hands were as calloused and ugly as the beautiful mosaic he created upon floors and walls, a skill he had learned in the old country. Both Louie and his wife were of small, blunt-shaped peasant stock, as if they had begun to resemble the masonry tools from which Louie made his money.
Flickr: erlogan
 
Uncle Louie and Aunt Menina were Real Deal Jersey Italian. Mass every morning.  I don’t mean ‘almost every morning.’  And I certainly don’t mean every Sunday. You could set your watch by them at the church. 

Menina would wear a pastel-colored kerchief over her head in the spring, and a plastic, clear white one in inclement weather. Her hair was a bright, shiny copper color that never changed, no matter how old she grew.

Menina’s food was legendary. Like Louie, she was born in Sicily, but she had taken to Italian-American food in a Big Way. Their house was pristine and looked like a hermetically sealed apartment from Brooklyn in the 1940s. There wasn’t a single stain on the outdated floral wallpaper, even in the kitchen, which, under her loving touch, yielded tender ravioli in tomato sauce, spaghetti pie, and ziti in foil-covered porcelain dishes. 
Cans and cans of canned Italian tomatoes lined the open shelves.

I remember sitting on the slippery, plastic-covered sofa feeling bored whenever I went to visit them. I didn’t like the texture of the joints of the ravioli disks. The ziti felt too heavy in my stomach, and while I was fascinated with the whirls of parmesan and bread-crumb studded, red-threads of angel hair suspended in the mozzarella and provolone of the spaghetti pie, I liked the name better than the taste.

Menina also made a ten layer chocolate cake. The usual number is seven.  But seven, according to Menina would be ‘too stingy.’

 I couldn’t even finish more than one layer of that cake. This comes from a kid who used to demand the corner pieces of birthday cake—with icing roses—to maximize her sugar consumption. Only the boyfriends of my cousins who were athletes, or men who worked in occupations that required a great deal of heavy lifting could finish a slice.

There was an absence of green in Menina’s food—I remember it all in white (pasta cheese), red (sauce), and brown (meatballs, chocolate).  But it was, even though it did not please my fincky palate, made with love and although the children, accustomed to McNuggets, tended to pick at it, the adults devoured it with gusto. 

 I admit that I did not love Menina and Louie. My other cousins, who were well trained,  knew how to sit in silence and listen to adult conversation and not say a word. I would bring toys and coloring books to amuse myself, chatter aimlessly. This was not how a child should be raised. I would sit and talk to my stuffed Thumper when I should be eating ziti. I think my aunt did not see a charming Disney creation but what should be conigilio con pomodoro.

My parents divorced when I was in 6th grade.  I still remember the profound sense of relief. No more going to the table and being terrified if I bought a book to read. No more need to worry about having every toy put away before my father got home. No more worries about my mother having to pick lint off the blue shag carpet, or wash the floor every week, to preserve my father’s sense of order. 

I remember sitting in the closet of my grandmother’s home, where we moved after the divorce, and simply breathing with relief.

One day, I was home in the middle of the afternoon. It was early summer, and my mother was at work.

“Hello, it’s Aunt Menina.”  I wrinkled my nose. I remembered the feeling of the slippery couch, the airless house. The ravioli.

“Uh, hi,” I said. I was reading Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me. I had also fixed myself some toaster waffles with syrup.

“I heard about the tragedy.”

“What?”

“The divorce. I am so, so sorry”

Suddenly, it clicked, even in my thick, television and sugar-addled little skull.
“Oh, Aunt Menina, please don’t be sorry. It’s for the best.  It’s easier—”

“I was so shocked.”

I didn’t understand. I mean, even I could see—everyone could see—how incompatible my parents were—I’d already perused books about divorced kids like Just as Long as We’re Together even BEFORE my parents talked about getting separated, praying that I could be like the heroes and heroines of The Divorce Express.

“No one wants a divorce,” said Meina—“maybe, if you talked things over with them—maybe they might get back together.”

Even I, even I knew that this was so Not Judy Blume of her to say. “No, no, Aunt Menina—I know you mean well, but no.  It doesn’t work that way.”

“If their little girl talked with them…”

“Don’t you understand that it’s better this way?  It’s kind—it’s kind of a relief,” I blurted out.

There was a sound of silent shock over the phone, shock at the cold words of this monstrous little girl.
I didn’t still quite get it, even after I hung up the phone.   The conversation was so Not Cool!  So totally NOT JUDY BLUME! Didn’t adults get it?  Wasn’t I the person who was supposed to blame myself and not Get It?

That was the last time I spoke with Aunt Menina. With the money so carefully saved, they paid for several of my younger relative’s education and first cars.   Not mine.  My mother attended Menina’s funeral, after she died. There was no request to give donations to a cause—everyone sent flowers and wept.

I understand better now what my Aunt and Uncle went through to establish themselves in the New World, the faith that sustained them. And I wish I had been a little bit more flexible as a child to enter their world—just as I also wish they could have been a bit more flexible to understand mine.

Today, I see many younger Italian-American women and men cooking the food of their ancestors—on the web, in cookbooks. As well as the red and the white, there are other colors—the colors of bitter greens, beans, and other Italian peasant foods that didn’t survive the first passage across the Atlantic to become  traditional American cuisine. 

One woman I know is legendary for making the Feast of the Seven Fishes every Christmas.  But she also goes to the gym frequently. Like my yoga teacher and other Italian-Americans of today, she appreciates the past and has a reverence of what nourishes the body—but she also believes that sometimes it is healthy to bend, rather than break on the wheels of tradition.


Sea Salt Brownies


 
Ingredients
1 and ½ sticks of butter
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
¼ cup and 2 tablespoons cocoa
2 cups light brown or white granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 and ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup white whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon sea salt

Directions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9 inch pan (I used a round cake pan) with foil or parchment (I used parchment) buttering the sides to allow for overflow.
  2. Melt the unsweetened chocolate and butter slowly in a pan on the stovetop. DO NOT BURN.  Nothing is sadder than burnt chocolate!
  3. Mix together the beaten eggs, vanilla extract, sugar, cocoa, and flour. Pour chocolate and butter mixture into the flour, and stir, either by hand or with a mixer.
  4. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle sea salt across the batter and smooth with a butter knife.
  5. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until slightly underdone.
  6. Cool at room temperature for an hour. Refrigerate for an hour.  Cut carefully and only when fully cooled. Makes approximately 6-9 brownies, generously sliced.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nutty, healthy cookies


Some people’s lives were ruined in their early adolescence by rock n’ roll: mine was ruined at age nine, by poetry.  Despite many years of incredibly mediocre grades in elementary school, I tested very well on the standardized tests given to all students in my state called the ‘Iowa Tests.’ (Why students from New Jersey were tested on exams named after a Midwestern state remains a mystery to me—and gave me a very strange impression of what people do in Iowa all day long). 

Because of my scores, I was placed in a program called A.T. (Academically Talented).  This proved to be my undoing: instead of sitting in orderly rows, doing worksheets and listening to the teacher, in A.T. the students sat at round tables, debated Serious Contemporary Issues like whether Pac-Man was rotting the minds of the Next Generation, put Hansel and Gretel on trial using the procedures of the criminal justice system, and wrote poetry in the style of Lorca.
 
The fact that I got excellent grades in my supposedly ‘harder’ A.T. classes and did rather poorly in classes that required me to follow the rules and hand in assignments on time unintentionally gave me the impression that I was a Creative Person and that instructions were for Other People. It didn’t help, either, that my kindly A.T.  teacher would even allow me to eat lunch with her, in her classroom so I didn’t have to deal with the confusing and frightening social environment of the playground and my peers who often taunted me.

Many years of having teachers write in large, red capital letters on my work: DID YOU EVEN READ THE ASSIGNMENT SHEET?????? followed.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to love school and taking classes, even when no grades are involved.  I’ve also learned that to be truly creative when writing, you have to master the basics—grammar, spelling, verse structure—before you mess with them and make something new.

Baking is often called a science as opposed to cooking’s more freestyle ‘art’ and one of my problems as a baker is my fondness for messing with the rules. I’m always apt to want to make things ‘healthier’ by substituting whole wheat flour, adding a bit of applesauce rather than butter, and so forth. But I really did intend today to make a macadamia nut cookie ‘by the book.’ Then, I couldn’t locate any jars of chopped macadamia nuts at Wegman’s.   So, like every bad student looking for an excuse not to do the assignment, I made these instead.

Whole wheat mixed nut cookies

Ingredients

The sifted 

2 cups whole wheat flour
1/ 2 teaspoon baking soda

The creamed

1 1/ 2 cup brown sugar
3/ 4 cup melted butter
2 eggs, beaten

Add-ins

1/ 2 cup chopped pecans, cashews, walnuts, and hazel nuts

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment.
  2. Whisk together the flour and baking soda.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar, then incorporate the beaten eggs.
  4. Fold in the flour mixture.
  5. Drop or scoop onto baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Yields 18-24.
These would also be great with some chopped whole wheat pretzels or peanuts, for a kind of healthier ‘spin’ on a compost cookie.



Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pay no attention to the baking failure that occured after these cookies...


Yesterday, I had a pretty decent baking success making another batch of whole wheat chocolate chip cookies. 

Today, I decided to throw together a batch of shortbread. After all with three ingredients, this recipe seemed foolproof.  However, when I was kneading the mixture together, I began to get suspicious at the rather crumbly texture of the dough and even after baking, the cookies were loose, powdery, and not particularly flavorful. So they were 'circularly filed.'

I suppose this makes me officially a Bad Person, but I've never had much compunction about throwing out baking or cooking failures. Life is too short to eat--or to give--bad cookies.  My way of 'not wasting' tends to be to buy only what I need, nothing more, not to force myself to be a member of the 'clean plate club' when I'm not that happy with what is on my plate....and maybe it's not that PC, but if you're going to cook, especially when you're learning to cook, you're going to end up wasting some food when you 'fail' every now and then...I just like to think that the waste from 'experimenting' is balanced out by NOT buying as many packaged goods. 

At least the shortbread made the house smell nice.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

There are certain things that I like, I've come to realize, that not many other people seem to like. I try to keep my mouth shut about my love of:
  • 19th century Victorian novels
  • Elizabethan dramas in iambic pentameter (The Royal Shakespearean Company RULES!)
  • Running
  • Really dorky news shows on NPR, like the Brian Lehrer show
  • Walking in cities, rather than taking cabs, so I can check out off-beat stores like the ''Left hander's" store in London. Even though I'm not left-handed.
  • Whole wheat anything.
Now, I know I'm supposed to say: "oh, I FORCE myself to use whole wheat because it's healthier." But to be honest, I have a kind of unusual palate, I guess. I wonder if it's because I never ate white bread growing up. My mother made even my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on rye bread. When I was in elementary school. 

I still don't like rye, but I find whole wheat to be much more interesting, flavor-wise. I know I should think that having a teeny weeny taste of a 'real' chocolate chip cookie with white flour is better than a big bite of a whole wheat cookie, but I don't. I also like the fact that whole wheat things, even though they aren't necessarily less caloric, don't give me that nauseous sugar hangover that overly sweet things tend to bring on, after an hour or so.

A number of people have asked me if I you can only make whole wheat peanut butter cookies (because the peanut butter is so oily and moist, it tends to reduce the gritty texture of the whole wheat many people find objectionable)--or if you can also make whole wheat chocolate chip cookies entirely with whole wheat flour. No all purpose or 'white whole wheat' flour involved.

 Well, I did, and I liked them!  I adapted the recipe from the Hillbilly Housewife, who writes that these are are perfect for people who are 'real uptight about food and nutrition.'   My goodness, it's like they were made for me!

I love this recipe because it only uses one type of sugar (light brown) as well as one type of flour. (I'm uptight, yet cheap and lazy about buying lots of different kinds of flour).  The recipe is even easier than the Toll House recipe, which uses both white and brown sugar.

Ingredients

"The creamed"

1 cup of butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 1/2 cups of light brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten

"The dry"
2 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspon baking soda

"The add-ins"
Instead of 1 cup of semisweet chocolate chips, I cut up a large bar of Ghirradelli 86% cacao for half the batter and made the other half with half a cup of white chocolate chips and half a cup of salted mixed nuts.

Directions
1. Preheat the oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Cream the softened butter and brown sugar in a bowl. Add the eggs and the baking soda. Stir until well-incorporated, almost the texture of wet clay. Then add in the flour, about a 1/4 cup at a time.

3. It's suggested that you chill chocolate chip batter for 36 hours in the refrigerator before baking--I didn't, but to be honest it probably would yield superior results, particularly for whole wheat flour which requires more time to absorb moisture. I have impulse control issues, however, and wanted to bake these right away.

4. I divided the batter and folded in the dark chocolate into one half, and the nuts and white chocolate into the other half.

5. The original recipe makes 3 dozen, but I made 18, since I was giving these as a gift and wanted them to look large and spectacular.

6. Bake for 12 minutes for normal-size cookies, about 20 if you made your cookies extra-large, like mine.

7. Cool and remove from the parchment with a spatula.

8. I had to chill the cookies with the cut-up cookie bar for the chocolate to 'set.' While not as pretty as pre-made chocolate chips, I admit I prefer 'real' chunks of extra dark chocolate, taste-wise.

Packed and ready to be gifted!




I also made some more saltine nut brittle.
One batch with dark chocolate and salted mixed nuts, the other with white chocolate.  Just to show that my apparent love of healthy eating is a veneer. 

Stop me before I nut brittle again!  It's becoming an addiction.  I have the sudden urge to make it for everyone I know, kind of like Truman Capote's dotty but lovable relative made fruitcakes for everyone--including President Roosevelt--according to his short story "A Christmas Memory."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

White Chocolate Honey Nut Saltine Brittle


As a child, I was obsessed by crafts. When you’re very young you’re blissfully unaware of the fact that the green construction paper Christmas tree you’re adorning with shiny ornaments cut from purple tinfoil will be only beautiful in the eyes of your mother. Whenever my school would take us to museums, I would always, always use the $2.00 we were allowed as souvenir money to purchase little statues of animals with fuzzy coats and make them diorama habitats out of shoeboxes at home. I lived a very exiting life, as you can tell.  

At some point such thoughts as: “hey, an empty spool with a plastic lid can make a great doll table” seems to go away.  I think that decorating cakes, cookies, and candy and wrapping presents is as close to crafts as most grownups get, unless they have a profession in the arts.  This very simple recipe is almost more of a craft than a recipe, but it’s fun, easy enough to make with kids, yet can look quite fancy if you use good ingredients.

White Chocolate Honey Nut Saltine Brittle

For a half batch:

Ingredients
20-25 Saltine crackers
1 stick of butter
1/ 2 cup of light brown sugar
3/ 4 cup (or more) of white chocolate chips (room temperature)
1/2 cup honey roasted peanuts (or cashews or chopped pecans)

Procedure
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F
  2. Cover half a cookie sheet with parchment paper or tinfoil.
  3. Put a single layer of saltine crackers, side by side, on the  covered sheet (approximately 20-25).
  4. Melt one stick of butter (1/2 a cup) and 1/ 2 a cup brown sugar in a saucepan until bubbling.
  5. Pour the mixture over the saltines.
  6. Bake until the saltines are bubbling in the hot sugar and butter mixture, approximately 5-7 minutes
  7. Cover the saltines with  white chocolate chips
The original recipe specified 3/ 4 of a cup of chocolate for an ENTIRE pan (40 crackers). I found that to be far too stingy—3/4 of a cup was just enough to cover my 1 /2 a pan with 20 crackers.

  1. As the chips melt , spread them with a knife until the saltines are covered with a smooth layer of chocolate
  2. If your chips don’t melt, you can put the pan back in the oven for a minute—But only AFTER you’ve turned off the oven. Don’t put the pan in a ‘hot’ oven, only a warm one, because the chips will turn to liquid.  You want them to be the consistency of soft butter.
  3. Sprinkle the nuts on the chocolate.
  4. Chill until very hard, approximately 2-3 hours.  Some versions of this recipe suggest freezing  the saltines.  However, my refrigerator solidified the brittle quite quickly. The freezer would have made it too hard.
  5.  Break or cut the brittle into sections. Unless you have a very sharp knife, I’d suggest breaking over cutting.
  6. When wrapping the pieces as a gift, make sure to put down a piece of wax paper in the container, as the candy will still be slightly sticky.
Saltine brittle is usually made with chocolate and chopped walnuts or pecans, so this is my ‘twist’ on the idea. However, you can use any combination of chocolate, nuts, or other add-ons.

For kids, using colored sprinkles, M&Ms, chopped peanut butter cups, crushed Butterfingers or Heath bars would be fun.  Make sure to cut the candy bars in small pieces.

The fact that this is so easy and inexpensive also makes it a great 'thank-you' gift to give in small bags around the holidays. I've heard it suggested as a 'teacher's gift.'  However, as one of my jobs involves working with students, please note that I don't mind cash, either.

There are  many variations you can try on this recipe. Here is the full pan recipe. Similar to mine, only with milk chocolate and an addition of vanilla to the butter and sugar (which I don't really think is required). There's an even sweeter version with graham crackers and butterscotch. And if you're from Texas, all of this will seem far too austere, so I have to direct you to Cookie Madness' version, which uses Fritos as a base.