Monday, September 26, 2011

Goin' Bananas, Part Two: (Gluten-Free) Coconut Banana Bread

Most people think of Sunday as a day of rest. Throughout his childhood, however, Tengo had never once viewed Sunday as a day to enjoy. For him, Sunday was like a misshapen moon that showed only its dark side. When the weekend came, his whole body began to feel sluggish and achy, and his appetite would disappear. He had even prayed for Sunday not to come, though his prayers were never answered.
-Haruki Murakami ("Town of Cats")

It's hard to say which day of the week is the worst: Sunday or Monday? Sunday is still the weekend, so it's technically free time, but it's time that is on the brink of disappearing; just around the corner is the beginning of the work week, the Monday to Friday grind that makes the weekend so superbly joyful. And these past few weeks, the weekends have truly, at least for me, been the light at the end of the tunnel.

 I don't know if it's the 8 a.m. class or the thought that another dissertation chapter needs to be produced while teaching this class, but things have been, for lack of a better word, a little tense around here these days. Since the semester has started, I've already read 34 papers, responded to 17 thesis statements, read 5 texts (we're now on our sixth) and had about a dozen meetings. Not to mention the fact that this past week, inspired by a youtube video that uses classical music and a single-action shot to aestheticize insect murder, I waged war on fruit flies (for the curious and similarly inspired, 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, a few drops of dish soap and you'll be free of them for good!). Given the pace of modern life (and the admittedly absurd forms it sometimes takes), it almost makes you long for those days when one could sit under apple trees and wait for inspiration to strike in the form of falling apples. But these days, we don't even give ourselves a chance to have that kind of "eureka" moment: we don't sit still long enough for an apple to fall on our heads!

Maybe there's no time for apples, but, for better or for worse, I made time for bananas. Partly because they were becoming the icky overripe kind that attracts my new nemesis (the fruit fly), partly because I wanted something that was easily portable and that I could take to campus as a snack--and a healthy one at that. Although I've made plenty of banana bread in my day, most exciting about this latest venture is that I bought coconut flour for the occasion! After my experiments with coconut oil, I wanted to take my coconut obsession to the next level and try to bake something without any white flour (if you hadn't noticed, these last few posts have been about experimenting with new ingredients). In short, I was going to try gluten-free baking and see what happened! I was a little worried about this because, in my readings about coconut flour, I discovered how much moisture it absorbs. And it seems that most people take care of this moisture requirement by using 5-8 eggs per one loaf of banana bread; that seemed a little excessive to me--despite the fact that we all know there's nothing worse than dry, cardboard-flavored baked goods--but I managed to create, with the help of  buttermilk--something that was tasty, properly moist and bursting with coconut flavor and fiber (food fun fact: coconut flour is rich in fiber).

Maybe I'll go crazy by the end of the semester, but at least I'll eat well while doing it. Or, even better, perhaps these culinary moments will stave off the madness....

(Gluten-Free) Coconut Banana Bread

Yields 8-10 slices of gluten-free goodness
Heavily adapted from The Spunky Coconut , a great gluten-free site for those hoping to try some new baking techniques

3 mashed bananas
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup agave nectar
3 1/2 Tbsp. coconut oil (make sure that it's in a liquid form; if necessary, melt it in the microwave)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3/4 cup coconut flour
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
3 Tbsp. coconut flakes (sweetened or unsweetened, you decide! I went with the former)

-Preheat the oven to 350, and oil and flour a bread pan (sticking with a coconut theme, I used coconut oil for this step).
-Mash the bananas in a bowl with a fork. Set aside.
-In a large bowl, add the coconut flour, sea salt, baking soda and powder, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, and whisk.
-In a small bowl, mix the coconut oil, bananas, vanilla, agave nectar, beaten eggs and buttermilk.
-Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until mixed through.
-Add the walnuts and the coconut flakes, folding them in gently.
-Note: if there are lumps in the coconut flour, whisk them out. Unlike with white flour, you can't overmix coconut flour!
-Bake for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until golden on top and a cake-tester comes out clean (I recommend checking the bread at about 40 minutes; my bread baked faster than I expected, but the extra crunch didn't hurt anything).
-Bon appetit!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Overcoming Culinary Bias: Learning to Love Lima Beans

 With postwar guilt, he decried bratwurst, sauerbraten, and Konigsberger Klopse as dishes verging on poison. They were the Hitler of foods. Instead, he looked to our own Greek diet--our eggplant aswim in tomato sauce, our cucumber dressings and fish egg-spreads, our pilafi, raisins and figs--as potential curatives, as live-giving, artery-cleansing, skin-smoothing wonder drugs...They didn't call it Grecian Formula for nothing. It was in our food! A veritable fountain of youth in our dolmades and taramasalata and even in our baklava, which didn't commit the sin of containing refined sugar, but only honey.
-Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex)

If my younger self had known, at age 7, 10, 12, 15 or even 18, that I was one day going to be singing the praises of lima beans, she would have been very disappointed. In fact, I'm pretty sure she would have seen me as a traitor to the cause of rejecting food on the simple grounds that it seemed disgusting and unworthy of her (as yet untried) palate. I can still recall family dinners from my youth and the many moments during which my mother or grandmother would play the game of reverse psychology, offering me things like lima beans, onions and other vegetables (I rarely said no to dessert, after all! Only vegetables and certain meats--liver, veal!--needed to be subtly proposed), and, after I would always make a face that was half-shy refusal and half-sneer, would smugly say, "Well, then, there's more for the rest of us!" and happily take a bite of whatever they were offering.

 There were moments when I really did wonder what I was missing, but usually the sight or the smell of these foods made me certain that I was on the Path of Righteousness. Lima beans were just too squishy looking; I couldn't bring myself to do it. But fast-forward many years into the future and my ripe 28-year-old self suddenly wanted to expand her palate and to make amends with the shunned foods of her youth. Lima beans immediately sprang to mind. I think the idea had been planted there by a New York Times article on travel in Greece, or possibly by a Favorites List by Heidi of 101 Cookbooks. Or even by the fact that the Greek sent me this picture from his current trip home (look at that happy and relaxed posture!) and, wanting to experience the magic of Greece, I decided I had to recreate it myself, in my very own kitchen. If I couldn't have the sea, the swimming and the sunshine, I could at least have the food. Lima beans cooked in a tomato sauce and then topped with oregano pesto and feta was clearly the way to go.

 I didn't imagine, however, what a process this would be. Granted, if you, unlike me, had done anything besides relax this past weekend, you might have approached this recipe like any reasonable person would have, i.e. you would have soaked the beans overnight, rather than soaking the beans, cooking the beans, making the tomato sauce, preparing the pesto and baking the beans all in one day. I kid you not: I started the whole process around 1 p.m. Don Draper and I didn't have dinner together until about 8:45 p.m. Granted, the good news is that, despite the extensive process, this is not a high maintenance meal. You let the beans do their thing (water does all the work, although it's important to simmer lima beans on low heat; you don't want them to fall apart. A gentle simmer is all it takes!), the sauce will also, despite the occasional stir, take care of itself. The most hands-on part of the meal is the pesto (especially when you forget that you shouldn't keep textbooks and paper around olive oil that can easily splash).

Honestly, I took care of several important tasks while the meal basically cooked itself, from email correspondence to pedagogy assignments. And it was nice to know that, after all the work I was doing, dinner would be ready and lunch for the week also taken care of. Provided, of course, that I actually liked how things turned out. Never forget that 3 cups of dried lima beans will go a long, long way...Especially when it's dinner for one. I guess you could say I was in a gambling kind of mood.

The good news is that, despite my former lima bean bias, this recipe convinced me that maybe, just maybe, I had been wrong those many years ago. Lima beans weren't boring or gross. They could be tender, yet chewy; they could be covered in a sauce that was flavorful and took the bean from the level of mere legume to bean deluxe. A topping of pesto could add a richly fragrant touch to the creaminess of the beans, while the feta could contribute a note of tangy saltiness. All in all, it made me think that my mom and grandma really had been right all those years ago when they said that my stubbornness just meant more limas for their lucky selves. And now I'm more than making up for lost time.

 Giant Lima Beans with Stewed Tomatoes and Pesto

Adapted from Laurence Jossel for Food and Wine

Serves 8

Since, in my lima bean inexperience, I didn't want to stray too far into unknowns, the only thing I skipped in the recipe was the breadcrumbs (I instead ate the beans with toasted garlic bread; this is the kind of recipe you want to have bread around for dipping purposes). I also used a 28-ounce can of tomatoes instead of only 16. For as many beans as you end up with, I think it's only fair to add more tomatoes. Is more sauce ever a bad thing?

For the Lima Beans:

3 cups dried giant lima beans or gigantes, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 3 1/2-4 hours and drained
Kosher salt
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes—juices reserved, tomatoes coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1 cup coarsely crumbled feta cheese, for sprinkling

For the pesto:

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 small garlic clove, minced
Kosher salt

-Prepare the lima beans in a large saucepan, cover with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil.
-Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the limas are just tender but still al dente, about 2-2 1/2 hours (add water as needed to keep the limas covered by 2 inches; also, remember to simmer gently).
-Season the limas with salt and let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes.
-Drain the limas, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid.
-In a medium saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook over moderately low heat until softened, about 6-8 minutes.
-Add the tomatoes, oregano and the reserved bean-cooking liquid and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced to 1 1/2-2 cups, about 1 hour.
-Season the tomato sauce with salt.
-In the meantime, make the pesto in a mini food processor, combine the olive oil with the oregano, parsley and garlic and pulse to a coarse puree.
 -Season the oregano pesto with salt.
-Preheat the oven to 425°.
-In a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, mix the limas with the tomato sauce and sprinkle the feta on top. -Bake in the upper third of the oven for about 40 minutes, until the beans are bubbling and the cheese is browned.
-Remove the baking dish from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes.
-Top with the oregano-parsley pesto and serve. Enjoy a lima bean experience you've never had before!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Dwindling Days of Summer

Chicago is the great American city, New York is one of the capitals of the world, and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic; San Francisco is a lady. 
-Norman Mailer

This past weekend has been nothing but quiet. I've spent a lot of time with Don Draper, whose plight gets only more and more wretched in Season 4 of Mad Men (yes, I'm behind the times), a significant amount of time talking to people on Skype and on the phone (yay for modern technology!), I've read, I've cooked (you'll never believe this, but my new love might be lima beans. Stay tuned!) and I slept a grand total of 21 hours. 21 hours, a span of time basically unbelievable and unprecedented in these trying times of teaching an 8 a.m. class! I'm almost ashamed of myself for indulging in this kind of decadent behavior, but clearly it was necessary. I had felt like I was on the brink of a cold on Friday morning and, after a refreshing, low-key weekend, I feel nothing short of restored. Here are a few of the things that made me so tired to begin with; it's amazing how pleasant things, when combined with the Monday-Friday grind, can simultaneously lessen and contribute to your fatigue. 

Before the Greek left, we went to Zatis, a lovely Mediterranean restaurant just around the corner from my apartment.  It's a very unassuming place, but the food is always amazing. Once the Greek started speaking Turkish (yes, his linguistic skills put my own to shame) to the waiter, we got the royal treatment. It turned into quite a feast, but how can you turn down Zucchini Fritters (basically the same as the Kabak Mucveri a friend and I made last summer when I was living in the "castle") and Manti? I was thrilled to discover the Turkish version of Russian-style "pel'meni" (meat dumplings), which, whenever I find myself in Russia, is always one of my go-to meals. Also, just call me a sucker for rice pudding. I can't say no to anything topped with that much cinnamon!

The Greek must have been on a Turkish kick before his triumphant return to Greece because a few days before our dinner at Zatis, he made Acem Pilavi, a rice dish with beef, pine nuts, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and currants (or raisins). I had never had it before, but it was delicious. As fall is almost upon us (the leaves are already turning! At least in North Berkeley!) and the evenings are now more cool and crisp, it's nice to make dishes that fill the apartment with a spicy aroma and, even better, make it a little extra toasty. He was clearly having a culinary week because he also made flan.

The day before his exam (only last Monday, which now feels like a lifetime ago!), he decided to go to church. While he went to say a prayer for his success on Monday, I walked to Ghiradelli Square (I was on a secret birthday present buying mission) and stumbled upon a form of earthly, rather than divine, glory: the annual Chocolate Festival.  It was a beautiful day, the kind of day that you don't get all that often in San Francisco. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the Golden Gate Bridge was visible....In short, it was beautiful and picturesque.


I didn't sample many things, but I did go to Kara's Cupcakes. I had wanted to try these cupcakes ever since March of 2009, when a visiting friend and I went to Ghiradelli Square for a hot fudge sundae and discovered there was more to the square than good old Ghiradelli. While I love sweets and can eat them like a champion, it's impossible even to consider having more dessert after a hot fudge sundae (those things can make your teeth ache--in the best possible way). So, my date with Kara's had to wait...For over two years. In my old age, I'm clearly learning patience.

I wanted to grab something for me and the Greek for later; just call it my idea of "pre-official exam passing" celebratory cake! Both Passion Fruit and Fleur de Sel (can you go wrong with salty chocolate? Answer: NO!) caught my eye. But before we could eat them, we walked around....and around...and around. I almost started to wonder if I would ever get to try the wonder that is Kara's.

Please excuse the brief digression; I don't know what it is with me and birds these days. It's almost like I stepped into a Hitchcock film. I couldn't resist, however, snapping this "bird fight." The bird on the right was clearly King of the Sand Strip. But I admired the fact that the plucky little fellow on the left wasn't afraid to speak his mind.

I really wanted to eat the cupcakes in the car, but the Greek suggested we wait so that we could enjoy them properly. Maybe with a cup of tea. At a table. With napkins.  I (grudgingly) agreed, which is how they ended up on the plate in my kitchen in the top picture. It was almost too much for my willpower. But, after 2+ years, Kara's did not disappoint--they're light, fluffy and have a fabulous taste!-- and, as you all know, I'm a lady who takes her cupcakes seriously.

Kara even gets extra points for having helped me to bond with one of my students who came to office hours and recognized the bag, which I was using to carry my lunch. She told me that Kara's Cupcakes were her favorite and I mentioned a few other choices places to her. In short, we talked cake (she's told me where to find good coconut cake in Berkeley) and then we talked writing. Yet another fine example of the seamless intermixing of food and academia. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Figs and a Fresh Start

The fragrant freshness of the night rose ever stronger and sweeter from the garden; the sounds and the silence grew more solemn; star after star began to twinkle overhead. I looked at him, and suddenly my heart grew light; it seemed that the cause of my suffering had been removed like an aching nerve. Suddenly I realized clearly and calmly that the past feeling, like the past time itself, was gone beyond recall, and that it would be not only impossible but painful and uncomfortable to bring it back. And after all, was that time so good which seemed to me so happy? and it was all so long, long ago!
-Leo Tolstoy (Family Happiness)

As I'm sure you perspicacious, food-loving readers guessed, last week was a little bleak. Then again, it's not as if I was trying to be all that subtle about it. But it's amazing what a little time and a little perspective can do for you. I barely touched a book this past weekend (perhaps a fairly nonchalant stance for somebody who had been told to step it up, but, when crushed, distance is crucial)! Instead, I cooked, I ate, I walked and took pictures (my adventures in fortuitously Chocolate Festival-ing will be revealed in the next post). And, best of all, there were figs.

While I love figs, I feel that they're kind of like the "shooting stars" of fruit (save for the fact that figs aren't a fruit; did you know that? According to a search on the good old interwebs, they're a false fruit. It's the seeds on the inside that constitute the real fruit). You've got to seize the moment when they're ripe and available; otherwise, you'll miss it. And, at the market this Saturday, seize I did. Inspired my The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook I had bought for myself (though I didn't need it--I need another cookbook like I need a hole in my head--it was a Bargain Book. And once I looked inside, I realized that you don't turn down such bargains. It's full of healthy and delicious looking recipes. Plus, whenever I have a moment of hypochondria, I always go to the Mayo Clinic website; I felt it was best to support my "doctors."), I had a little something in mind for dessert: figs stuffed with mascarpone cheese. If that doesn't already sound like the simplest, happiest dessert you could dream of, you sprinkle nutmeg and walnuts on top...and heavy-handedly drizzle the whole thing with honey.

After eating these for dessert on Saturday night, the Greek passed his qualifying exam on Monday and is now officially Ph.D. Candidate (even better, he's on vacation in his homeland, which he well and truly deserves; I'm simply sorry that I couldn't hide in his suitcase and go too)! And I, after a breakfast of figs, walnuts and yogurt, decided to buy new notebooks (and pretty ones) for this new stage of my dissertation research. I've been reading and thinking a lot. Frankly, I think the figs have something to do with it. And since I still have a few more in the fridge, I'm going to recreate the magic and hope that the figs will do all the work...Even if they don't, I'm confident that I've at least found a new comfort food. And, as experience has taught me, the world could always do with a little more comfort.

Fresh Figs with Walnuts and Mascarpone

Ever so slightly adapted from The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook 
Serves 3-4

A handful of chopped walnuts
8 ripe figs
1 1/2 Tbsp. mascarpone cheese
Sprinkling of ground nutmeg
Drizzle of clover honey

-Slice the stems off the figs.
-Cut an X in the top of each fig, cutting down into the fruit about 1 inch. Carefully squeeze each fig from the bottom to open it slightly.
-Spoon about 1/2 tsp. mascarpone into the opening of each fig and sprinkle with nutmeg.
-To serve, divide the figs among plates. Sprinkle with walnuts, dividing evenly.
-Drizzle each plate with honey (adjust for taste).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

When Life Gives you Green Beans...

I remember her every word and every intonation. I will not repeat what she said, though it will always echo in my daydreams. The broad sense of it was that she was offering me everything...All would fear us and love us and no one could ever touch us.
-Zachary Mason (The Lost Books of the Odyssey)

I've had a bad week. Perhaps even a wretched one. While I try to be a person who believes that the glass is half full, rather than empty, I can't help but feel that the meeting I had this past week with my dissertation adviser has led to many questions--about my project, about the future and about what role I see myself playing in this field. I certainly don't believe that any one person has to follow any particular life path (that would be too simplistic and not allow for the unexpected things that inevitably pop up), but it's always hard to think of yourself as potentially going off into the Great Unknown and forging a new road. Mind you, as of this moment and year, these are just thoughts. And not even thoughts that arose in the aftermath of an unpleasant meeting; when your career choice involves the (supposedly dying) humanities, it's always a good idea to be realistic, to think about the roads that haven't been traveled and that you might want to go down in the distant future.

But what does this have to do with green beans? Both everything and nothing. You see, this past Tuesday--the day before the meeting--I went home exhausted after a very full day, but was nonetheless determined to make a recipe from The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Although the book is, in general, a treasure trove of fascinating recipes, I decided to start with Heirloom Pea Pancakes (or a slightly modified version of them). And mainly because both peas and pancakes are two of my favorite things. To make things easier for myself (or so I thought) I had bought sugar snap peas in advance; all I needed to do on Tuesday evening was shell them, puree them and turn them into pancake batter. It all seemed reasonable until I opened the bag of what I thought were sugar snap peas and discovered that I had mistakenly bought green beans instead (how one confuses green peas and sugar snap peas, I don't know. I assume my head was in the clouds, or was already moving onto the search for the perfect cherry tomatoes...).

Although I would never say that I dislike green beans (I actually like them a lot), my disappointment was acute. I was not in the mood for green beans, nor did I know what to do with them. Should I turn them into my old faithful green bean salad, or should I find something new to make in the Essential Book? Feeling adventurous, I went with the latter option. I was most intrigued by the sound of Green Beans with Coriander-Coconut Crust (now on my must make list), but, to my great misfortune, I didn't have fresh coconut laying around my apartment. Clearly, it was "Wrong Ingredients 2, Poor Hungry Girl 0." But then I saw something that looked almost too easy and that couldn't fail: Rachel's Green Beans with Dill; in short, a combination of butter, blanched green beans, sea salt, pepper and dill. I could make that; I had everything on hand. The Poor Hungry Girl had finally won a point(!); she even got another after having decided to personalize the recipe by adding half a cup of crumbled feta and lemon juice to the mix (if you can't have pancakes, you might as well have cheese).

If you're still unsure about how academics and green beans go together, the point is that sometimes you don't get what you want (yes, Mick Jagger strikes again). While you can sulk and lament disappointing meetings or missing recipe ingredients, you've also got to work with what you have; as a friend of mine suggested, "go on the offensive and hopefully come back swinging." A lot of the time, by being proactive, what initially seems disappointing can turn into something wonderful; you just have to choose to be ok with the unexpected, to make it work for you. Trust me. And if you don't, make these green beans and you'll instantly understand.

Rachel's Green Beans with Dill

Yields 4 servings of flavorful and crunchy beans
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook

Sea salt
4 large handfuls green beans, trimmed
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2-3 Tbsp. chopped dill (or 1 to 1/2 Tbsp. dill weed)
1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese
juice of half a lemon
Ground pepper

-Fill a pot with water, season with salt and bring to a boil.
-Plunge the beans into the water and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until tender. You want the beans to be firm, not droopy.
-Drain, then return the beans to the pot.
-Add the butter, stir in the dill and then the feta, lemon juice and season with pepper.
-Toss the beans over low heat until the butter is melted.
-Taste and adjust the seasoning--it may take a little extra dill and salt to reach the perfect flavor combination.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Goin' Bananas, Part I: Banana Streusel Muffins

What is success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden
patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; This is to have succeeded.
-Bessie Anderson Stanley

There are few things in life as miraculous as a muffin. But somehow, despite their otherworldly status, they can sometimes taste like rocks (especially when mass produced). They can be too sweet. The muffin top--the muffin's defining feature--can be ridiculously and absurdly underwhelming. Trust me when I say that baking muffins is a delicate art.

It's one of the things, in fact, I like to bake the most. It takes me back to my childhood--to the summer mornings when I would wake up just knowing that my grandma had baked blueberry muffins. The smell would linger in the air: the hint of sugary, buttery goodness and baked berries. Nothing could get me out of bed faster than the aroma of baked goods in the morning (times haven't changed that much).

Muffins are so simple, but so good. There's no need for fancy equipment; it's just spices, butter and wet ingredients meeting dry ones...but only meeting and mixing. Over-mixing muffins is the kiss of death. Muffins deserve better than that; treat them with care!

When I was preparing for our picnic this past Sunday, I felt that the menu wouldn't be complete without something dessert-like and easily transportable. Muffins seemed the obvious thing; not only had the Greek brought me three bananas that were overly ripe (few things turn my stomach more than an overly ripe banana; its sole purpose in life is to be turned into pancakes, banana bread, muffins), but I had also long been itching to pull out my muffin tins and put them to work again. I had had my eye on a recipe for Banana Streusel Muffins from my Muffin Bible (see the recipe below for the full title) and things just fell into place.

The only thing was that, as much as I love my Muffin Bible, I felt it was a little too white flour happy. Both bananas and my new favorite baking oil (coconut oil) give so much moisture to baked goods that I couldn't help but feel that whole wheat pastry flour--with its heavy, nutty texture--was the obvious way to go. And not just for the muffin proper, but for the streusel too. Something in me must have also been craving something verging on a crumble because I decided to add roughly chopped almond slivers to the streusel topping. All in all, it was a successful muffin: its top was gloriously crumbly, while the rest was light and filling, sweet but not excessively so and full of a nutty banana flavor. If you truly want your banana bread or muffins (this recipe could easily be transformed into the former) to say "banana", don't skimp. The more bananas, the better. You'll be hearing a lot about bananas from me in the next few weeks; this is only post one in a three-part banana bonanza!

Banana Streusel Muffins

Yields a dozen crumbly banana-y treats
Heavily adapted from Muffins: Sweet and Savory Comfort Food

For the muffins:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3 ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup coconut oil
1 egg
Slightly less than 1/4 cup almond slivers

Streusel topping:
3 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
1/8 cup almond slivers, crushed

-Preheat oven to 375 and line muffin tin with cups.
-In large mixing bowl, combine flours, sugars, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
-In another bowl, combine banana, buttermilk, oil, egg and almonds. Stir into flour mixture until just moistened.
-Fill muffin cups 2/3 full.
-For streusel topping, whisk butter, flour, sugar and crushed almonds together in a small bowl.
-Mix 3 Tbsp. butter into the mixture (it's possible to use work the butter in with your hands, but, for best results, use a pastry cutter).
-Sprinkle streusel mixture over the batter.
-Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Labor of Love: Bougatsa (Cheese Pie)

The counselors conferred in low voices out of the king's hearing, speaking of the state of the king's mind and vanity, the innate interest of the task, whether
the taskmaster would be able to recognize a solution, and finally whether their combined lifetimes would suffice to write the required book. At last they turned to the throne, bowed as one and said it would be done. That night they left Troy followed by scribes and cartloads of gold, promising to return no later than as soon as they got back.
-Zachary Mason (The Lost Books of the Odyssey)

This past Labor Day (actually, the day before; on Labor Day, I labored), I escaped to Lake Temescal with the Greek and some friends. We swam, we ate, we walked around; it was lovely--truly one of the most relaxing days I've had in a long time. The sun graced us with its presence, and we also got to be up close and personal with an incredibly eager and overly enthusiastic duck. Really, only after being threatened by the Greek (the words "Peking-style" had the desired effect) did the duck take the hint and leave us to our sun-soaking devices.

It was the kind of day that, when it finally ends--when you're packing up the food and the sun slowly begins its descent--you can't help but feel sad. While I'd be lying if I said I didn't eat well all the time, picnics are special. They always yield such a beautiful and wide-ranging spread; in our case, cheese, bread, sausage, a pretty purple potato salad (made not by me, but by one of my lovely companions), banana streusel muffins (my contribution and the topic of my next post) and bougatsa. And in life there should always be more bougatsa.

The Greeks, particularly those in Thessaloniki (fyi: the Greek's hometown), know how to eat. Bougatsa is a traditional Macedonian dish and, to put it simply, it's (feta) cheese pie, otherwise known as pie of happiness. I kid you not. You can't eat this and not feel happy. It was piping hot when we left my apartment to set off for the lake, so when we picked up our fellow "picnic"-ers, its smell had filled the car. The first words out of their mouths was that something smelled amazing--just like macaroni and cheese. Frankly, that's an apt description of the dish. Instead of macaroni, however, you have phyllo dough. It's an exchange I'm willing to make.

Forget American comfort food and American picnic food as well. Cheese pies are the stuff of my future! Not only do they travel ridiculously well, but they're also filling and tasty. Plus, once you get past your fear of phyllo (just do it; ignore it when it rips and just go on stacking it until the dish is full. It's like playing the piano; maybe you miss a note, but the music must go on), you could make (and eat) interesting pies--cheese filled and/or otherwise--all the time.

Bougatsa, or Cheese Pie

Yields 10-12 pieces (we cut ours large, although traditionally, they would be quite small)

I suggested adding dill to this, but, since bougatsa seems to be sacred (at least this is what I could glean from the Greek's reaction to my blasphemous suggestion and I was thinking roasted cherry tomatoes, dill, etc. To me, the possibilities seemed endless), we went the traditional route and used only feta and half-and-half for the filling. However, I was successful in convincing him that a light sprinkling of nutmeg and pepper would probably work well. And I think it did.

1/2 cup melted butter
2 egg whites
1/2 cup half and half
1 1/4 pound feta, crumbled
1 lb. phyllo sheets

-Preheat the oven to 350 and brush a large rectangular baking dish with butter.
-Beat the egg whites with the half and half in a bowl, then stir in the cheese.
-Carefully place half the phyllo sheets one on top of the other in the prepared pan, brushing each sheet with melted butter.
-Spread the filing evenly on top and season with pepper and sprinkle some nutmeg on top.
-Cover with the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing each with melted butter.
-Score the pie into wide strips and bake for 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.
-Serve hot, cut into bite-size pieces (if you want to eat it the way they do in Thessaloniki).

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Taste of the Tropics

Oh, gentle feelings, soft sounds, the goodness and the gradual stifling of a soul that has been moved; the melting happiness of the first tender, touching joys of love--where are you? Where are you?
-Ivan Turgenev (First Love)

On a lovely sunny and carefree Saturday morning about two weeks ago, I woke up knowing that I was going to bake scones. The morning just said "scones" to me, but there was one tiny problem: what kind? Buttermilk was obviously going to be a part of the equation (though I'm sure this blog makes it seem like I have the perfect pantry and well-stocked refrigerator, both full of all the necessary ingredients for any recipe that should strike my fancy, that's simply not the case. I had buttermilk, half and half, several limes and random condiments in the fridge on this not so fateful morning), but I couldn't quite figure out what was going to give them that special something. Simple buttermilk just doesn't do it for me; I like a little oomph.

And then, like magic, my eyes fell on the dried mango that I had purchased a few weeks earlier. I don't always buy dried mango, or dried fruit in general, but this was fortuitously placed in the wooden bins--unsweetened, unsulfered sweetened and organic; how's a girl to choose?--near the checkout area at Trader Joe's, which gave me plenty of time to be perfectly indecisive about which mango was best (I went with the unsulfured sweetened; there was no logic behind this whatsoever) and to imagine all the scenarios in which I might use it. I briefly thought of scones, but only in passing. At that time, my mind was full of Dostoevsky, icons and other things.

But, clearly, my scone fantasy was meant to be. Once I saw the mango, things came together quickly--mango (sweet) + lime juice and zest (tangy) + coconut flakes (rich and flavorful) = tropical scones. Clearly, I was having a creative culinary day; these happen on the mornings when time seems to stand still, there's no rush to go anywhere and life seems both happy and easy (sunshine never hurts). Frankly, there should be more such days! After assembling all of the ingredients, I soon reached my favorite part of the scone-making process: when you have to dump the mixture onto a lightly floured surface, gather the dough together and pat it into a disc. At this stage, I always worry that there's no way in the world this wet mixture that clings to my fingers (despite my best "let me cover my hands in flour" attempts) will ever turn into anything resembling food; it's unwieldy, difficult and one big gloppy mess. But then, once I've managed to arrange everything on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven--in short, once the hard work is over-- I can rest assured that, in about 12 minutes or less, I'm going to have flaky, flavored goodness for breakfast...If every morning could begin with scones, I'd be one lucky lady.

Mango, Lime and Coconut Scones

Makes about a dozen scones

Basic scone recipe adapted from Haley and Lauren Fox's Alice's Tea Cup

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces
1/2 cup coconut flakes
3-4 oz. dried mango (about 4 or 5 pieces), cut into tiny pieces
lime juice and zest (from one lime)
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup half and half (for brushing)
1/4 cup sugar (for sprinkling)

-Preheat the oven to 400.
-In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
-With your hands, work the butter into the dry mixture, until it is well incorporated and has the consistency of bread crumbs.
-Add the lime zest, dried mango and coconut and stir well (for even distribution).
-Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and pour the buttermilk, vanilla and lime juice into the well.
-Again using your hands, combine all the ingredients until the dry mixture is wet, but do not knead (kneading can lead to tough, dry scones and you definitely don't want this)!
-Turn the mixture onto a floured surface and gather the dough together.
-Pat the dough into a disc; it should be about 1 1/2 inches thick.
-Cut the scones with a knife (my preferred method) or a biscuit cutter (if you have one) and then lay them on a non-stick baking sheet.
-Brush the top of the scones with half and half and then sprinkle with sugar.
-Bake the scones for about 12 minutes, or until lightly browned.
-Enjoy the tropical magic (I don't even wait until they've cooled!). Scones are, after all, best served warm and with lemon curd or clotted cream.


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