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Archive for the ‘Snacks’ Category

Well, here I go again, promising to update this site more regularly and then waiting more than a week to add a new post.  Sigh.  Baby steps, right?

But you should be excited about today’s recipe because it’s easy, healthy and so, so good.  It’s become my favorite granola recipe, and I try to bake a batch every few weeks.  The recipe began as the “Quick Omega-3 Granola” I ripped from a Bon Appetit magazine a year or two ago, but over the years I’ve tweaked it here and there, and now I think it’s even better than the original.

I love granola sprinkled on yogurt or eaten right out of my hand, but my #1 favorite way to eat this granola is sprinkled on vanilla ice cream.  I know, I know — that sort of defeats the purpose, right?  Well, the way I see it, I’m just making dessert a little healthier.  Because I’m eating dessert, healthy or not, so it might as well have a little fiber, right?  Right.

I like to make a big batch and keep a small tin in the cupboard and the rest in a large Ziploc bag in the freezer, which prevents the nuts from going rancid and — horror of horrors — the granola from getting soggy.  Every time I reach the bottom of the tin, I refill it with a little more from the freezer.  Works like a charm.

Homemade granola also makes a great host/hostess gift when you’re tired of bringing wine or feel like bringing something a little different.  It’s the kind of thing your hosts will tuck away for later, only to email you as soon as you get home to say they’ve already eaten half the bag.  With granola this delicious, who could blame them?

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A Small Smackerel

Many years ago, when I first started collecting recipes, I allowed my obsessive compulsive tendencies to run wild and began to organize the recipes by type: entrees in one folder, desserts, vegetables,  and appetizers their own folders.  As the collection grew, I began to divide the recipes into subsets of those categories, separating the chicken recipes from the fish recipes in the entree folder, and clumping together the cakes, pies, cookies and so on in the dessert folder.  What can I say — I like to create order in a world driven by chaos.

But then my collection grew.  And grew.  And grew.  And before I knew it, dividing desserts among cakes, pies, cookies and custards didn’t really do the job.  “Cake,” for example, could describe any number of recipes — layer cake, cheesecake, coffee cake, fruit cake.  Imagine having to sift through a disorganized pile of all of the above.  Perish the thought!  So I started grouping those recipes together as well.

(If you’re wondering, no I don’t group my underwear by color.  I’m not *that* crazy…or at least I’d like to think I’m not…)

Needless to say, I have amassed a rather large and unwieldy recipe collection.  I think it’s safe to say I will probably never get to half the recipes in those folders, as organized as they may be.  But one sub-subset that I love and have yet to bulk up with recipes is the “snack cake” section.

Ah yes, the snack cake: perfect for when you want a nosh of something at, say, 3:30pm, when dinner is hours away but your stomach gets the rumbles.  In my opinion, a good snack cake should be more substantial than a coffee cake, less sweet than a cupcake but less wholesome than a granola bar.  I like snack cakes with some texture: maybe some nuts or bits of chocolate, or some oats or dried fruit.

I have a handful of these recipes, but recently I decided I wanted something new and merged a few recipes to come up with my own: chewy banana-oat snack cake with coconut.  I basically threw together three of my favorite ingredients — bananas, oats and coconut — and hoped the result would be equal to or greater than the sum of their parts.  It was.

Chewy, sweet and filling, this cake is just the thing when all you need is a little nibble — a smackerel, as Winnie the Pooh might say — to make the afternoon hunger pains go away.  But you don’t have to stop at a smackerel.  Sometimes my appetite is as big as my recipe collection, and the only way to bring that into order is to turn a small smackerel into a cake-filled afternoon feast.

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Ah, patience. Laboratory chemists, kindergarten teachers, intergovernmental negotiators, driving instructors: these are people with freakish levels of patience. But for some of us, patience can be an elusive trait. The idea of waiting and working — politely and diligently — with few immediate results seems far too tortuous.

But if you want to bake, you need patience. You need to carefully measure ingredients, wait for ingredients to bake and often — much to my dismay — wait for the cake or bread or baked good du jour to cool. Oh, the cooling…requiring so much patience and self-restraint, and sometimes, I just don’t have it in me.

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This Ukranian honey cake, for example, is so subtly spiced that you really need to let it cool for all the flavors to come together: the floral honey, the toasty coffee, the spicy cinnamon. But when the cake emerges from the oven, its surface craggy and golden and slightly sticky, you’ll want to cut off a slice right then and there — just a little one, to see if it came out okay…

Wait it out, though, just a little. Patience can be challenging, but in this case, you’ll be rewarded.

One quick housekeeping note: To those who read this blog, you also have amazing patience. Between planning a wedding and working like crazy, I’ve been a little…how shall we say…inattentive lately. My apologies, truly. And now I will ask you to have even more patience, as I’m headed to Asia for two weeks! I’m literally writing this as I pack…. I promise a full report of my culinary adventures in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong when I return. So thank you for your patience :).

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I know, I know: I posted a recipe for banana bread about two months ago. But I subscribe to the belief that one can never have too many banana bread recipes in one’s arsenal.

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The great thing about banana bread is that all you really need is a bunch of old, mushy bananas. I like mine made with some buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt — but like with most things, I’m not picky. Then all you need are your “staples” and from there, it’s up to you. Toss in spices — cinnamon, cardamom, cloves — or goodies like nuts, chocolate chips or dried fruit. Oats, whole wheat flour, candied ginger — the sky’s the limit.

I’ve found that you can make banana bread moist and deliciously decadent without using a cup of butter or oil. Bananas themselves provide a lot of moisture and sweetness in baked goods, and small amounts of acidic fats like yogurt and sour cream add tenderness without a lot of guilt.

This Plain Jane version of banana bread is nothing fancy — no coconut, no toasted nuts, no hunks of dark chocolate — but it’s delicious. Like many banana bread recipes, it’s the result of a bunch of black and mushy bananas that had to go and some ingredients lingering in my fridge that I needed to use up. In my experience, sour cream makes a mean banana bread, and in this case, you only need a 1/4 cup to create a tender and delicious loaf.

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Feel free to make this banana bread your own — add chopped dark chocolate, or toasted walnuts, or poppy seeds. At the very least, this recipe might inspire you to whip out your own favorite banana bread recipe. You can never have too many.

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Yes, I know: The phrase “seasonally appropriate” evokes images of Miss Manners telling you not to wear white after Labor Day. But this banana bread is a seasonally appropriate recipe if I ever saw one.

January tends to be “make up for December” month. A bunch of people who feel really bad about celebrating Santa with a little to much zeal make a whole bunch of promises they probably won’t keep. Suddenly that second helping of roast beef and extra slice of banana cream pie seem a little overindulgent (come on, we’ve all been there…and if you say you haven’t, you’re just lying).

Banana bread 1

So for starters, this banana bread would be fair game on most “resolutions” lists. It uses molasses in place of some of the sugar, along with whole wheat flour and oats for some added fiber.

And here’s the kicker: with some spices thrown in, the bread has a subtle gingerbread-like flavor that works perfectly this time of year. The holidays may be over, but winter is just getting started. I wouldn’t call this my “go to” banana bread recipe, but somehow it just tastes right this time of year.

So there you have it: healthy and wintery. Does it get more “seasonally appropriate” than that? I’m sure Miss Manners would approve.

Banana bread 2

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I will never forget the first time I baked pumpkin bread. I was in 6th grade, and my teacher Ms. Pasceri announced that the day before Thanksgiving, the class would be baking pumpkin bread together. She told everyone to bring in a clean leftover coffee canister and said she would take care of the rest.

When the day came, she broke us into groups of three, handed us the recipe and the ingredients and walked us through the process step by step, helping us carry our batter-filled coffee canisters to the classroom oven.

I had baked before that day, but I think that was the first day I realized that baking, food, meant a lot more to me than most of the other kids in the class. My partners haphazardly threw the ingredients into the bowl and thought it was funny to mush the ingredients together or throw them at one another. I didn’t want to be a square or a tattle-tale, but all I could think was, “This is food we’re dealing with here! Don’t make a joke of it — don’t you want to see how it comes out?? It will be delicious!”

Pumpkin bread 1

And it was delicious, despite the mushing and throwing and indifference of my buddies. It was warm and sweet and spicy. I couldn’t wait to bring my canister home to share with my parents and brother.

In the many years that have passed since that 6th grade project, I’ve baked many pumpkin breads, all delicious but none seeming to taste quite as good as that first batch. I’ve since lost Ms. Pasceri’s recipe, but I’m sure it’s the same as any standard pumpkin bread recipe. What made it special wasn’t necessarily the bread itself, but the fact that I’d learned to make something new, something I could say “I made.”

This time of year, I invariably start craving some fresh, home-baked pumpkin bread, and in the spirit of my recent push to eat “light” ahead of Thanksgiving, I found a great recipe in Nick Malgieri’s Perfect Light Desserts. The cake is light, tender and perfectly spiced, and one bite takes me back to a Wednesday in November all those years ago.

Pumpkin bread 2

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When I was in college, a friend sent around a forward that asked people to answer a bunch of questions and then send the completed questionnaire back to the sender and everyone else on the list. One of the questions read something like, “Rules are… (a) meant to be broken! or (b) meant to be followed, of course.”

I so wanted to be the kind of “Down with the system!” person who would reply (a). I mean, wasn’t that the point of college? But alas, aside from my penchant for jaywalking and occasional flouting of the “Dry Clean Only” label, I’ve pretty much been a (b) person all my life. It’s not that I don’t question the rules or that I wouldn’t break an unjust one; it’s more that, in my life, the rules within the bounds of breakability usually aren’t worth breaking. The payoff isn’t big enough.

Pear cake

That pretty much sums up my attitude, until recently, toward baking. Unlike cooking, where you can throw in a splash of this and a sprinkle of that, baking is a science. It’s chemistry — acids and bases and emulsifiers and proteins. If you add too much leavening or too little acid, you’re toast (so to speak).

And although the method can vary from cake to cake and cookie to cookie, you end up working within a pretty small set of parameters. Take the method for making a cake: you mix the dry ingredients together, beat the butter or oil with sugar, add eggs one at a time, and then bring everything together, with the help of some liquid. There are scientific reasons for this (coating the sugar with the fat separates the sugar molecules and makes a lighter cake, adding the eggs one at a time allows them to emulsify). And from what I’ve learned, you don’t mess with science (just ask the Incredible Hulk).

Pear cake 2

Then I saw a recipe for a pear cake by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid that broke all the rules. They tell you to mix the dry ingredients together, and then just dump the eggs and melted butter into the flour and mix, adding the pears followed by some milk — as necessary — to moisten the batter. As necessary?? In a cake?

Then I realized this was my chance. I could be that “(a)” person, break all the rules and (gulp) see what happens. So I did. And as long as I was at it, I decided to tweak the recipe a little bit. I figured as long as I was breaking the rules, I might as well go the whole hog.

And you know what? The cake was tasty! It’s one of those utterly homey desserts that you’d want sitting on the kitchen counter, begging you to “even off” its edges. I wouldn’t serve this at a dinner party, but it’s the kind of recipe you’d turn to when you want to throw together a homemade treat at a moment’s notice.

So have I turned over a new leaf? Am I going to start shaking my fist at the law? Probably not. But I do feel emboldened to push the limits a little further when it comes to baking — because with baking, the stakes aren’t that high, and when the experiment works, the payoff is definitely worth it.

Pear Cake 3

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