Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Banana Bread

Do you ever type or write something over and over again until the word just seems weird to you? Or you start thinking about why things are named what they are named?  Sometimes when I am typing these blog posts out, I write the recipe out first and then type in some details about the food, and then I come back later and write the beginning paragraph.  So today, when I was typing "banana" over and over I got thinking about what a weird word banana is.  How did this strand of letters get put together and made into a word?  Who decided that the long, yellow fruit would be called a banana?  And then I was just off on a tangent of why is anything named what it is and all words sound strange if you think about them too much, but I will keep that craziness of my brain to myself (for now!)  But, in case you are curious, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word banana is Spanish or Portuguese from African origin and it's first known use was around 1597. Also, fun facts: the banana plant is actually an herb and grows from bulbs not seeds, and if you open the banana from the bottom up, you wont get those stringy bits and they can be easier to open that way!  Ok sorry, enough with random banana lesson, let's get to talking about this bread!

This is the best banana bread ever! I know, I know, people don't like it when you claim something is the best. Everyone has their own opinions and has their own favorite recipes.  Plus there are tons and tons of banana bread recipes in existence and there is no way to try them all to prove my point, but I am still going to say that in my personal opinion this is, by far, the best banana bread I have ever had.  And you know, I don't really feel too bad going out on a limb for this one, especially because I know a whole bunch of people that have tried this bread and will back me up on my claim.  Hopefully you will give this a try and you will see what I mean!

The recipe is so easy and it comes out perfect every single time. The combination of vanilla and cinnamon really compliment the flavor of the bananas, but it is the almond extract that is the real secret ingredient here. I am not really sure how to explain how it transforms the bread, but it definitely makes it number one, in my opinion.  The other little secret is the sugar sprinkled on top of the batter right before it goes into the oven.  As you can see, in the picture below, while the bread is baking, the sugar starts to caramelize on top of the bread and creates a delicious crunchy sugar layer.

The bread keeps extremely well for 4-5 days and stays very moist due to the sour cream or yogurt. I almost always go with the yogurt option, since we usually have it on hand and I think using the vanilla yogurt bumps up the vanilla flavor just a little more.  To store the bread, I wrap the whole loaf in plastic wrap and then wrap again in aluminum foil.  This method definitely helps lock in the freshness.  If you make muffins, instead, just store in an air tight container.  The muffins make an excellent on-the-go snack or breakfast.  When I make this recipe, I usually make one loaf and use the rest of the batter for muffins. Feel free to add nuts, raisins, chocolate chips, or whatever else you might like into the batter. 

Banana Bread
Inspired by  One Lovely Life

6 tbsp softened butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
3 very ripe bananas
1 cup sour cream or plain/vanilla yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
2 eggs
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt (omit if using salted butter)
 2 tsp baking soda
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1-2 tsp additional white sugar

Preheat oven to 300°F. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until well combined.  In a medium bowl, mash peeled bananas with a fork and stir in sour cream/yogurt, vanilla and almond extracts, eggs, and cinnamon.  Beat the banana mixture into the butter mixture until combined.  Add the flour, baking soda, and salt to the bowl and stir until thoroughly mixed.  Pour the batter evenly into two greased loaf pans and sprinkle additional sugar over the top of the batter.  Bake for about 60  minutes until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Alternately, bake in greased muffin tins for about 20-25 minutes (makes at least 24 regular size muffins.)


Monday, August 19, 2013

Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownies

Cookbooks are my favorite kind of book. I love looking at the pictures and reading through all of the recipes. It doesn't even matter if I am interested in making every one of the recipes; I just really like sitting down and reading through, from front to back, as if it was any regular book.  I have been getting cookbooks as gifts since I was about 12, which is where most of my collection come from, but every now and then I will pick up one myself that looks particularly interesting.  Even though I have this great collection of cookbooks, once I have read through them, I tend to set them on the shelf and I find myself gravitating towards finding most of my recipe ideas online. I mean, just try googling 'brownie recipe' and see how many results you get! It pretty much takes five seconds of browsing and you are on your way to baking up some chocolatey awesomeness.

A few weeks ago, my nephew D, was hanging out in the kitchen and he started looking through my cookbooks. He pulled out a book full of brownie recipe, sat down, and started leafing through.  After a few minutes I told him to pick out a recipe he liked and we would make it that weekend.  He was very excited about that idea and after careful consideration decided on chocolate peanut butter brownies.  A couple days later we got the cookbook back out and started assembling all of the ingredients.  He had a blast mixing these brownies up, especially since he got to make a mess running the mixer and got to throw little gobs of dough all over the baking dish, but I am pretty sure he had an even better time eating them! This whole experience was very nostalgic for me, bringing me back to making cookies with my mom, creating a giant mess, and getting ingredients all over the recipe card or cookbook!  This really reminded me that, in this technology filled world it is so easy to forget that sometimes it is a nice change of pace to take the time to flip through a cookbook and find that one recipe that really sounds amazing.

Most of the time, brownies are that one dessert that I actually still go to the box mix for because I have yet to find a recipe from scratch that produces that perfect chewy brownie with the thin crisp layer on top.  Although these brownies don't fit that bill because they are a bit different with their peanut butter base, they were a fantastic, easy alternative to the standard chocolate brownie.  They take less than 10 minutes to assemble and  you probably already have everything on hand to mix up these rich, chewy bites.

I would say these brownies lean more towards a creamy peanut butter blondie, than a regular chocolate brownie, but they are full of delicious chocolatey chunks.  Plus, the whole pan was topped off a couple of huge handfuls of mini chocolate chips which really bumped up the chocolate factor.  Whether brownie or blondie, these were the best peanut butter bars that I have had in a long time. Oh and as usual, I had to top the warm gooey brownie with a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream, just know, balance everything out :)

Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownies
Recipe from Good Housekeeping  Brownies

1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
1 3/4 cups brown sugar
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
4 oz dark chocolate, melted
6 oz mini chocolate chips (more or less per your preference)  

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Line a 9x13 baking dish with aluminum foil. This will help easily remove and cut the bars once they have baked and cooled.  In a large bowl combine the peanut butter, butter, and brown sugar.  Cream this mixture together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until everything is smooth.  Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt and mix until just combined.  The dough should be very stiff.  Place 1/3 of the dough  in a separate bowl and mix in the melted chocolate. Stir 1/3 of the mini chocolate chips into the chocolate dough.

Press half of the peanut butter dough into an even layer in the baking dish.  Drop small balls of the chocolate dough and remaining peanut butter dough on top of the peanut butter layer, in a random pattern. There should be enough dough left to make another full layer in the baking dish.  Pat this layer down with your hands until flat and top with remaining chocolate chips.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs (should not be wet.)  Cool for at least one hour and lift foil out of baking dish. Peel the foil back from the brownies and cut into as many bars as you desire. Store at room temperature in an air tight container.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Peach Cobbler

Summer weather in New England is hard to describe.  The weather patterns can be extremely inconsistent: some years the weather is unbearably hot and humid, some years it rains practically all the time, and occasionally some years there is tons of lovely perfect summer weather.  Oh wait, did I say years? What I meant to say is hours. We seriously can go from a breezy 70 degrees, to pouring, to extreme humidity all in one afternoon.  Fortunately, this summer has proven to be quite comfortable overall. Other than a few patches of, I don't think it is possible to breathe because the air is so thick and hot, this summer has had many clear, warm days and crisp, cool nights.  The wonderful weather has led to an abundance of fresh local produce.  We are lucky to live in an area with a large number of local orchards, farm stands, and weekly farmer's markets.  I love going to the farmer's markets and seeing the new produce as it comes into season.  Plus there is usually a variety of excellent baked goods, breads, local meat, honey and syrups too. A few weeks ago, K and I picked up the most delicious sweet cherries and mixed raspberries that we have ever eaten!  When peach season rolled around, I knew that I wanted to try out some new peach recipes.  I love peach flavor but am not a fan of eating a whole peach. The fuzzy skin is not for me!  Last summer I made a pretty good peach crisp, but I wasn't sold, and so this year I decided to try cobbler instead.  I also made peach melba; poached peach over vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce. So good! I will share that recipe down the road, but for now, let me show you how to make this great cobbler.

I find that the easiest way to peel peaches is to use a vegetable peeler. You want to make sure that the peaches are still a little bit firm and not too ripe or using the peeler will just squish the fruit. Also, hopefully you are able to buy free stone peaches so that when you run your knife around the peach, the fruit will easily separate from the pit.  You can probably use frozen peaches in place of the fresh, but you might need to adjust the cooking time slightly.  Once you have the fruit sliced, melt the 1/4 cup of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon in a large saucepan until thick and bubbly (should take less than 5 minutes).  Stir in the peaches and cook for about 5 minutes. The peaches will let off some liquid and combing with the sugar to become nice and syrupy.   

Melt the 1/2 cup butter and pour into the 9x13 baking dish.  This should result in a fairly thin even layer of butter on the bottom of the dish.  Mix together all of the remaining ingredients in a large bowl to form the cobbler batter. The batter will resemble pancake batter. 

Pour the batter directly on top of the melted butter and then evenly distribute the peach mixture on top of the batter.  Do not stir at all!! Some kind of awesome food science thing happens while the cobbler is in the oven. The batter combines itself with the butter and bubbles up and bakes over the peaches. 

You will know the cobbler is done when the top is golden brown. You can also insert a toothpick and it should come out clean when fully baked.  This cobbler is great served warm from the oven or at room temperature. The cobbler keeps very well in the fridge for a few days and can be reheated. I made a full size recipe of this cobbler mid week for my dad to take to a party over the weekend, but of course, I also had to make up a few single serving size cobblers for K and I to taste test.  You could make the whole recipe in individual servings. You would just need a bunch of ramekins and reduce the cooking time to 25-30 minutes. 

 Here is a picture of the full size cobbler that I sent off with my dad. You can see how the batter rises right up over the peaches and forms a lovely golden brown crispy edged crust.  There are a few peaches poking through and some sugary syrup spots that are super delicious! This is a very cake like cobbler versus the more crumbly topped cross between a crisp and cobbler version. The cake is light and fluffy except right around the edges gets that crispy butter texture, which is my favorite part.  The peaches are so sweet and have a bit of caramel flavor from the brown sugar syrup.  This is a really wonderful dessert and a great way to enjoy the beautiful summertime fruit!  As always with a crisp or cobbler, this is excellent topped with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. 

Peach Cobbler
Inspired by  Laura in the Kitchen

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
4 cups sliced fresh peaches
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Peel and slice 4 cups of peaches (around 6-7 peaches).  Combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, and 1/4 cup butter in a large saucepan and heat until sugar has dissolved into the butter and is bubbling slightly.  Add the peaches and cook for about 5 minutes.  Melt the 1/2 cup butter and pour into the bottom of a 9x13 pan.  In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, egg, milk, and vanilla until well combined.  Pour the batter over the butter, but do not stir!  Pour all of the peaches and syrup over the batter as evenly as possible.  Place in the oven and cook for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving, or can be cooled completely and served at room temperature.  If making ahead of time, can be reheated at 350°F for about 10 minutes.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Spaghetti al Pomodoro

Mmmm pasta. I love pasta! K makes a really awesome version of his dad's tomato sauce, but it is a whole afternoon process, at least. Chopping up the veggies, browning the hamburg or sausage, adding a whole bunch of tomato sauce, tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, and whatever else he feels like throwing in that particular batch.  Then the sauce has to simmer on the stove top for several hours at least.  The sauce is always amazingly delicious but it is a whole lot of work.  So before we discovered this recipe, we would usually just heat up a jar of the pre-made sauce and call it a day. Although, I have never been a huge fan of jarred sauce, so I tend to just toss the noodles in some butter or olive oil and pile on the Parmesan cheese! 

When I saw this pomodoro sauce, browsing through some blogs one day, I decided that the recipe sounded too good to pass by and went out and bought all the ingredients needed to give it a try. This sauce is very light and fresh and has a bold tomato flavor. The San Marzano tomatoes are worth the extra couple of dollars because the quality makes a huge difference.  The sausage is not a traditional ingredient in pomodoro sauce, but it is a tasty addition and the fact that it is chicken sausage keeps this dish slightly healthier than adding pork sausage.  This has become our go to pasta dish since is not much more difficult than heating up that jar of spaghetti sauce.  I have been told that it tastes like it was made in a fancy Italian restaurant :) . Definitely give this a try next time you are in the mood for a delicious pasta dish. 

Spaghetti al Pomodoro
Inspired by Simply Scratch
Total time: Approx 30 mins

1 box (1 lb) Spaghetti, Linguine, or other pasta of your choice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 large onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 28oz can San Marzano whole tomatoes
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp white sugar
1 large pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup reserved pasta water
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
2 tbsp butter
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1 package (4 links) precooked chicken sausage, optional

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta according to the package instructions.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and add the diced onion.  Cook the onion for 3-5 minutes or until soft and translucent. Add the minced garlic and cook for 1 minute. With your hands, squeeze the whole tomatoes over the skillet, breaking into small pieces. Add any remaining tomato sauce as well. Fill the can with about 1/2 a cup of tap water to help pour out all of the tomato sauce into the skillet.  Season the tomato sauce with sugar, red pepper flake, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium low and let the sauce bubble for about 20 minutes.  While the sauce is bubbling, slice the sausage into bite size pieces and brown in a skillet over medium heat until heated through.  Once the sauce is  thickened, stir in 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese and the fresh basil.  Add the drained pasta and butter into the sauce and stir everything together to combine. Add the reserved pasta  cooking water, as needed, to help adhere the sauce to the noodles and give the sauce the right texture for your liking.  Add the chicken sausage and serve with additional Parmesan cheese.