When my mom was growing up, homemade dessert was a regular occurrence around the dinner table. By the time I was a kid, the family tradition had lapsed; cakes and pies showed up mostly around the holidays or on someone’s birthday. Not that I felt deprived: To this day, my idea of dessert is scraping the bowl for the last spoonful of mashed potatoes, or sneaking an extra meatball from the lunch-bound leftovers.
Despite my defective sweet tooth, I love to bake for friends and family. At my office in Seattle, I belonged to a crew of hard-core amateur pâtissières dubbed the Spare Change Bakery. We all kept jars on our desks for our coworkers’ contributions, and as soon as we scraped together enough nickels and dimes, one of us would whip up a double- or triple-batch of something sweet and scrumptious for the next staff meeting. By the time we disbanded, we were collecting enough cash to bake every week — a gratifying but rather exhausting sign of our popularity.
But since we moved back to San Francisco, I haven’t had many excuses to bake. Sure, our dinner parties often need a sweet ending, but I miss those crowd-pleasing desserts: Brownies, bars, and other decidedly lowbrow sweets. So when I saw the photo of the Spice Cake with Coffee Toffee Crunch on the cover of the new issue of Sunset, I knew my path was clear. The theme for this month’s “Waiter, There’s Something in My…” event is layer cakes, after all, and there’s just something about a sky-high cake with cream-cheese frosting that sends me running for my sifter and whisk.
Working my way through the recipe, I found it refreshingly well documented. The writer details a number of steps — creating a crumb coat, and using strips of parchment to keep the serving plate clean — that help give the final cake a centerpiece-worthy appearance. With the exception of the recipe’s lack of measurements by weight (the serious baker’s preferred method for dry ingredients like flour and sugar, especially), it was one of the best-written magazine recipes I’ve used in months.
Aside from substituting Alfieri Farms’ almond brittle for homemade coffee toffee, I followed the recipe to the letter, so click over to Sunset’s site if you want the full rundown. Although I doubt the magazine’s suggestion that this cake will replace pumpkin or pecan pie on your holiday dessert buffet, it’s got a spicy, deep flavor that would make a perfect finish for an autumn feast. While the icing’s got enough sugar to satisfy even the most intense sugar junkie, the cake itself — sweetened with molasses — keeps things moist and spicy without too much sweetness… just the ticket for a baker without a sweet tooth.
Every cook has those recipes that she considers so perfect that she won’t even entertain the idea of trying another variation. In our house, for example, there is no meatloaf but our meatloaf. I’m so set in my ways that not only will I not try new meatloaf recipes, I rarely even order meatloaf at restaurants.
So when, during a long-overdue freezer cleanout, Mom and I discovered a stash of bananas, and then another stash, we knew it was time for another of those “don’t bother with another recipe” recipes: Banana bread.
Now, with all modesty, I’m not the only one who loves this stuff. It’s a recipe so wonderful that it was printed — albeit with some non-fatal editorial alterations — by Cooking Light many years ago, and apparently remains a reader favorite. (I cringed in anticipation when I clicked on the reader comments link, and was amazed to see that everyone likes this recipe as much as we do. Whew!)
Here’s my introduction from the original issue:
My mom, Toni, has been making this banana bread for what seems like forever. We’re nuts about all kinds of bread, and this is a family favorite — even the dog loves it. While it may seem odd not to add spices, the pure banana flavor is what makes it so delicious.
You can find the tinkered-with version on Cooking Light’s site, but here’s the original, which isn’t really much higher in fat:
Toni’s Banana Bread
1-3/4 cups flour
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1-1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 medium super-ripe bananas (about 1 cup)
scant 2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 350F, and butter an 8×4 loaf pan (or two 7×3 pans for tea-size loaves).
Whisk dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl, and set aside.
Put the remaining ingredients (except optional nuts) in a blender and puree until smooth. Pour the banana puree over the dry ingredients, and fold lightly — adding nuts, if using – with a rubber spatula, just until combined; do not overmix.
Pour batter into the buttered loaf pan. Bake for 40 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, but do not overbake. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then remove from pan and cool completely on a wire rack.
Over on My Life as a Reluctant Housewife, Gabriella invited us to share favorite autumn salads. When I read her post, my first thought was of Autumn Vegetables with Goat Ricotta, a complicated concoction I’d seen in the Babbo Cookbook featuring an array of fall veggies tossed with prickly lettuces and garnished with a both a dressing and two flavored oils.
We hunted the farmers’ market for sunchokes, celery root, parsnips, and golden beets (to substitute for the squash neither of us likes), then tackled all of the mise en place — making sage oil, braising the beets, and roasting the sunchoke slices with cumin — over the course of a few evenings. Imagine our letdown when we tasted it, and found the flavors rather blah.
It wasn’t a total loss: The cumin-roasted sunchokes are good enough that I’d make them separately as a side dish. And crostini smeared with Cowgirl Creamery sheep’s ricotta… what’s not to like? But this is a tease of a dish: A ton of work for relatively little payoff; a gorgeous, show-stopping plate with no soul.
The next night, I was casting about for a way to use a tiny smidge of guanciale from Fatted Calf, too small to be used in a main course, but too large to waste. Flipping through my recipe clippings, I noticed an appealing salad from the September issue of Gourmet. Substituting pecorino for the ricotta salata, and replacing pancetta with guanciale, I actually had everything on hand that I needed to make this delicious autumn salad… one that’s hearty enough that you’ll enjoy eating it on a chilly evening, and simple enough to make on a whim.
Pear and Arugula Salad
1 T Champagne vinegar
1 T honey
1-1/2 tsp. lemon juice
salt & pepper, to taste
3 T olive oil
2 oz thinly sliced guanciale
1 T olive oil
1 firm-ripe pear
4 cups baby arugula
3 oz. pecorino romano, thinly shaved
Whisk together vinegar, honey, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a salad bowl. Add oil in a slow stream, whisking until well emulsified.
Cook guanciale in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, turning frequently, until just crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain, and crumble into bite-size pieces.
Halve the pear lengthwise, core it, and cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Add pears to dressing along with arugula, cheese, and guanciale, tossing to coat.
As careful readers may have noticed, the last couple of weeks have been filled with dishes that indulge my dad’s food cravings. Since Pops’ favorites lean heavily toward the foods of his youth, finding a suitable entry for Retro Recipe Challenge #4 hasn’t proven terribly difficult. In fact, the hardest part has been choosing among this week’s roster of golden oldies.
Given the RRC4 theme, Fall Favorites, a clear front-runner emerged. Pops requested chicken & dumplings, and the recipe Mom uses dates from at least the early 1970s. Alas, the exact source is lost to the sands of time, but one look at the clipping and you can’t miss that 70s women’s magazine vibe — complete with a Kraft Squeez-a-Snak ad on the back!
Amazingly, we resisted the urge to tinker with the recipe; we even used the bouillion cubes. But the veggies completely disintegrated, so Mom simmered up some extra carrots and celery, and added them after thickening the sauce. The dumplings were surprisingly good; I’m not sure if I’d make the chicken again, though. The sauce definitely reminded me of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup!
Oh, and lest I forget: It was served with a Waldorf salad… how’s that for old school?!
Chicken and Dumplings
Chickens are still a good buy. Stretch the flavor and servings per chicken with this old-fashioned dish.
3-pound broiler-fryer, cut up
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 celery stalks
1 onion, sliced
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
1 sprig parsley
1 bay leaf
2 chicken bouillion cubes
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup flour
2 egg yolks, beaten
Parsley Dumplings (recipe follows)
Put chicken in a kettle or Dutch oven and cover with boiling water. Add salt, pepper, celery, onion, carrots, parsley, bay leaf, and bouillion. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer 1-1/4 hours, or until chicken is tender. Remove chicken from liquid, and when cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones. Measure liquid and if more than 4 cups, boil down to 4 cups. Blend milk and flour, and gradually add a little hot [cooking] liquid to milk [mixture], then stir milk [mixture] into remaining hot [cooking] liquid and cook, stirring, until thickened. With spoon, gradually beat in egg yolks. Put chicken back in broth. Drop dumpling batter by tablespoonfuls [sic] into bubbling broth. Cook, uncovered, 10 minutes. Cover and cook 10 minutes longer. Makes 4-6 servings.
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. each sugar, salt, and celery seed
1 T chopped parsley
1/2 cup milk
Mix together flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, celery seed and parsley. With fork, stir in milk until just moistened.
Tami of Running with Tweezers is the hostess of this month’s installment of Hay Hay! It’s Donna Day, a very cool meme dedicated to Down Under food-magazine diva Donna Hay. The whole thing was started by another antipodean, Barbara at Winos and Foodies. The blogger who creates the best entry for each month gets to pick the following month’s theme. And — happily for those of us who love the oven — Tami chose savory tarts for Donna Day #5.
Given how much we’ve been enjoying caprese salads and other variations on the tomato/cheese/herb axis this summer — and knowing that the end certainly must be right around the corner for both heirloom tomatoes and the basil on the back porch — it seems only fitting to honor Donna Hay’s “turn simple into special” tagline with a rustic tart based on all the flavors of late summer. Coming late to the party as always, I turned to store-bought — but 100% butter — puff pastry for my base, a truc that I know Ms. Hay would approve.
1/2 package (or 1/2 recipe, if you’re feeling more Martha than Donna) puff pastry
4 smallish heirloom tomatoes, preferably various colors
3oz. Crescenza or other soft-ripened cheese
rosemary salt, or coarse salt + herb of your choice
basil, preferably small leaves, for garnish
basil-infused oil, or good olive oil, for brushing
Preheat the oven to 400F. Briefly thaw the pastry as directed on the package, and cut to fit your tart pan(s) — I used four small 4-inch rounds — and press the dough into the pans. Alternately, go freeform and cut pastry into four rectangles. Dock the crust with a fork or a toothpick. (If you’re not using pans, leave the last 1/2 inch undocked, all the way around). Spread the cheese thinly over the docked portion of the crust.
Slice the tomatoes into shapes that make sense for your crust (about 1/4-inch thick, regardless), salt lightly, and set aside for a few minutes. Blot the tomatoes’ excess moisture, and layer the slices in alternating patterns over the cheese.
Sprinkle the tarts lightly with rosemary salt. Bake for 10 minutes at 400, then reduce heat to 350 and continue cooking until pastry is puffed and throughly golden brown — mine took almost 30 minutes more. Brush with the oil, then garnish with small basil leaves (or chiffonade, if your basil is large). Serve with a salad as a light main course, or as a side dish for grilled meats.