Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Banana Muffins with a Seasonal Twist

What do you do with bananas when they get a little too brown for eating? Do you stick them in the freezer to use for baking? That was always my mom's strategy, and ever since I've lived on my own I've done the same thing. That way, whenever I get the urge to make banana muffins, I have the main ingredient waiting in the freezer. I've had some roommates in the past who thought I was weird for freezing too many random things (Chris, Matt, are you reading this?), but it's so convenient to have softened bananas on hand for baking!

Sometimes, however, the blackened bananas start taking over the freezer. This weekend I noticed that was starting to be the case, so I decided it was time to make some banana muffins. I was headed straight towards my regular muffin recipe, from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, but something caused me to pick up my binder full of handwritten recipe cards. As I flipped through my old recipes, one from last year caught my attention: Pumpkin Banana Muffins. Perfect! This recipe allowed me to use up a couple of the bananas that were taking up precious freezer real estate, and also gave me a chance to make my first pumpkin recipe of the season. These muffins were as good as I remembered from last year, and were the perfect breakfast to usher in this fall-like weather.

I do have a problem that I might need your help with. I had to buy a big can of pumpkin, since that was all my little local grocery store had. This recipe only calls for 1/2 cup of pumpkin, which means I have at least two cups of pumpkin puree sitting in my fridge. What's your favorite pumpkin recipe that you think I should try?

Pumpkin Banana Muffins
I wrote down this was from, but can't find the recipe on the site any more

1/2 cup pumpkin
1/2 cup mashed bananas
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg

1 3/4 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp salt

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup oats/nuts
1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice

Mix the wet ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, make a well in the center, and add the wet ingredients. Mix until just combined. Spoon into greased muffin tin, and top each muffin with 1 Tbsp of topping. Bake at 375 for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Notes: Since we don't eat a dozen muffins very quickly at my house, I tend to freeze at least half of them. They microwave well in about 20 to 30 seconds. The topping on these was kind of a pain, and didn't stick very well. Any suggestions?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Something's brewing in our kitchen...

As you can imagine, I haven't been making very good use of my kitchen recently! I'm still cooking, since 2 of my part time jobs involve cooking lessons, but have had very few chances to actually get into my own kitchen. For example, the next two nights I work at the Chopping Block until late, then Saturday I'm in a food safety class all day, then I babysit Saturday night and work all day Sunday. I've eaten more Turkey sandwiches in the last month than I'd eaten in the last couple years, and granola bars or goldfish crackers have become essential parts of my diet. I'm eating like a six year old a lot of the time, which is kind of sad.

But the kitchen has been getting some use from Joe. He's made a couple dinners on nights when I've been working all day while he's at home. He made a fantastic butternut squash soup from Jamie at Home on Sunday, which I'm bugging him to blog about. He's cooked other dishes here and there, but that's not what I want to tell you about today. What I want to tell you about is his new hobby... brewing beer!

The brew master takes over the kitchen!

I'm not sure if I've emphasized enough that Joe and I are big beer fans. We've been known to choose a craft brew over wine even at a fancy restaurant, and would be content hanging out at a beer-centric bar in Chicago any night of the week. We used to live only a block or two from the Hopleaf, one of the best beer bars in the city, and would walk there on a random weeknight to enjoy one of the over 100 beers they had on hand. We've toured a few breweries together, and have spent many evenings talking with my beer obsessed father about different brews that we enjoy. My dad has been brewing his own beer for years, and finally inspired Joe to try his hand at the art of home brewing.

Last summer we visited Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee,
which I would highly recommend if you're ever in the area.

A few weeks ago my dad and I visited the Schlafly Bottleworks in St. Louis.

One of the things I love about Joe brewing is that he's as obsessed with it as I am with cooking. He's started hanging out on the message boards of, and more than once apologized for talking about brewing too much. He didn't want to use a pre-packaged kit, and ambitiously used a recipe his first time. His first batch of wheat beer was a success, and we enjoyed sharing it with friends and family. Like cooking, brewing gives you a sense of pride for creating something for people to enjoy.

The first day of brewing... this is when the kitchen is a bit of a mess! After this day it goes into a huge jug to ferment. At that point we store it in the basement, to keep it in a cool environment and also to get it out of the way!

Two to three weeks later it's time to bottle. Once the beer is in bottles and caps have been securely attached, it has to condition for another couple weeks. It gets bubbly during this part of the process.

Our first batch made around 45 bottles, which went pretty quickly when we started sharing it with everyone.

Sharing the fruits of his labor is probably Joe's favorite part... and everyone has enjoyed the brew so far!

Right now we have a Pumpkin Ale fermenting, and I think Joe will be bottling it this weekend. It should be prime for drinking in October, just in time for the change in season. If you want to know more details about the specifics of brewing, let me know and I'll put you in touch with Joe. And maybe I can convince him to do a guest post one of these days to tell you more about the process. If you have a second, I'd love to hear a comment about your favorite brew! I think Magic Hat #9 is one of my favorites... but I also really love the Goose Island reserve brew called Sophie, which I think you can only buy in Illinois. Cheers!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Breakthrough: Tempeh Tacos!

Hi everyone! Remember me? Classes started two weeks ago, and as I expected life has become pretty much insane! Not too much cooking, and even less time for recording my cooking stories on here. But I'm not giving up! I've cut out time-sensitive blog commitments (like Daring Bakers), but I am still going to push myself to update my blog whenever I do have a chance. So if you promise not to give up on me, I'll do my best to share my food adventures whenever I have some free time!

This recipe is one I discovered earlier this summer, when Joe and I took a vegetarian cooking class at the Chopping Block. I had experimented with tempeh before, and felt like it was a better texture and flavor then tofu. But I had only though of one main way to use it... cut up cubes, marinate (any flavor works here- asian, italian, bbq), then stir fry it. The tempeh soaks up marinade flavors really well, but I was getting sick of only cooking it one way.

The revelation at our cooking class came when we discovered that tempeh could be crumbled. For some reason I had not though of using it that way, and as soon as I heard the idea I was off and running. Basically, crumbling the tempeh means you could sub it most places where you would use ground meat, adding protein and bulk without using an animal product. AND, for you meat eaters out there, think how easily you could use this knowledge to make a vegetarian friendly meal when you're inviting tree huggers over for dinner. The recipe below is using tempeh in tacos, and think how fun it would be to have a taco bar that included tempeh, ground beef, and shreaded chicken.

The original recipe called for making peach salsa to put on top.
We didn't plan ahead enough to make peach salsa, but that didn't
stop me from chopping up a regular peach to top the tacos. The
sweet fruit was a great complement to the spicy tacos.

And don't worry, I'm not turning into some holier-than-thou veggie eater... I've eaten meat most days this week, mostly because I keep eating leftovers from work and that means lots of varieties of meat! But I have lowered my grocery bill by minimizing the meat we buy, and I hope that our reduction has a teeny, tiny, slight impact on our environment. Not to mention the meat area at my nearby grocery store can smell kind of questionable, and since I don't have a car during the day it's my easiest grocery shopping option!

Public Service Announcement: Wondering where to buy tempeh? They sell it at Whole Foods, and also at Trader Joe's for almost $1 cheaper per package. You'll find it near the tofu and other meat alternatives, usually near the produce department or the cheese & dairy. Give it a try!

Spiced Tempeh Tacos
from The Chopping Block cooking school in Chicago

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, sliced thin
1 red pepper, sliced thin
8 ounces tempeh, crumbled
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp of your favorite Mexican spice blend (I did some cumin, cayenne pepper, chili powder, and a touch of paprika)
2 roma tomatoes, cut in a small dice
1/4 cup cilantro, rough chopped
juice of one lime
salt and pepper, to taste
corn tortillas

Heat a saute pan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Saute the onion, red pepper and tempeh, stirring occasionally, until lightly caramelized. Add the garlic and spices and continue cooking for an additional minute. Add the tomatoes and cook until they start to break down, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from the heat and fold in the lime juice, cilantro, salt and pepper.

Toast the tortillas over an open flame or in a skillet. Fill with the tempeh mixture, and garnish with peach salsa, sour cream, etc.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Layers of Celebration

Nothing says birthday like layer cake, right? Joe recently had his birthday, and I knew I needed to make him something special. He made me a cherry upside down cake from scratch for my birthday, so not just any cake would do. His request was that it be a cake with chocolate, and my vision was to make it a layer cake. When I was browsing Smitten Kitchen and saw Deb's cake for her husband's birthday, I knew I'd found the perfect birthday cake. Espresso Chiffon Cake with Fudge Icing
The recipes and comments below are all from Smitten Kitchen. If you've never checked our her blog, you MUST, because it's full of amazing things that I want to cook now, if not sooner! I will add a couple notes of my own, though, because I wouldn't want to leave you without some insight from your favorite Chicago foodie ;)

I made this as a six inch cake, because Joe and I enjoy being relatively healthy people and didn't need a giant cake around. Plus, I only had one six inch pan, that was just made for cakes like this. The sides on the cake are about 3 or 4 inches high, so I made a half recipe of the cake, and just baked one taller cake. I let it cool completely, then released it from the pan and sliced it into three layers. It held the shape really well, and my serrated bread knife went right through. I also did half recipes on the icing and espresso syrup, and it worked just about perfectly. Also, check out the fudge frosting recipe, because it's made in the food processor and it is brilliant!

Espresso Chiffon Cake

Adapted from (what else?) Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

Despite picking one, I actually have all sorts of biases against chiffon cakes; mostly, that they’re lovely and fluffy but dry, namely because they have just smidgens of oil or butter in them. But this one called to me. I was hoping that the lightness of the chiffon cake layers would allow the strong espresso taste to come through, and that it did, though it didn’t hurt that it was brushed with a 1:1:1 ratio syrup of sugar, rum and straight espresso [or in other words, I think I briefly forgot that I was pregnant or something. Officially the most caffeine and booze I've had in 34 weeks and completely worth it.] that made the cake so ridiculously moist, I will never talk smack about chiffon cakes again.

Makes an 8- or 9-inch triple-layer cake

1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as soybean, canola or vegetable blend
6 eggs, separated
6 tablespoons freshly brewed espresso, cooled to room temperature (Huntsman recommends freshly-brewed over hydrating espresso powder, which she feels can be too bitter)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottoms of three 8- or 9-inch round cake pans with rounds of parchment or waxed paper, but do not grease.

In a medium bowl, combine the oil, egg yolks, espresso and vanilla; whisk lightly to blend. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, 1 cup of the sugar, the baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set the dry ingredients aside.

In a large mixer bowl with an electric mixture, whip the egg whites with the cream of tartar on medium-low speed until frothy. Raising the mixer speed to medium-high and gradually add the remaining half cup of sugar. Continue to beat until soft peaks form; do not whip until stiff or the cake will shirk excessively upon cooling.

Add the espresso-egg yolk mixture to the dry ingredients and fold together just enough to combine. Add one-fourth of the beaten egg whites and fold them in to lighten the batter. Fold in the remainder of the whites just until no streaks remain. Divide the batter among the three prepared pans.

Bake the cakes for about 18 minutes each, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool completely in the pans. When cooled, run a blunt knife around the edge of the pans to release the cakes. Invert onto wire racks and remove the paper liners.

To assemble the cake, place one layer, flat side up, on a cake stand or serving plate. Soak the cake with 1/3 cup of the Espresso Syrup (below). Spread about 1 1/3 cups of the Instant Fudge Frosting (below) evenly over the top of the layer. Repeat with the next layer, more syrup and more frosting. Finally, top with the third layer. Soak it with the remaining syrup and frost the tops and sides with the remaining frosting.

Espresso Syrup

Makes one cup

1/3 cup hot, freshly brewed espresso
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup dark rum, such as Meyer’s

In a bowl, stir together the espresso and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Add the rum and let cool to room temperature.

Don’t want to use rum? (I know someone will ask.) I’d swap it with water, perhaps flavored with some vanilla extract. Worried about the caffeine? Use decaf espresso.

Instant Fudge Frosting
Adapted, barely, from a Sky High recipe

Now, this is, to be honest, a fancy name for a quick buttercream but it’s got two things going for it that are worth mentioning: One, the frosting isn’t flavored with cocoa (too mild) or even good semisweet chocolate, but unsweetened chocolate. Brilliant, I tell you. I find most quick buttercreams way too sweet, and although this one still is quite sugary, the super-bitter chocolate goes a long way to mitigating it. The second thing worth mentioning is this: Did you know you can make quick buttercreams in the food processor? I had no idea, I hadn’t even considered it before. But there I was whirling everything together in ten seconds flat and I will make it no other way from now on.

Makes about 5 cups

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
4 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar (no need to sift)
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons half-and-half or whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and pulse to incorporate, then process until the frosting is smooth.