banana bread basics

There’s the official recipe. Then there’s what you actually end up doing — by choice or cold-blooded fate. Case in point:

Banana Bread recipe from the fine folks at King Arthur Flour

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar, light or dark, firmly packed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 3 medium or 2 large bananas)
  • 3 tablespoons apricot jam or orange marmalade, optional but tasty
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 1/4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional

INSTRUCTIONS

King Arthur Flour, Step 1: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease a 9″ x 5″ loaf pan; or a 12″ x 4″ tea loaf pan.

What Happens to You, Step 1: Clear off cluttered kitchen counter to make room for ingredients. Empty out dishwasher of clean dishes, fill it back up with all the dirty stuff on said counter as you ponder what the heck is a tea loaf pan.

WHY, Step 1b: Read list of ingredients. Do a double take as your eyes scan the line “butter, at cool room temperature.” Quietly freak out as you realize the butter compartment in the fridge is occupied by an open container of whipped cream cheese.

WHY, Step 1c: Rejoice! Find pound of butter hiding behind box of supermarket dumplings in the freezer.

WHY, Step 1d: Let concern wash over you as you realize your half-cup of butter is actually a tiny, yellow baton of granite.

WHY, Step 1e: Use your entire body weight to press a knife into the butter granite to cut it into small pieces. Wipe your brow with a kitchen towel.

WHY, Step 1f: Thaw the frozen butter bits at half-power in the microwave for 12 seconds. No more.

WHY, Step 1g: Set aside the half-melted, warm butter, hoping it cools to “room temperature.” Move on to the next ingredient, brown sugar.

KAF, Step 2: In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, beating till smooth.

WHY, Step 2: Google “how to make brown sugar” when none is found in the pantry, which contains two spice jars of whole cloves and five cans of tuna. But no brown sugar.

WHY, Step 2b: Use the whisk attachment to flavor plain, granulated sugar with some molasses miraculously found in the pantry next to the jar of colored sprinkles.

WHY, Step 2c: Once the brown sugar is complete, mix in the hopefully-room-temperature butter, vanilla extract, the required spices and salt, and the leaveners. Oh, add only half the ground cinnamon because meh.

KAF, Step 3Add the mashed bananas, jam, honey, and eggs, again beating until smooth.

WHY, Step 3: Add the next set of ingredients — but substitute apricot preserves for apricot jam since that’s what you have, and don’t bother pre-mashing the bananas because they’re so overripe they’re practically pudding when you peel them. (Freeze the remaining two bananas, hoping next time you’ll have your act together.)

KAF, Step 4: Add the flour, then the walnuts, stirring just until smooth.

WHY, Step 4: Mix in the flour until smooth. Follow that with the chopped walnuts. Don’t bother measuring them out because you just want to get rid of the quarter-full container already. 

KAF, Step 5Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top. Let it rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.

WHY, Step 5: Pre-heat the oven, which was the first official step in the recipe and you totally ignored it, but no matter.

WHY, Step 5b: Find and grease the nine-by-five-inch loaf pan, which should surely be found in the cabinet right beside (maybe behind?) the four mini loaf pans still in their original store packaging.

WHY, Step 5c: Unwrap, wash, dry mini loaf pans. Prep them for baking as the oven dings that it’s done pre-heating.

WHY, Step 5d: Distribute banana bread batter evenly among the mini pans.

KAF, Step 6Bake the bread for 45 minutes, then gently lay a piece of aluminum foil across the top, to prevent over-browning.

WHY, Step 6: Leave pans in the oven until the batter is baked through.

KAF, Step 7Bake for an additional 25 minutes (20 minutes if you’re baking in a tea loaf pan). Remove the bread from the oven; a long toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center should come out clean, with at most a few wet crumbs clinging to it. The tester shouldn’t show any sign of uncooked batter. If it does, bake the bread an additional 5 minutes, or until it tests done.

WHY, Step 7: Struggle to remove mini pans from the oven with your overlarge oven mitts. Curse as you set them on the counter to cool.

KAF, Step 8: Allow the bread to cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Remove it from the pan, and cool it completely on a rack.

WHY, Step 8: Come back an hour later and unmold the banana bread. Slice into a loaf while still warm.

empanada effect

Empañadas. Empañadas for sale. That’s what the sign said.

It was the first week of June, and like a farmer scanning the skies for an indication of what the upcoming harvest season would bring — plenty or famine? — I could tell that September was going to be rough.

I was facing a row of food vendors lined up along one side of the riverfront park where an arts festival was taking place. In shorts and flip-flops, visitors had flocked to check out hand-blown glass sculptures and oil paintings of seaside towns. But it was the food that had called me. First festival of the summer, and I was trying to decide whether to get lemonade or funnel cake. At that moment, however, what I was getting was a looming sense of dread.

Why? Well, there’s no such thing as empañadas, except just a really common misspelling. What people mean to say is empanadas — no squiggly sign swimming above the n. In other words, no tilde.

When I read the sign on the food vendor’s display, concern grew in my stomach. If a professional had botched something as basic as the spelling of an empanada, what were the chances of finding an authentic savory-filled, oven-baked pastry for sale on September 18?

As everyone knows (…), September 18 is Chilean Independence Day, the day the good, brave people of Chile wrested their freedom from Spanish rule in 1810. Hundreds of years later, we celebrate the occasion with generous helpings of red wine and empanadas, our answer to hot dogs and apple pie.

Like any true Chilean, I, too, toast this day with a good meal — but it’s always been a meal I eat, not a meal I make. In Chile, my source was always a generous grandmother or a trusted bakery. In New Jersey, there were a couple of Chilean restaurants that made empanadas. And if not there, a drive to New York City could end up with a haul of the good stuff. There were options.

But here I was in Pittsburgh, facing a tilde and uncertain prospects about my empanada procurement. 

In the end, I did what any resourceful woman of the new millennium would do: I turned to Google. First, I searched for Chilean restaurants near me. Or bakeries. A bodega — anything. Nothing.

Then I rolled up my sleeves and scoured a recipe to do myself. Sure, the one I decided to try said I’d end up with about a kilo of dough and a dozen empanadas, so when I actually had enough material for only six, I went back online and found another to follow.

In the end, I made 16 and a half empanadas. Because, like a farmer who appreciates the value of every grain of wheat he grows, I mixed and rolled enough dough to know that even the smallest portion counts.

 

pieces of cake

When you gotta get into a deep, heavy topic with lots of underlying baggage, and you need a good metaphor, most people turn to onions: Onions are layered, they say. Peel off the layers and reveal what’s inside.

But when I go deep, I turn to cake.

I love cake. The smell. The presentation. And the possibilities. You can go from an unfrosted concoction with cream-and-fruit filling to a three-tiered behemoth lined with fondant and edible gold leaf.

In restaurant work, pastry production is often a relay. One person mixes a batch of dough. Another cuts it up and portions it. And a third fries it up and makes doughnuts. Who picks up the baton depends on the shift, and the one who ends the race is typically the cook working service, plucking off orders from the kitchen printer as they plate up desserts.

When I worked production, my favorite thing was to tackle cakes. I suppose the prettiest part was finishing the cakes, decorating them for display. But I also really liked to stack and fill them, because cutting into someone else’s product was often very revealing.

I could tell the cook before me was running behind schedule if the cake was underbaked. (Usually, I could cut around unusable parts.) Or if there were a lot of uneven holes in the crumb, that also meant someone was rushing things along and not mixing ingredients properly.

Maybe the cake was too dry, which meant someone was distracted. Or if a sheet cake was really uneven, it was likely that the intern had been practicing that day. In time, I got to the point where I knew who had made what simply by looking at it.

I felt like little clues were being left behind and I was deciphering their meaning like tea leaves in a cup.

Meaning is important with cooking. You’re on your feet all day, sweating by an oven or a steaming pot, picking up 50-pound bags of flour and constantly washing your hands raw. If all this doesn’t mean something to you, it isn’t worth it.

Sometimes the meaning was the end result. The perfectly level cake with the pretty frosting.

Sometimes the meaning was in the process. Taking someone else’s hard work and making it just a bit better so that the next cook could come in and turn your efforts into something greater.

It can be lonely in a kitchen sometimes. Either it’s a tiny place and you’re the only pastry cook around, or it’s a big circus and everyone is busy with their own projects.

That’s what I loved about cakes. Whether I was just baking off the batter, finishing it with frosting, or doing something in between, I knew I was one piece of a bigger picture. I felt part of something.

 

 

lessons from flan

There is such a thing as eating too much flan.

This nugget of wisdom hit me like a rock to the gut early in life. I was six.

We were living in Caracas, Venezuela, and my mother had just made flan. The baked custard, dripping in caramel and flavored with vanilla, was a family favorite. Like all those things one holds dear, flan was a rare treat. When it happened, we celebrated. (With flan.)

Flan leftovers never lingered, and the rule of scarcity wielded its mighty influence over a little girl with big eyes. Dedicated to the ultimate win, I practically ate my weight in custard. After dinner, I went back for seconds. Then thirds. Next, fourths. The math on this wasn’t complicated, folks, only repetitive.

Can’t say that I felt greedy, only justified. Why eat more dessert tomorrow when I could eat it that very day?

It wasn’t long before I got my answer: An epic stomach ache. Quick learner that I was, I vowed to abstain from flan. Forever.

This was fine in Venezuela, where flan was as ubiquitous as rice and beans. If I rejected flan, it was like saying no to, like, oatmeal cookies in the U.S. No big deal. Just chalk it up to being a finicky gourmand.

But they say context is everything, and it was so with flan.

A few years and many flans later, my family found itself in South Florida, living in a ranch-style house amid a working class neighborhood where we were the first foreigners to move into our street. With unspoken agreement, we all decided to take on the roles of friendly ambassadors bridging two very different worlds.

Other families on our block ate cupcakes or baked cookies. We did flan.

When my brother’s friends came over, and we had flan in the house, our cultural exchange came in the form of custard. Ditto my father, who would invite friends from his office for dinner, marking an occasion that called for — of course — flan!

As I watched others marvel and admire our very own dessert icon, I tried to fit in. After all, how was I going to convince the gringos that flan was delicious if I couldn’t even stomach it? It was hopeless — the smallest bite induced a wave of nausea that tasted strongly of eggs. I remained an outsider in a household of outsiders.

Over time, things changed. It was a small collection of events that culminated into yet another discovery: flan is good.

Like that time I was in college and a friend and I went out to a favorite Cuban place, a family-owned restaurant where the food was so good I dared to try a bite of my friend’s flan. For our next visit? I ordered my own for dessert.

Then there was that class in pastry school, where I learned to make one of flan’s culinary cousins, creme brulee. Creamy on the inside, topped with a layer of brittle burnt sugar.

And the day I decided to make flan myself. From cooking the caramel to scraping up vanilla beans to releasing the final concoction from its mold, these were moments I could enjoy without taking a single bite.

That’s a lesson worth celebrating. With flan.

carrots in cake forever

I grew up in a household with a strict produce paradigm.

Salads had tomatoes or lettuce. Maybe celery if we were feeling spunky. Meat was seasoned with garlic and onions. Anything sweet was reserved strictly for dessert.

The only exception was our beloved empanadas. Chilean empanadas are made with a hot water crust pastry that encloses practically an entire meal within its folds. Ground or diced beef is spiced with cumin and onions, and is served alongside a sliver of a hard boiled egg and one black olive. Included in the meat mix are a couple of soaked raisins. That’s how Chileans rock their sweet-and-salty combo.

But this isn’t a post about empanadas. It’s about a line drawn in the sand. It’s about carrots.

I can still remember the day when I heard gringos ate cake with carrots. I was in school at Banyan Elementary, and my classmate, Andy, was celebrating his birthday. To do so, his mother was bringing in carrot cake, and when the teacher made the announcement, the whole class clapped. The whole class except for me.

I eventually figured things out. Carrots are naturally sweet — and the cream cheese and walnuts certainly round things out nicely. However, for me carrot cake stood out as an exception. Perhaps carrots were the clever maverick in the produce department, I thought. It’s not like mushrooms would ever belong in dessert.

But then they did. When I was in pastry school in Manhattan, a local chef visited to do a demo on savory-inspired desserts. And what did he make? Mushroom ice cream, of course. This time, I did join the rest of the students when it came time to thank the good chef.

Fast forward a couple years. That’s when I found myself working at a farm-to-table restaurant in the Flatiron District where the pastry chef had zucchini cake on her dessert menu. The garnish? Candied celery leaves.

Of course.

almond rhubarb tart

It’s spring at my house when I start breaking into my stash of summer clothes … but still cover up with insulated jackets and wool socks.

In the store, it’s spring when the rhubarb shows up. Right across from the shiny red strawberries that are dead white inside.

Much like dressing for a transitional season, I think it can be tough to work with rhubarb. It’s a stalk, for one thing — not a dainty raspberry that can crown the top of a cake. It’s basically just like celery, which you would never cut up and display over, say, an eclair.

Color is an issue too. All the pretty bright pink is only on the outside. And when it’s not pink, it’s green, which ruins the iconography. I used to know one chef who’d color his rhubarb compote with grenadine to keep things in the pink.

For me, though, the uncertainty is part of the charm of the season, like snow in late April. Tank tops with corduroys come around only once a year, and rhubarb does too.

chocolate hazelnut crepe cake

When I was a kid, I was an immigrant.

I moved here when I was seven, and I didn’t even know how to say hello or thank you. Inevitably, this led to some awkward moments.

Like when my friend and I spent one bus ride to school discussing in depth the exploits of a particular orange tabby only to figure out that he was talking about Heathcliff, as in the television cartoon, and I Garfield, as in the newspaper funnies. While I was learning English, it was hard following tv — people talked too fast, and I missed what was happening. But with the paper, I had the time and imagination I wanted to fill in the talking bubbles myself.

It was kind of the same with pancakes.

Time went on, as it does, and my gringo language skills improved. I got the accent down, and forget cartoons, I was delving into MTV barely a year in the U.S. Still, there was much to learn.

See, I was born in Chile, where a lot of food traditions can trace their heritage to colonial ties. In many ways, eating customs in South America are more European than, say, American. Santiagoans make time for tea, for instance. In the U.S., people make time for second dinner.

Along the same vein, pancakes mean different things to Americans north and south of the equator.

My grandmother made me Chilean pancakes, because she was Chilean. Naturally, this dish actually consisted of crepes, which are French. While the thin, butter-fried pancakes where still warm, my grandmother Elia would spread her homemade apricot preserves on top and roll it up like a taquito (which is Mexican). It was heaven on earth.

So imagine my surprise when, one morning, my family and I, freshly arrived in Broward County, Florida, are at a diner ordering breakfast. I ask for pancakes, and what I get is a stack of wide, spongy patties that arrive with pats of butter and tree sap. I’m pretty sure I felt betrayed.

Confusion eventually gave way to clarity, and over the years I’ve come to realize that not only are gringo pancakes quite tasty, being an immigrant means sharing more cultural traditions, not less. And some of those traditions come in the form of crepe cakes.

 

pretty in pastel Easter cake

It’s been a while since I cut into the world of cake. (See what I did there?)

For the better part of a year, I’ve been dedicated to croissants. Laminating them. Shaping them. Proofing them. Baking them. Eating them.

Easter is a holiday of resurrection: no better time to dust off the old offset and go back to techniques I learned during my days running a cake station, whether at a high-bustle restaurant or an artisan bakery. Relived the satisfaction of leveling a cake by eye … and the grief of careless piping bag placement. Biblical for sure.

meringue cake with strawberries

One of my favorite cakes is, by definition, no cake at all.

The meringue cake is only a cake by technicality. It looks like a cake and cuts like a cake (albeit messily), so it lands into the cake category of confections. Only there’s no cake.

There’s filling, yes. Whipped cream. And there’s icing, sure. More whipped cream.

But the sustenance is meringue. Dry, crisp, airy rounds of baked meringue. No flour, no butter, only sugar and egg whites.

At this point most people would consider this cake to be like a pavlova, that flattened mound of meringue topped with a cloud of whipped cream and fruit. Sound familiar?

The layers make all the difference, however. I think the best way to eat a meringue cake is to not eat it. At least not right away. Let it sit in the fridge. Let the meringue soak up some of the cream and soften a little, because that’s when the world starts to shift. What was once dry and baked is now dewy and spongy, and you end up with this messy mix of crispy and chewy and soft and crunchy that’s more than the sum of its parts and it just makes you want to dance.

Talk about layered.

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