Double chocolate banana bread

I'll try to keep this one short and sweet because it's a no-brainer.  When I saw double chocolate banana bread pop up on Smitten Kitchen recently, I knew I had to make it asap.  I'm guessing there's a good chance you might also be a fan of the site and felt a similar urge if you saw it too.  
My husband and I already have a favorite banana bread recipe, one I slightly adapted from Molly Wizenberg's book.  As nearly perfect as that banana bread with chocolate is, I've wanted to make a double-chocolate version because I naturally feel the urge to add more chocolate to things!  I thought about taking that recipe and tinkering with it to incorporate cocoa but my ideas were vague ones that floated around in my head without a clear direction.  Well, the answer came with this concrete recipe from Smitten Kitchen; not only did it look scrumptious but you just know you can trust Deb.  
She didn't let me down.  This double-chocolate banana bread was as good as I expected and I had high expectations.  It's chocolate cake, it's banana bread, it's both melded together but still standing individually on its own.  This is moist, dark, rich, delicious chocolate-banana cake.  Make it, enjoy it, and let's thank Deb together.



Moroccan chickpea stew

I'm going savory again today with this Moroccan chickpea stew.  I think this is the kind of light-yet-hearty food that suits this seesaw weather we've been having.  I know we'll be able to ditch our boots and put away our winter coats permanently one day soon...but please, hurry!  
A few years ago, I would have definitely considered myself a serious meat-eater.  And now, while I'm no vegetarian, I'm fairly amazed by how much less meat I eat and how much more I appreciate and enjoy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.  I find myself satisfied with a small portion of meat and savoring all the flavors of everything on my plate.  

This chickpea stew recipe is one that jumped out at me from the Cooking Light Healthy Habits Cookbook because I'm always looking for nutritious yet hearty dishes that are easy to put together. This one fits the bill!  And here again, I come to appreciate how important spices are to our cooking arsenal when it comes to healthy eating.  This chickpea stew gets flavor from cumin, chili powder, and turmeric.  Almost by reflex, I like to toss in some paprika and cayenne for extra heat.  This stew is light - with a tomato-base - but hearty at the same time thanks to some chunks of Yukon potatoes and the chickpeas.  

I think this qualifies as what Rachel Ray would call "stoup", a soup/stew hybrid.  It's not intended to have a lot of broth but you can certainly add more vegetable broth and turn it into more of a soup if you like.  You can serve it with brown rice (and some yogurt), as the recipe suggests, or go with another grain.  Couscous popped into my mind because of the Moroccan theme but I served it with farro.  Adding some grains really turns the stew into a full meal.  The farro is nice and chewy and soaks up the great broth.
Moroccan chickpea stew, with farro and sesame-spiced turkey meatballs
This stew is certainly a great meatless option but I happened to have some leftover turkey meatballs that I thought would go well with it (my husband certainly doesn't mind a little meat to go with all this other good stuff).  I had made sesame-spiced turkey meatballs from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (thanks, Marie!) the night before and I thought the flavor profiles of the two would go well together.  Molly (at Orangette) dubbed her lamb version "falafel-spiced meatballs" and that title is spot on in describing the flavor.  It paired very well with this stew.

So there's clearly a variety of ways to enjoy this...all on its own, with grains, or even a little extra protein with some meat.  This makes excellent leftovers.  I re-heat it with an extra splash of broth, and you could even add more to turn it into a soup for lunch the next day.  I love it because this is the kind of meal I enjoy eating any time of year.



Classic American loaf bread

Having finally worked up the nerve to start using yeast and making breads like the English muffin loaf and multigrain bread, there was a classic that I really wanted to try.  That would be the basic American loaf - or sandwich - bread...otherwise known simply as: white bread.
Nowadays, I'm all about whole wheat breads both for nutritional reasons and because I actually prefer that inherent nuttiness you get with them.  But growing up, it was all about the white bread and it certainly has a special place in my heart.  Sometimes, only a good slice or two of classic old-fashioned white bread will do.  And a piece of buttered white toast is like a taste of childhood; it makes me think of breakfast at the local diner and the stack of very-buttery white toast I used to devour. 
This white sandwich bread recipe from Cook's Illustrated did not disappoint.  It turns out a big loaf of the best kind of fresh, sweet white bread that you might find at a good bakery.  It reminded me of the loaves I buy at Japanese bakeries when I get the chance, and was better than the ones I sometimes pick up at an Asian bakery nearby.  The one thing that always bothered me about the white bread at that bakery was how thin/hallow the bread is.  Once toasted, I could barely butter a slice without ripping it.  No such problem here.  This bread was sturdy enough to be sliced as thin or thick as I liked.

I enjoyed the nice chewiness to the bread, and more importantly...the flavor!  I think it's easy to forget that white bread can actually have great flavor because of the bland options we're used to from the supermarket.  Combined with the lovely sweet aroma, homemade bread is something a girl can get hooked on. 
One thing I was taken aback by was how huge the loaf turned out!  I'm not complaining because I'd much prefer a big, lofty loaf to a squat, flat one but it took me by surprise.  I suppose it was the result of using high-gluten bread flour, without any whole wheat flour in the picture.  When my son and I peeked into the oven, we both thought something had to be wrong.  I half-expected the loaf to collapse but luckily, there were no such problems.

I used bread flour and I've read somewhere that sandwich bread made with it - as opposed to all-purpose - tends to rise higher given the higher amount of gluten.  The recipe called for bread flour but all-purpose can be used as well if not available.  Since I had both flours on hand, I went with the first option.  Next time, I just might use a mix of the two and see how that turns out.

My family and I enjoyed this bread a whole lot.  I've stowed a few of these big slices in the freezer for French toast.  Otherwise, we ate the rest, toasted and slathered with an array of toppings.  
And, of course, it makes a great sandwich!  My son was partial to this grilled cheese and salami one I made for him.  


Indian butter chicken, minus the butter

Lately, I've been feeling more inspired on the savory front than on the sweet side.  Don't get me wrong - I'm clearly still baking, and if anything, I've put more focus on revisiting and making my family's favorites.  In other words, there's plenty of sweets in our lives.  Sometimes - thanks largely to this blog - I do feel as though I have all the sweet recipes I could possibly need for a lifetime...but then I discover something really good I haven't had/made before and I'm jazzed again so I don't think I'll be giving up on my baking explorations anytime soon.
Indian butter chicken but without the butter
I just find that, lately, I'm a bit more open to picking up a great slice of cake from the pastry shop while I work on dinner instead.  I suppose it's just a nice change of pace.  And let's face it - there's a lot more room for savory meals than sweets in our day-to-day lives.  So as I've been focusing on eating healthier in the last couple of years, I've been cooking more and realizing that it's not so hard and actually really fun trying out new recipes, discovering new ingredients, and learning to mix them up.  Along the way, sometimes I find new favorites to put in our dinner or lunch rotation.  Even if not, it's nice to try something new here and there even if it only makes one appearance at our table.  It keeps things interesting for the cook, and hopefully her family too!

I love many kinds of foods and Indian food is one of them.  However, my knowledge base is sadly lacking and pretty much limited to the typical buffet spread that I indulge in once in a while.  I readily admit to my love of chicken tikka masala and I confess to replicating it at home the semi-homemade way. That is, I marinate chicken in yogurt and tandoori spices, then broil it, but finish it off with store-bought jarred sauce.  Sometimes, a girl needs a little shortcut...
Fast, easy, and lighter recipe - The sauce is made from low-fat yogurt and water; I topped it with toasted almonds here
...but sometimes not.  While I think semi-homemade is perfectly fine sometimes, it's even better when you can find easy, from-scratch recipes that are also quick and easy - plus, sometimes you get really lucky and it's healthier and more nutritious at the same time!  I think this is one of those recipes!  It's butter chicken, otherwise known as murgh makhani, somewhat similar to the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala.  I have to be honest, I'm not all that familiar with butter chicken since I'm always after that tikka masala but I was intrigued by this recipe that promises a lot of flavor in very little time and, to top it off, it's a healthier, lighter rendition.

There's no butter, or rich cream, in this particular "butter" chicken dish.  It's essentially no-butter butter chicken.  I was intrigued and had to give it a try and I have to say that it worked like a charm.  A mix of spices, along with tomato paste, gives the dish a slow, long-cooked taste when, it reality, it doesn't take much more than 20 minutes to cook up!  Low-fat yogurt and water creates the sauce and it is perfectly satisfying.  I'm no butter chicken expert so I had no particular expectations but this dish turned out very flavorful without being heavy at all.  I served it with some brown basmati rice, naan, and broccoli for dinner on a recent Sunday.
Needless to say, taking a dinner photo, before daylight savings time, when it was dark by 5pm, is very difficult : )



Unexplained cravings for a cinnamon roll

Ask my husband and he'll tell you that a couple of months ago, I had this unexplained craving for a cinnamon roll.  That might not sound all that unusual in itself but coming from me, it is.
Orange-dark chocolate cinnamon rolls with orange glaze (recipe makes small-batch of 4)
I'm usually not a particular fan of them and I've never craved one before.  While a fresh batch sure smells enticing, I'm not really one for sweet rolls or sugary icing (as hard to believe as that may be). And as we're talking about cinnamon rolls, I'm not altogether a big fan of the spice itself.  Don't get me wrong - I like a little cinnamon tucked into a banana muffin or blended into some knockout spiced cookies but I'm not a fan of it in abundance (I really dislike it when a cappuccino arrives at the table dusted with cinnamon).  That said, I was craving cinnamon rolls!  I tried to ignore, then resist, the urge but a couple of months passed and I was still craving one so you know how this story had to end.
Before baking...
I still can't figure out exactly why I started craving a cinnamon roll but I think I can place some of the "blame" (or I should say, "credit") on all the good-looking cinnamon rolls I saw on many of the food blogs I like to visit.  Because right around the time I noticed this craving, I seemed to see them pop up here and there on my screen.  Coincidence?  I think not...
Warm cinnamon rolls topped with a simple orange glaze
So I had to get baking!  There are 3 of us at my house so I really needed a small batch recipe because I'm thinking that having a dozen or so cinnamon rolls around might not be a wise idea. Luckily, I found a small-batch recipe (that makes 4) from Oh, Ladycakes.  I used that as the basis for my first batch of cinnamon rolls but made a few changes along the way.  

The recipe, like the focus of the blog itself, is vegan and since I'm not, I used the conventional counterparts (i.e., butter and milk).  From there, I took a little inspiration from this Joy the Baker-Pioneer Woman cinnamon roll mashup (love that video of them making the rolls together) and filled mine with a combination of sugar, orange zest, and dark chocolate.  Of course, there's cinnamon since it is a cinnamon roll after all, but I used a light hand.  Once baked, I topped the rolls with a simple orange glaze of confectioners' sugar and fresh orange juice.
Even a cinnamon roll novice like me knows you have to eat them fresh and warm from the oven.  I prepped the rolls the night before, stopping and refrigerating them at the point where the rolls were sliced and placed into the pan.  The next morning, I removed the pan from the fridge, placed it in a warm spot for a little over an hour for a final rise before baking.  With that, we had warm cinnamon rolls for our Saturday morning breakfast!  I sat down, sank my teeth into it, and finally satisfied my craving for a cinnamon roll.

I'm starting to really enjoy working with yeast because the results are little bit like magic.  These rolls turned out so soft - amazingly soft and pillowy. They were just squishy and squidgy in the best possible way!  How did that happen?  I'm not really sure but I'm happy for it.
My husband, the unintentional hand model, digs into his super soft cinnamon roll
I had fun making these; every time I think about it, it puts a smile on my face for some reason.  And eating the rolls was a fun weekend breakfast treat. The super soft, tender texture of the cinnamon rolls really stood out.  Once we sunk into that soft doughy bun, we tasted sweetness, chocolate, and a big pop of orange flavor.  These make a great occasional treat and I say if you're going to eat cinnamon rolls, you're far better off making them at home and determining/knowing exactly what you put into it.  

What an awesome craving this turned out to be!  And while it's satisfied for now, I wouldn't be at all surprised if I'm hit with another craving for one of these cinnamon rolls one day soon.



Playing with flours (spelt)

A few years ago, baking for me almost exclusively meant reaching for that bag of all-purpose flour. Now, I'm almost as likely to also reach for my jars of whole wheat pastry flour or white whole wheat flour.  I find that I can often substitute somewhere in the neighborhood of one-quarter to one-half of the all-purpose flour in a given recipe with those whole wheat counterparts without a very noticeable difference in results.  I like doing that and feeling like I'm hopefully making a slightly more nutritious choice for my family. Personally, I also enjoy the nuttiness and little bit of extra texture provided by those flours in their own right.
Spelt muffins, with almonds and chocolate
So I've been slowly getting acquainted with whole grain flours.  But just when I think I'm making some strides (even if it is more like baby steps), I read about so many other varieties of whole grain flours that I've yet to try.  It feels like a constant game of catch-up and sometimes I just want to ignore all the chatter, all the latest and greatest, because it gets a little overwhelming.  At the same time, if I did that, I'd never learn and benefit from it.

The one whole grain flour I've been really curious about for a long time is spelt.  Articles like this one and many mentions in cookbooks have been touting it as the one to try if you were to pick one because of its mild, slightly sweet flavor.  I finally picked up a bag of spelt flour (Bob's Red Mills has everything) recently to give it a try.
As you no doubt notice, many recipes (with exceptions such as these delicious whole wheat chocolate chip cookies) call for a combination of all-purpose plus whole grain flour.  I really wanted to get a taste of the spelt alone so I tried these muffins made completely with spelt flour.  What better recipe to try than the very one printed on my bag of spelt flour.  Though I wanted a good taste of the spelt, that didn't preclude me from tossing in some chopped almonds and dark chocolate, however.
So I baked these simple spelt muffins, I tasted them, and I liked them.  The earth didn't exactly move because I think the flavor and results were pretty much in line with what I expected.  As promised, the spelt flour imparts a slightly sweet, nutty flavor.  There is no bitterness, like some find with whole wheat flour - though maybe because I use the milder white whole wheat flour, I've never found that to be an issue.  

As you can hopefully tell from the interior of the muffins, these all-spelt muffins are by no means dense - something I worried about.  Without the little bit of almonds and chocolate, these plain muffins are almost like bread and I don't mean that in a bad way - just that the flavor reminds me of a light wheat bread.  I don't think it will surprise anyone when I say these muffins taste best freshly cooled from the oven, when it has a nice crusty edge to them.  I find that leftovers are still good after you warm them up a bit in the microwave.  With those leftovers, I may have slathered on a bit of jam...and maybe a little Nutella...for my fellas.



Chocolate oatmeal...breakfast or dessert?

I've mentioned I love oatmeal.  I eat it regularly and I can have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner - or as part of those meals.  I don't remember when or where I first saw this idea of chocolate oatmeal but I did see it once and then it started popping up everywhere I turned...that's rather typical, isn't it?  
Chocolate oatmeal: Steel-cut oatmeal cooked with a bit of cocoa powder
To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure I liked the idea.  I figured chocolate oatmeal was similar to something like chocolate rice pudding but the problem was, I haven't ever had that either!  I don't know...I couldn't really picture the flavor and I wasn't sure I wanted to mingle my oatmeal and chocolate together.  Both things are awesome on their own but maybe they should remain separate, savored individually?  I was curious though, and since I love oatmeal and I most certainly love chocolate, I wanted to give the combination a try.  And seeing this post from The Kitchn recently inspired me to make it sooner rather than later.  

So, have you had chocolate oatmeal?  If so, do you like it?  And would you say this is something to eat for breakfast or dessert?  I suppose it can be either or neither.  I had it for lunch, actually.  
Topped with a little bit of dark chocolate, hazelnuts, and almonds
I can tell you that at first bite, I thought: "mmm...well, this is pretty good!"  Despite appearances, I have to say that there really isn't anything too dramatic or even overly decadent going on here. As much as it looks like a very rich, almost sinful, chocolate pudding-like concoction, the base oatmeal is nothing more than my usual bowl of steel-cut oatmeal cooked in water.  A mere tablespoon or so of unsweetened cocoa powder transforms it into this dark, chocolate concoction, and I didn't have to use much more sweetener than I normally do...just about a tablespoon of honey for a cup of oats.

Then, you move on to toppings, however.  Real chocolate enters the picture but use restraint and it's nothing to feel guilty about.  I sprinkled no more than a third of an ounce of chocolate over my bowl of oatmeal and added some nuts - hazelnuts and almonds in this case.  I have to say the best part was spooning up and tasting this oatmeal with some bits of melting chocolate mixed in.  It once again shows that everything is better with chocolate - at least for us chocoholics!  Somehow, I managed to resist the urge to add more chocolate as I went along.
This was a fun trial.  I enjoyed it though I don't see myself eating this regularly.  I really enjoy my regular bowl of plain oatmeal, sweetened lightly with honey, and I eat chocolate every day (it makes me a better, calmer person).  I think I prefer to savor each separately but now that I know what the combination tastes like firsthand, I will say it's nice and I'd enjoy it once in while as a way to mix things up a little if I get tired of my usual routine (I'm pretty much a stickler for routine though).  



Old memories, new memories on a plate

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I arranged a special date night and we took a little walk down memory lane...  

We went back to have dinner at a restaurant we used to go to frequently but haven't been to in about 9 years.  Before we got married and after, we often had dinner at a small Italian (Tuscan) restaurant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, near where we lived at the time.  Being creatures of habit, we had a handful of favorite restaurants and went to them often.  This cozy little restaurant was our favorite Italian place; it was dark and cozy, and served wonderful food out of a teeny kitchen space. It's the restaurant where I developed my love of tomato-basil bruschetta and where I indulged in my already well-established love of pasta.
Something new I tasted and had to copy at home: Whole wheat linguine with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, toasted walnuts, and basil.  So simple and tastes incredible!
Stepping back into the restaurant was a little like going back in time.  Nine years hadn't changed much at all.  We sat at the same, somewhat rickety, table and chairs, and we noticed almost all the same decor (even the menu cover was the same!) filling the space.  The same garlicky cannellini bean dip arrived with the bread basket.  

The place seemed a little more brightly lit and the wait staff was different - actually friendlier but ironically, the somewhat chilly personality of the waitresses there at the time was part of the charm of the place for us.  We chatted with our waiter that night and told him we hadn't been here in about nine years - incidentally, nearly the age of our little one - and we commiserated with him about the challenges of parenthood since he had a newborn at home.  He told us everything was essentially the same at the restaurant, still run by the same chef/owner.  We actually saw her arriving a little later, and she looked exactly the same!  Maybe nine years isn't such a long time after all.
Most of the ingredients for this pasta.  I used cremini and shiitaki mushrooms.
Of course, we had to order a lot of the same dishes we loved back then. I think all our old-favorites were still on the menu.  My husband had the spicy mussels to start, as he always did.  I had to have the tomato-basil bruschetta, a side we always ordered when we went there.  Happily, they still used the same crusty, rustic bread and manged to give it the familiar char and flavor I was so enamored with years ago.  My husband also had spaghettini with littleneck clams, another old-favorite, and still as good as we remembered.  If anything, the portions just got a little bigger and I'm not complaining.

But a few things have changed.  Me, for one.  I still love pasta but I'm no longer the girl who can (though she may want to) order and plow away a big bowl of bow tie pasta with cognac cream sauce.  My eating habits have veered towards the healthier (though still hearty) direction in the last couple of years.  So I ordered barbecued baby squid on arugula (which was utterly delicious) and choose the organic whole wheat pasta with wild mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and walnuts.  I'm not sure these dishes would have appealed to me much nine years ago but it's the kind of food that entices me now.
Really good olive oil and a generous amount of garlic flavor this dish.
And so I finally make my way to this pasta.  Something old, something new. This dish was definitely not on the menu nine years ago.  Happily, it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, tasting even better than I'd hoped.  My husband readily agreed it was delicious and he is neither a huge fan of whole wheat pasta or of sun-dried tomatoes.  Nine years ago, I would not have said that I liked either of those things myself but things and people do change while some basic things stay the same. Good food is good food. And that, in turn, got me thinking about something I read over at The New York Times recently asking whether there really are foods we don't actually like or is it more a matter of food that we haven't liked yet.  It's something I've given some thought to in recent years as my taste buds and preferences have changed so much.  Just when I think I don't like a certain ingredient, I find that I was wrong because somewhere, someplace, I taste it differently and it makes me change my mind.  I really think there is a way to cook everything (or at least almost everything) to one's palate.
Please make this!  The toasted walnuts accentuate the nuttiness of the whole wheat pasta.  The mushrooms beef it up and the sun-dried tomatoes add sweetness and extra flavor.
I had such a lovely evening that night with my husband. There's nothing like sitting down to a relaxing, delicious meal and having a good chat.  It was also nice walking around the old hood and seeing all the changes while recognizing all the familiar sights at the same time.  And since eating that delicious whole wheat pasta dish, I've been thinking about how rewarding it was to try something new in familiar surroundings - mixing old and new with happy results.  

So I wanted to recreate the dish at home to celebrate that and because it was so surprisingly delicious.  I was fairly confident I could recreate it because it is fundamentally a very simple dish though with a very harmonious combination of flavors.  I could see as well as taste each ingredient separately and melded together: al-dente whole wheat pasta; really excellent olive oil; just enough garlic you taste but don't see; sun-dried tomatoes for a little chew, color and sweetness; walnuts for a lovely crunch; and as a last touch, a few pieces of basil to freshen it all up.  It is food at its best - simple and simply delicious.
Great hot and still good at room temperature, this is a good option when spring and summer eventually gets here.
Remaking this pasta at home might have been one of my smartest moves of 2013 so far!  It is that good, that satisfying!  I never would have expected myself to be touting a whole wheat, vegetarian pasta dish but the combination of flavors and textures is out of this world.  My husband devoured his share and I'll be making it often.  I really recommend this!



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