Wednesday, September 30, 2009

spicy pepper jelly

When Dan and I went to New Orleans earlier this year, we noticed a particular ingredient on several restaurant menus around the city: hot pepper jelly. I didn't realize it was a trend, but it went so well with the area's hearty, fatty food, like foie gras, charcuterie, and fried rabbit livers.

My mom used to make pepper jelly. We ate it on Ritz crackers with cream cheese, a truly delectable combo. She liked to give the jars away as gifts but always kept a few for us to eat. I'm not sure what inspired her to make it in the first place (Mom, can you enlighten us in the comments?) but she loves to can and create handmade things. Her recipe called for red peppers, jalapenos, and sugar, creating a condiment with sweet, bright, back-of-your-throat heat.

Now that I'd seen it served in ways other than on a cracker, I started to think about the possibilities of pepper jelly. It would be dreamy with goat cheese, it could make a tasty condiment spread thin on a sandwich, it could lend heat and sweetness to fried chicken. Dan says he wants to make pepper jelly pappardelle, but that sounds more like smarty pants wordplay than dinner to me.

Inspired by our recent pickle-making session, we decided to tackle pepper jelly. Like pickling, making jelly is really not that hard. For a little chopping, boiling, and stirring, you're rewarded with golden jars of spicy, fruity, tangy jelly flecked with bits of peppers. Whether you decide to make a small batch and keep it in the refrigerator, or make the jam shelf-stable by preserving it, this is an easy, fun afternoon project.

Before it even really solidified, we ate several spoonfuls of the jelly, and had a taste test with a piece of Bûcheron goat cheese (on paper towels--classy!), which Dan pronounced "&@!&*%G amazing." The highest endorsement. We may even put it on the label if we go into the pepper jelly business.

I will warn you of one thing. When handling the jalapenos you should WEAR GLOVES. I know, you might not have a clean pair hanging around the house. But a quick trip to the store for a package of gloves will prevent you from having to sleep with your moisturizer-slicked mitts dangling off of the side of the bed lest you touch your (or your husband's) face or eyes. Not to mention the tingling, burning sensation that lasted for a few days. This is starting to sound like a Cialis commercial.

So, yeah. Protect your hands, please. This jelly is so delicious, it is worth the price of gloves.

Spicy Pepper Jelly
Adapted from Real Cajun by Donald Link. He says to let the pureed vinegar-pepper mixture sit in the refrigerator overnight, so plan to do that step in advance.
(Makes about 5 pint-sized jars)

2 red bell peppers

10 jalapeno peppers (we used about 8; taste your peppers to determine how hot they are)

1 1/2 cups white distilled vinegar
1 1/2 cups apple juice
1 (1 3/4 ounces) box powdered pectin powder
1/2 tsp. salt
5 cups sugar

Remove the stems and seeds from the peppers and cut into half-inch pieces. Combine the peppers with the vinegar in a blender and puree. Transfer to a 1-quart container, add the apple juice, and refrigerate overnight to develop flavor. Make sure that there are 4 cups; if not, add enough apple juice to make 4 cups. Add the pectin and salt, bring to a boil for over medium heat while stirring. Add sugar and return to a rolling boil for 1 minute while stirring. Remove from heat and skim any foam that has risen to the surface. Ladle into four hot *sterilized 8-ounce canning jars (see note), seal, and process according to the jar manufacturer's instructions. Let cool on a rack and check that the jars have sealed properly.

*Notes on sterilizing: Wash your canning jars, lids, and screw bands in hot, soapy water, then rinse them well. Use a clean towel to dry the bands. To sterilize, place the empty jars on a rack in a boiling-water canner or a deep stockpot and add enough hot water to cover them completely. Bring to a boil, then boil for 10 minutes. Similarly, heat the lids in the water until a thermometer registers 180°F (do not let boil), then remove from heat. Canning tongs will help with all of this.

Monday, September 28, 2009

what's for dinner, good. food. stories.?

Today we have a two-for-one Q&A with the ladies of Good. Food. Stories., a great new food blog. Run by writers Casey Barber (left, in photo) and Danielle Oteri, it is quickly becoming one of my favorite sites, and not only because Casey is a good friend. Good. Food. Stories. is full of helpful restaurant recommendations, useful cooking tips, must-bookmark recipes, and immensely enjoyable personal stories. It's an eclectic mix of food writing and that's part of the fun of reading it--you never know what will pop up from day to day. No matter what they are writing about, these talented women live to eat and cook and it definitely comes through on their site. Here, they share their tips and tricks for entertaining (hint: spaghetti and meatballs, Van Morrison, and homemade ice cream). Enjoy!

1. Name, occupation, and city

DO: Danielle Oteri, art historian, writer, illustrator, New York City

CB: Casey Barber, writer, cook, and cat mom, Clifton, NJ

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
DO: I had a small gathering on my birthday this past August for just 8 people. The year before I had a birthday dinner party in which all of the 25 guests showed up...and almost everyone brought someone which I had not planned for! It was fun but a little scary and kind of like cooking on a line.

CB: I cooked for 16 family friends a few weeks ago to celebrate the exterior repainting of our house - we threw four whole spice-rubbed chickens on the grill, made lots of cold salads, and served up a bunch of Dinner Party's best dips like the charred onion and spicy yogurt. [Ed: Nice!]

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
DO: My favorite was a traditional, table-side prepared Caesar salad in honor of my guest of honor named Cesar. I put the mustard, the anchovies, the beaten eggs, the salt and pepper, all in little glass ramekins and brought everything out on a big, wooden board. The ceremony of making the salad for the table became the evening's main event. I liked including the guests on the prep of part of the meal. (The salad was preceded by spaghetti and meatballs.)

CB: I wish I kept logs of all my menus over the years, but one of my favorites (and one of my simplest menus) is a grilled ribeye with homemade shoestring fries, bearnaise sauce and a good bottle of red wine. Perfect for a lazy two-person dinner.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?
DO: Oh, definitely wine. I can't handle more than a corkscrew in the midst of a dinner party. Whomever arrives first is usually who I put in charge of popping open and pouring those first glasses of wine.

CB: It depends on the situation, but we are more or less 50 percent wine, 50 percent beer in our household. And no, that is not divided by gender.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
DO: I try to put on not well known music by well-known artists. Last party I played Paul McCartney's Flowers in the Dirt, an album co-written with Elvis Costello. I also like Elton John's Songs from the West Coast, or Tori Amos' Scarlett's Walk.

CB: For Sunday morning brunch parties, I have to go with Uma Thurman in Beautiful Girls and choose Van Morrison. For outdoor cookouts, my oldies mix (everything from Sam Cooke to the Doobie Brothers to the Lovin’ Spoonful) gets a lot of rotation. And for actual dinner parties, I’ll make a playlist from a bunch of my favorite sensitive Guys With Guitars - Pete Yorn, Ben Gibbard, Mike Doughty, Rhett Miller, Howie Day, Josh Rouse....

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner tomorrow night. What do you make?
DO: The aforementioned spaghetti and meatballs. It's inexpensive, pleasing to everyone and I could make it in my sleep! You would be surprised how creative you can get with this simple dish. I once made garlic bread, toasted it, then smashed the toasts with my meat tenderizer and incorporated it into the meatballs. Plus everyone tends to assume that my spaghetti and meatballs are the best simply by virtue of my Italian background.

CB: I always try to have some homemade pasta and pasta sauce in the freezer, but should we be bereft, I would do a make-your-own-panini bar with whatever's in the fridge and our awesome Whole Foods ciabatta. (Also, my husband works nights, so could I cheat and send him out for groceries during the day?)

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?
DO: My friend Lara is the only one I'll really let COOK. Well, and Casey of course. She taught me how to make carbonara. But anyone who wants to help chop, rinse, slice bread, or prepare a salad is a friend o' mine.

CB: I do it all, baby! If you want to help, you can mix a cocktail.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?
DO: I try to keep with scratch as much as possible. Things I'll buy from the store and serve are olives, cheeses, and salami.

CB: For the most part, it’s made from scratch - my long, unwieldy motto is "why buy it when you can make it for twice the price and three times the effort?" However, you will never tear this Pittsburgh girl away from her Heinz ketchup.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert?
DO: Home-made strawberry ice cream with a drizzle of my really fancy balsamic vinegar.

CB: Usually I’ll do a tart or pie that can be made en avance and served with some homemade ice cream (always wins you brownie points and is no harder than making a custard or pudding!). And I have a weakness for lemon desserts, as anyone who knows me can attest.

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?
DO: Lucy and Ricky Ricardo

CB: I'd like to invite Jack Kerouac, but instead of eating, he'd probably just drink all my Scotch and hang out morosely in the corner with my cat Lenny in his lap. So instead I'll go with the Barenaked Ladies, who would be hilarious conversational companions and also ready to play our traditional post-dinner game of Rock Band.

[Photo: Jessica Scranton]

Friday, September 25, 2009

water, water everywhere

File this tip under "obvious yet important": when you're throwing a dinner party, don't forget to put out water.

It's easy to get caught up in the cocktails, or wine, or beer, or whatever special drinks you're serving. At our house, people usually get started on their first drink before they even sit down. But making sure there is water on hand--even if people don't want to drink it right away--is really important. Otherwise, no one will get hydrated, they'll just get crocked. And you don't want a bunch of overserved friends on your hands. Trust me.

Instead of having to keep an eye on everyone's water glass like a waitress, I just put a pitcher or carafe of water and some glasses out where everyone can see them. I like using a glass lemonade bottle, which I washed to remove the paper label. It can be resealed and adds a certain charm to the table, even though it's just an old bottle, otherwise destined for the recycling bin. (This bottle also works really well for transporting drinks to other people's parties or for picnics.)

Totally a no-brainer but something I often forget myself!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

lemon bars, and a little history

For our Southern dinner, I went with a dessert that's probably not all that Southern. Lemon bars strike me as a product of the Midwest, like casseroles and Jell-O salads. That is not to say that they aren't delicious. Lemon bars are one of my favorite desserts of all time.

My Nanny always used to make these for family dinners, but from a box mix. Also good, but lemon bars can be improved considerably if you make them from scratch. I think lemon desserts need fresh lemon juice and zest to really shine. And really, it's not that much more work to go the handmade route.

I like the recipe in Joy of Cooking for lemon bars Cockaigne. I never knew what this word "Cockaigne" meant or why it was used in certain random recipe titles in Joy, like another one for brownies. The lemon bars were so good, I didn't really care. But kind of weird, right?

Turns out, it is actually a secret code for some of the best recipes in the cookbook. Cockaigne is a medieval word for "land of plenty," where no one works and has every sort of luxury and pleasure imaginable. Over time, it turned into a fictional utopia, like Atlantis, referenced by poets and even the Brothers Grimm.

Tying it back to lemon bars, Marion Rombauer Becker, daughter of the original Joy of Cooking author Irma S. Rombauer, had a country home in Ohio that was named Cockaigne. Many Joy recipes are coded with the word, referencing the place they came from but also that they were personal favorites of the author. There are recipes for brownies, Cincinnati chili, fruitcake, meatloaf, almond torte, and creamed eggs and asparagus Cockaigne, among others. If you see this word, chances are the recipe is worth trying.

This lemon bar recipe is my go-to because it's supremely easy (no mixer required!) and always works. In a little over an hour, you get a pan of perfectly tart bars with a gooey, lemon curd-like filling and slightly sweet shortbread crust. There's also a nice ratio of filling to crust. I like extra filling you can really sink your teeth into.

And who knew the story was so good too?

Lemon bars Cockaigne
Adapted from
The Joy of Cooking
(Makes about 18 3-inch by 2-inch squares)

For the crust:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
pinch salt
12 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

For the filling:
6 large eggs

3 cups sugar

zest of 1 lemon
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
(about 5 lemons)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting

Sift the flour, sugar, and salt into a large bowl. Using two knives or your fingertips (recommended) cut in the butter until the mixture is the size of small peas. Press the mixture into the bottom of a 9" by 13" baking pan, and about 3/4" up the sides of the pan to keep the filling from leaking during baking.

Bake at 325 degrees for about 20 to 30 minutes, until golden brown.
Set aside to cool.

To make the filling (you can do this as you are baking the crust),
whisk eggs and sugar together until well combined. Add the zest and juice; whisk well. Sift the flour over the top and stir until well blended. Pour filling over the cooled crust. Bake until set, about 30 to 35 minutes. (They should be slightly jiggly.) Let the pan cool completely before cutting into bars. Dust with confectioner's sugar, if desired.

Monday, September 21, 2009

southern comfort

I love Southern food. Barbecue, collard greens, fried chicken, fruit pies, shrimp and grits--I love it all. So why don't I make this kind of stuff more often? That's a good question. Southern fare is perfect for dinner parties; it's homey, comforting, happy-making food.

I've made all sorts of dishes for dinner parties--risottos, roasted pork loin, short ribs--but there's a certain level of excitement when you tell people they'll be eating macaroni and cheese. And the perfect time to indulge in some mac and cheese is when you have a few other people to help you eat it.

A few Saturdays ago, our friends Colin, Anne, and Chris joined us for dinner. I debated a lot over which direction to take this meal. I considered making fried chicken, but worried it would be too messy. Chicken-fried steak? No. Some sort of homey casserole? Nah. And then I thought about macaroni and cheese, something I could cook while everyone ate some appetizers, something I hardly ever make. And then the rest of the meal fell in place. Sauteed kale and black eyed peas with bacon would provide a nice vegetable counterpart to the cheesy pasta. A simple tomato salad would also be a nice seasonal side. We'd have deviled eggs to start and a fried chicken liver crostini I'd had my eye on for awhile.

And you know what? This menu was really, really good. It was filling, but not a total gut bomb. It was highly caloric, but the cheese and fried livers and eggs were slightly countered with fresh vegetables. In my mind, successful meals are all about harmony and balance.

Sure, this isn't something I'd make every night--my cholesterol is already high enough. But if you're looking for an inexpensive menu that will definitely make everyone full and happy, break out the mac and cheese. And bacon. And uh, deviled eggs.

Between his new album and amazing 9-11 concert, Dan and I have been on a Jay-Z kick lately. So we all listened to some Hova as we ate, which led to a discussion about rap music, and homophobia and misogyny in the music industry. Let me tell you, Kanye West is a polarizing figure, even before his latest kerfuffle at the VMAs. All serious stuff, until I threw a diamond sign during "Death of Autotune" and knocked over my plate, macaroni bits scattering all over the rug. It was the sort of slow-motion spill that stopped conversation and held everyone's attention for what felt like minutes.

And then we laughed and had more beers and lemon bars. Knocking food on the floor always seems to lighten the mood.

Southern supper for five
Deviled eggs
Fried chicken livers with pepper jelly on toast
Macaroni and cheese
Kale and black eyed peas with bacon
Tomato salad
Lemon bars

Easy baked macaroni and cheese
From The New York Times, via Smitten Kitchen. I followed this recipe pretty closely, save for replacing a cup of milk with a cup of buttermilk, just because I had some on hand. It was pretty subtle, but I think it added a little extra tang and richness. This recipe really was easy, as promised.
(Serves 6 to 8)

2 Tbsp. butter
1 cup cottage cheese (not low fat)
2 cups whole or 2 % milk (or, 1 cup milk, 1 cup buttermilk)
1 tsp. dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 lb. sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 lb. elbow pasta, uncooked.

Heat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use one tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch round or square baking pan.

In a blender, purée cottage cheese, 1 cup milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together until smooth. Add in the second cup of milk (or buttermilk) and blend until combined. Reserve 1/4 cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

Kale and black eyed peas with bacon
If you don't like kale, you could use any leafy green like chard, or of course, collards. You could also omit the bacon, but it lends a nice smokiness (as well as a nice porkiness).
(serves 6 to 8)

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 jalapeno, minced
6 strips bacon, cut into small pieces (about 1/4-inch)
2 large heads of kale, washed and leaves removed from the stems
1 cup of water
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
salt and pepper to taste

In a large stockpot, heat your oil over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the onion and saute until it softens, but before it turns brown. Add the garlic and jalapeno, and saute for a minute more. Add the bacon and saute until it browns. Add the kale and the water, stirring as much as possible to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pot, stirring occasionally to help the kale wilt. After the kale is wilted and cooked down, add the vinegar and the beans. Keep cooking on low heat until the kale is tender, about 10 to 15 minutes more. Add salt and pepper to taste and more vinegar if needed.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Tomato season is almost over and I am looking for any excuse to buy and eat them. I've been slicing them into salads with watermelon and feta, roasting them for pasta sauces, layering them on pizzas.

One of my friends who shall remain nameless (Oh, okay. His name is Colin. Colin P. Delaney. He lives in Greenpoint.) says he's been eating a whole tomato with olive oil, salt, and pepper for breakfast in the morning. Even as a fellow tomato-lover this strikes me as being a little insane. But who am I to judge?

Here are some tomato-centric links to inspire Colin and the rest of us:

The "best" BLT (with tomatoes, burrata, and crispy pancetta) [via Bon Appetit's Project Recipe]

A simple salad with fresh corn and basil [via Lottie & Doof]

Creamy heirloom tomato soup (with grilled cheese...mmm) [via Bella Eats]

Smitten Kitchen uses tomatoes in a cornbread salad, a clever twist on panzanella. [via Smitten Kitchen]

If you're lucky enough to get your hands on Green Zebra tomatoes, an heirloom variety, here's a recipe for a Green Zebra gazpacho (I'm sure it would work well with unripe red tomatoes or regular beefsteaks, too.) [via Food & Wine]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

a lazy (and delicious) alternative to pancakes

I love a stack of pancakes for brunch but they are not the easiest thing to make for a crowd. Between flipping the pancakes, keeping them warm, and making sure you have enough to feed everyone, I find the whole process kind of stressful, especially first thing in the morning. And don't even get me started on waffles. Breakfast at home shouldn't require a separate appliance.

When making brunch for myself and Dan last weekend, I think I found a solution: the Dutch baby. It's like a cross between a pancake and a crepe, with puffed golden pockets and crispy, buttery edges. To make it, you mix up a quick batter and pour it into an overproof pan (cast-iron skillets work great for this) then bake for about 15 minutes. The Dutch baby emerges from the oven puffed and golden. All you have to do is slice it up and serve--no flipping required. Served up with some brunch-y sides, it makes a perfect centerpiece. Or, you could make several Dutch babies at the same time if you're hosting brunch for a few people.

To gild the lily, I had some plums that were starting to go soft, so I cut them up and placed them in the batter after I poured it into the pan. Wanting a little more texture, I sprinkled a handful of sliced almonds on top as well. The end result was deliciously jammy with a nice crunch from the toasted almonds.

The only problem is the name, which Dan hates, and refuses to say. I have to agree...who wants to eat a baby? I'm sure there's a good story behind the name, which I can't seem to find. Can anyone out there help me out? When I Googled "Dutch baby name" all I got was Ared, Klaas, Marieke, and Joost. Maybe I'll just call it a puffy pancake next time?

Plum Dutch baby
Adapted from the Joy of Cooking. You can easily omit the almonds and substitute any fruit you have on hand. I think berries, apples, peaches, pears, or even bananas would work just as well.
(Serves 2 to 4)

4 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
6 small plums, quartered and pitted (Or 1 large plum)
1/3 cup sliced almonds
powdered sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Whisk together the milk, flour, sugar, and eggs until smooth. In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet (cast iron is ideal), melt the butter over medium heat. Tilt the pan so that the butter coats the sides. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet and cook, without stirring, for 1 minute. Place the plum slices in the batter, distributing them evenly throughout the skillet. Sprinkle the almonds on top. Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the pancake is puffed and golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve immediately, for the pancake loses its puff, and therefore its drama, almost immediately. (I love that line.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

what's for dinner, melissa clark?

I discovered food writer Melissa Clark through A Good Appetite, her weekly column in The New York Times dining section. Here, she concocts things to eat and drink based on what's in season, random cravings, inspiration from friends and family, or whatever's hanging out in her fridge. Like us home cooks, she tends to add a little of this, a little of that, and taste as she goes, producing recipes that are developed and written in a charmingly meandering way. In addition to writing for the Times, she's contributed articles to publications including Food & Wine and Bon Appetit and has written 18 cookbooks, among them Braise, a collection of recipes with chef Daniel Boulud and The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, which received a James Beard award and Julia Child Cookbook award. Her next book, Adventures of A Good Appetite, which is based on her Times column, will be out next year. I, for one, can't wait to read it.

1. Name, occupation, and city

Melissa Clark, food writer, NYC

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
July 13th, we had four friends over for grilled steak and we ate in the garden, covered in mosquito repellent but enjoying the fresh air nonetheless.

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
Smoked salmon blinis, champagne, pomegranate roasted quail, farro salad, baked Alaska for dessert with homemade pistachio ice cream.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?
All of the above.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
My husband is in change of music, but I like big band music for dinner parties.

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner tomorrow night. What do you make?
Grilled clams with lemon-cayenne garlic butter, my current obsession, served with homemade flatbread and a big salad with tiny green beans and cherry tomatoes. Almond gelato for dessert.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help? Usually I cook and my husband chops.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?
Usually most things are homemade but I don't mind buying stuff as long as it's high quality.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert? Homemade pie is the best when I can manage it. No one turns it down, there's always room for pie.

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?
Sally Hemings

[Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Clark]

Thursday, September 10, 2009

chocolate-chip banana bread

Chocolate-chip banana bread. What more do you need to say?

Having a surplus of overripe bananas in the freezer (a funny thing happens when you leave bananas in a hot apartment) I was overdue to bake a loaf of banana bread. So when our Governor's Island picnic rolled around, I figured that was a good excuse to turn on the oven and free up some freezer space.

I'd been hearing good things across the blogosphere about an incredibly delicious chocolate-ginger banana bread from Molly Wizenberg's A Handmade Life. I still haven't read the book, but I'm a huge fan of her blog and it's high on my long "to-read" list.

Like pizza, ice cream, and a lot of other hard-to-screw-up foods, banana bread is usually pretty good in my book. But this bread totally lived up to the hype. Molly's version is properly buttery and perfectly dense, but the addition of chocolate and extra moisture from plain yogurt put it over the top. We ate about half of the loaf at the picnic and I have steadily been making progress on the rest. It's ideal for pre-and post-gym snacks, mid-day nibbling, emotional eating, late-night dessert cravings, and any other excuse you might make to eat it.

Chocolate-chip banana bread
Molly's recipe (via Wednesday Chef) calls for crystallized ginger, but I didn't have any and didn't want to buy a whole container. If you'd like banana bread with little bits of spice, Molly recommends adding
1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger at the same time as the chocolate chips.
(Makes 1 loaf)

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 large eggs
3 large ripe bananas, mashed (I used 4 bananas)
1/4 cup well-stirred whole-milk plain yogurt (not low or nonfat)
1 tsp. vanilla extract (I used the seeds from 1/2 a vanilla bean)

Set a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan or an 8-inch round cake pan with cooking spray or butter. Melt the butter on the stove or in a microwave and set aside to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the chocolate chips (and crystallized ginger, if using) and whisk well to combine. Set aside. In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the mashed banana, yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla and stir to mix well. Pour the banana mixture into the dry ingredients, and stir gently with a rubber spatula, scraping down the sides as needed, until just combined. Do not overmix. The batter with be thick and somewhat lumpy, just make sure all the flour has been incorporated. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top.

Bake into the loaf is a deep shade of golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 mins to an hour. If the loaf seems to be browning too quickly, tent with foil. Cool the loaf in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Then tip out onto the rack, and let it cool completely before slicing. (The loaf freezes well wrapped in plastic wrap and again in foil to protect from freezer burn.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

a labor-free picnic

Fall is right behind us, I can almost feel it. The humidity has disappeared, the sun is going down a little earlier, the breeze is slightly cooler. It's been a fun, busy, jam-packed summer (with lots of dinners), but I dread packing up my flip flops.

Looking to soak up every last bit of the season and the sunshine, Dan and I joined our friends Colin and Anne for a trip to Governor's Island, a small land mass situated between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Dan and I went there for a picnic last summer, and had such a good time that we had to go back. The island's huge shade trees, old buildings, and lack of cars make you feel miles away from the city, even though you're just a 10-minute ferry ride away.

We found an empty picnic table overlooking the water and set out our bounty: cheese, baguettes, hummus, plums and figs, olives, prosciutto, and chocolate-chip banana bread. We wanted to keep things simple. When the view and company are so great, it doesn't matter so much what's for lunch. Although this was a pretty tasty lunch.

We ate and talked in the shade, swatted wasps, drank lemonade, watched the boats pass by. Living in a city and spending most days indoors makes me feel so happy just to be outside, especially on such a gloriously sunny day.

Another great thing about Governor's Island is there is a free, man-made beach complete with sand and a volleyball net. Not to mention a bar, where you can buy beers and French fries, which we did, duh.

A picnic is nothing groundbreaking, I know. Just put some food in a bag and eat it outside, right? Right. Simple as it was, this was one of those days I will remember when the weather finally does turn. When it's cold and gray and summer seems so far off, I'll remember sitting at a picnic table on an island, eating plums and feeling the sun on my face.

Friday, September 4, 2009

happy weekend

Apologies for the lack of posts this week, it's been a busy one. Have a great weekend and a fun Labor Day if you're in the U.S.! I'm planning on spending some much-needed time outdoors.

More posts to come next week.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

cupcakes in the country

Last weekend, Dan and I found ourselves driving on Virginia's Pocahontas Parkway. We were lost, but not so lost that we were outright admitting it. Instead, we cursed our Google map, the pickup trucks bearing down on us, and the lack of visible road signs pointing out our destination, our friend Megan's wedding. The side of the road blurred green as we sped along, no signs, no stores, just a few houses spread out along the highway here and there. Our frustrations turned to the residents of whatever town we were passing through. What do people do here? How can you live way out here in the sticks? Where is the 24-hour Korean deli? Where can you get good cup of coffee? We felt about as far away from Brooklyn as we could get.

Fully accepting that we were lost, we eventually found a gas station and some helpful locals who told us to turn the car around and drive a short spell up a hill. We weren't that far away after all. We quickly thanked them and hopped back in the rental car. I didn't have time to ask them what they did for fun, as the wedding was about to start any minute. After a few harried turns down a winding residential road, we rounded a corner and came upon what appeared to be a county fair, and saw Megan walking down a hill on the arm of her father. At that point, we started running. Me, in heels, down a gravel path.

I've been to quite a few weddings, including my own. Each one is completely unique, a reflection of a couple, their taste, their faith (or lack of), and their families' expectations. There is also food, which is equally revealing. When Dan and I got married in South Florida, we wanted food that reflected the area and the Cuban restaurant where we re-met. There were mini Cuban sandwiches, marinated pork loin, and margaritas. Fried plantains and black beans and rice. Miniature Key lime pies and chocolate cupcakes. I took more care and interest in planning the menu than choosing my dress, or the flowers. In my eyes, my wedding was the biggest dinner party I had ever thrown. Even though I wasn't doing the cooking.

Megan and Butch's wedding was an old-fashioned hoe-down in a pasture, obviously inspired by the area. They hired a bluegrass band, set up a music station complete with jugs and washboards, and draped red, white, and blue banners around the fenced-in area. I sat on a bale of hay, which is something you don't see very often. Or, ever. Hence the photo.

Dinner was just as thoughtfully planned. A local restaurant made a Southern-style buffet of pulled pork sandwiches, chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and hush puppies. And, happily, a lot of barbecue sauce options. I love barbecue sauce. Everyone lined up and loaded down their plates, eating at picnic tables and homemade checkerboards as the sun went down. The food was very good--homey and filling, especially the mac and cheese. Eating outside with a plate on your lap always tends to make food taste better.

But my favorite part of the menu came later. On a long table, there were dozens of cupcakes made by Megan herself. There were so many that they filled the entire table, tray after tray of hand-frosted lemon and vanilla. How she found time to bake hundreds of cupcakes days before her wedding (and go canoeing, and introduce her parents to her in-laws, and set up a music-making station, and get her nails done, and probably remind Butch of a dozen odd things he had to do, the list goes on and on) is beyond me.

Megan is a great cook and baker, and the cupcakes were absolutely perfect--all soft, airy cake and sweet buttercream. I took my time eating one, not my usual way of eating cupcakes, but I wanted to really enjoy it. I wanted to savor it all, really. Being in the middle of nowhere, seeing my friend all dressed up and kicking her heels to the band, dancing under the stars with strangers and old friends.

Amy Sedaris' cupcakes
Megan said she used a recipe from Amy Sedaris, author of the awesome I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. The story goes that Amy started selling cupcakes to pay for food and supplies for her rabbit, Tattletail. The cupcakes became so popular at New York City bakeries that she expanded into cupcake (and cheese ball) catering with Dusty Food Cupcakes, a company named after her second rabbit, Dusty. If you know anything about Amy Sedaris this won't sound strange at all. Some of the cupcakes were vanilla, others were lemon with bits of lemon zest in the frosting. To get the lemon flavor, I'd estimate using the juice of one lemon in the batter, reserve the zest for the frosting.
(Makes about 2 dozen...or 18, if you are Amy.)

For the cupcakes:
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 ¾ cups sugar

2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. salt
2 ½ tsp. baking powder
2 ½ cups of flour
1 ¼ cups of milk

Beat the butter and sugar, then add the other ingredients. Beat well, fill cups, and bake at 375 degrees for 18-20 minutes. You should get 24. I get 18, 'cause I'm doing something wrong.

1 stick unsalted butter
1 box Domino confectionary sugar
¼ cup half-and-half
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Whip for a while, color if you want.


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