Baby Got Baklava

When I told a few people my plans for Sunday, everyone seemed worried.  “Isn’t that really hard to make?” they’d ask, referring to the baklava I said I would spend the morning making. I’d been tasked with making baklava—the Mediterranean dessert made of layered phyllo dough and nuts—for my dad’s wedding reception, to go along with the Armenian food that would be catered for the event.  Though I’d warned that I’d only made baklava one time before with not-so-great results, I welcomed the challenge, and hoped I’d have better luck and be able to positively contribute to the celebratory meal. Continue reading

Battle of the Birthday Cakes

It seems that everyone has a cake they prefer to get on their birthday, and in our family, it’s come down to two frontrunners, one a flashy store-bought treat, the other a homemade favorite. In one corner, we’ve got what we call the “choo-choo-train cake” from Baskin Robbins. Many of you might remember this cake from your childhood: chocolate cake and ice-cream (usually strawberry or vanilla flavor) rolled into a cylinder and decorated to look like a train. Large cookies form the wheels, an upside-down cone forms the smoke stack, and the rest of the details are created with large quantities of frosting. Continue reading

The Best Banana Bread

Ever since I was a kid, there have been a few people who’ve called me Anna Banana.  It’s not a nickname I mind, though I always found it funny that because my name is pronounced ah-na (the first “A” as in also vs. a short “A” as in and), it means pronouncing banana like you’re sipping a cup of tea with your pinky finger pointed up to the sky and a very serious expression on your face: buh-naw-nuh.

Maybe this helps explain my love for banana bread.  It’s so comforting and delicious, I have a hard time eating a reasonable amount in one sitting.  Because I once read the nutrition facts of this bread, I tried making a lighter version using egg whites and apple sauce—but never again—so not worth saving a few calories!

I’ve also tried versions including chopped pecans, as well as dark chocolate chips, but I think the plain version better highlights the gooey banana taste and texture.  Just be sure to use ripe bananas that are turning dark brown (the bananas in the picture at the top of this post are on their way to a banana bread in the far future, they need at least a week more of sitting on the kitchen counter top).  Here’s the original, and best recipe, and I highly recommend my new and improved spelling and pronunciation.

The slices were going quickly

“Bananna” Bread (Banana Bread)

Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book

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Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup mashed bananas (about 3 medium)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup cooking oil
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease the bottom and sides of a 8”x4”x2” loaf pan, set aside.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine all the dry ingredients (except the sugar): flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
  3. In a small mixing bowl, combine the egg, bananas, sugar, cooking oil, and lemon zest.
  4. Add the egg mixture all at once to the dry mixture, stirring to until just moistened.  The batter will be lumpy.
  5. Pour batter into loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees F for about 50-55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes before removing loaf from pan.  Can be served hot, or wrapped in aluminum foil and chilled prior to slicing and serving (if you want smooth, neat slices).

Big Fat Success: Fat Tuesday Buns

If a dish has the word “fat” in the title, you know it’s got to be good.  Granted, in the case of Fat Tuesday Buns, the reference is to Fat Tuesday, a day allocated to gluttony and overindulgence, not the bun itself, but this Swedish treat still lives up to its name.

When you bite into a Fat Tuesday Bun, you will inevitably get whipped cream everywhere.  But the messiness makes it better.  And finally, after one disastrous attempt at making this dish last week, I achieved Fat Tuesday Bun success!

The first time around, I just couldn’t get anything right.  I’m still working on perfecting my recipe, but here’s what I did, just in time for Fat Tuesday (coming up next Tuesday, March 8).

Fat Tuesday Buns, or Semlor as they’re called in Sweden, are cardamom-spiced rolls filled with whipped cream and almond paste.  As a kid, the cardamom flavor was too strong for me, so my mom and I made plain rolls and followed the rest of the recipe.  I have a feeling that as an adult, (and the much more open-minded about different flavors person I’m slowly becoming,) I would probably feel less strongly about the cardamom as I did with my young taste buds.  But considering the baking disasters of last week, I didn’t want to take too many chances.  I thought, this time, I’ll make it the plain, old way, and do more experimenting on the next go around.

I used a recipe for plain dinner rolls from my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.  I’m thinking that even the Pillsbury Crescent rolls should work well as another shortcut.  Just before putting the rolls in the oven, I brushed the tops of the buns with egg to make they would have that beautiful, golden crust on the top.  After baking and allowing to cool slightly, I cut the tops off the buns, making sure to keep the matching top with its corresponding bottom.  I scooped out the inside of the rolls, leaving a little less than ½” around the sides and bottom (think mini bread bowl).  Putting the scooped-out bread in a bowl, I moistened that with milk and combined with almond paste (you can also use marzipan, the outcome will just be sweeter).

Plain buns just out of the oven
Prepped and ready for filling

The filling went back into the hollowed-out buns, which were topped with whipped cream I sweetened with powdered sugar.  Each bun’s top was then placed atop the whipped cream, and the bun got a sprinkling of powdered sugar.  I didn’t wait long to take my first bite, but the remaining buns kept well in the refrigerator for several days. After enjoying this batch that stayed true to my memories from childhood, I’m ready to try making the more authentic cardamom version next.

One messy bite
Ready to enjoy

Browned Butter Brownies

When I saw the cover of February’s Bon Appétit, I knew the editors were speaking directly to me.  The cover of the latest issue proclaimed “Best-Ever Brownies,” with the warning: “You will eat the entire tray.”  The delicious-looking brownies exploded from the page, calling to me, and since had every ingredient I needed already at home, it was just a matter of time before I baked them.

But I spent a good week debating.  After all, with that kind of warning, I was scared.  I certainly didn’t want to eat the entire tray.  Then again, if I did, wouldn’t I only be following instructions?

I’m usually a lazy brownies-out-of-the-box kind of girl, with the exception of Blondies, which is the brown sugar version I most often make.  But the technique of the recipe reminded me of the Blondies (soon to be featured on the blog), since it started with melting the butter over the stove.  The recipes featured in the cover story were all about using unsweetened cocoa powder to make better chocolate desserts, and considering my love for dark chocolate, I had to give one a try.

I was warned that I would eat the entire tray

I cut the original recipe’s sugar down a bit, but not enough to change the consistency of the batter.  I also substituted pecan pieces for the original recipe’s walnuts, and ended up having to add 15 minutes to the original recipe’s baking time.

Browned butter brownies

Recipe adapted from the Bon Appétit recipe for Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter and Walnuts

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Ingredients

  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray
  • 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (spooned into cup to measure, then leveled)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons water
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs, chilled
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
  • 1 cup pecan pieces

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Line an 8”x8”x2” pan with aluminum foil, allowing the foil to hang over the edges of the pan by about 1 inch.  Coat the foil with non-stick cooking spray.
  2. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Stir constantly for about 5 minutes and remove from heat when butter stops foaming and small browned bits begin to form on the bottom of pan.
  3. Immediately add the sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, water and salt.
  4. Allow mixture to cool for 5 minutes.  Then add eggs, one at a time, stirring until each is combined into the batter.
  5. Add the flour and stir until combined, about 80 strokes.
  6. Add the pecan pieces, and pour into pan.
  7. Bake about 40 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out nearly clean (with only a few crumbs attached).
  8. Allow to cool in the pan, and remove by lifting the sides of the foil.  Cut into 16 squares.  Store airtight at room temperature.

Verdict: I did not eat the entire tray.  I ate three brownies; two right after the batch came out of the oven when the brownies were still warm and gooey, then one later once they had cooled (I had to make sure the final result was the correct consistency, right?)  The brownies were excellent, and now I can never go back to making brownies from a box.  They were that good.

As promised, they were the perfect blend of crispy top and fudgy center.  But the brownies were so rich and chocolatey, I don’t think I could have eaten the whole tray if I tried.  It was like my daily lunchtime dessert of one Dove dark chocolate square—satisfying, and just the right amount.  Unlike milk chocolate which just leaves me wanting more, the brownies were like the dark chocolate in that one small serving satisfied my chocolate craving.  Lucky for me (and everyone else with whom I could now share the brownie tray), I was more in danger of finishing the entire carton of milk.

Snow-Capped Macaroons and Mountains

Ever since I made the German chocolate cupcakes for our Noktoberfest party (see post Lederhosen and Lebkuchen), I’ve had an abundance of sweetened shredded coconut in my pantry. Since I’m not usually a fan of coconut and the shredded coconut isn’t a regular pantry staple at our house, I’ve been looking for something else to make with all the leftover coconut besides simply making the German chocolate cupcakes again (which was tempting since they were pretty tasty).

And then I came across these Snow-Capped Macaroons on The Bitten Word made from this Food Network Magazine recipe. The cookies looked simple and delicious, and I already had the coconut so I was ready to go.

Too much coconut

Besides, I was inspired by all the snow we were getting in the Sierras and knew it would mean even more great skiing in the days to come. Jan and I already had a few good cross-country and downhill ski days in, and with all the new snow, I knew there would be plenty more in the future. Making cookies that resembled the snowy peaks seemed like the perfect way to welcome more snow.

To make the cookies, I beat egg whites until frothy, added sugar, chopped almonds, vanilla, salt, and the shredded coconut. Atop my new favorite kitchen tool the Silpat mats, I used a tablespoon to measure out the cookie mounds. Then, after dampening my fingers with water, I formed the mounds into little cones.

I baked the cookies until they started to turn golden brown at the edges. After cooling, I used a double-boiler to make the chocolate glaze, and slowly dripped the glaze over the tops of the cookies. Lastly, I substituted the recipe’s sugar crystals for decorating, and instead used some sea salt crystals sparingly (the reason for this was twofold: I didn’t have sugar crystals and didn’t want to go to the store, and secondly, I tasted the cookie and glaze and thought adding even more sugar would make the cookie overly sweet. Thinking back to a holiday potluck I attended in which one person made surprisingly tasty bars with only Lay’s potato chips and white chocolate chips, I thought these cookies could also benefit from the salty/sweet combination. As I was experimenting, I left half the cookies plan with no salt/decoration, and did the other half topped with a few sea salt crystals. I used friends and family to taste-test the cookies side by side for the next few days, with the salt-topped cookies the clear winner over the plain ones.)

Mountains of snow!

Chewy but with a firm but flexible chocolate crust on the outside, the cookies tasted as good as they looked. Jan described them as tasting like a Mounds candy bar, so I was pleased.

The next day, I took some of the cookies in my backpack for another cross-country skiing adventure. Jan and I departed from the Tamarack Ridge Trailhead, about 10 miles north of Shaver Lake in the Sierra National Forest. Because the snow was fresh, deep and powdery, it wasn’t long before the groomed trail ended, and then after that, not even the snowmobiles could traverse the trails. So, about mid-thigh deep in snow, we made the path that looped back to the trailhead ourselves, and it was certainly a workout. But being out in the forest, hearing only the sounds of snow crunching under our ski poles, the beauty and serenity we were able to experience was worth the work. When I remembered it was time for a snack, the Snow-Capped Macaroons were just the thing to keep us going for the rest of the miles.

Skiing snack time

Snow-capped macaroons

Print recipe

Ingredients

Cookies

  • 2 large egg whites
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup sliced almond slivers
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups sweetened shredded coconut

Glaze

  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
  • 3 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Sea salt crystals, for decorating

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 F degrees.
  2. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.
  3. Lightly beat egg whites in a medium bowl until frothy. Stir in sugar, almonds, vanilla and salt, then fold in coconut.
  4. Use a tablespoon to drop batter into mounds 1 inch apart. Dampen hands with water to form into pointed mounds.
  5. Bake until edges are golden brown and the edges look dry, about 16-20 minutes.
  6. let cool 10 minutes on the baking sheets before transferring to a baking rack to cool completely.
  7. Make the glaze by using a double-boiler to melt chocolate, corn syrup and butter together.
  8. Use a spoon to drizzle the glaze over the tops of the macaroons, so that it drips down the sides in several directions.
  9. Sprinkle the tops sparingly with sea salt crystals.
  10. Refrigerate until the glaze sets, about 1 hour. Store in an airtight container up to one week. Makes 36 cookies.

Lederhosen and Lebkuchen

It only started to feel like autumn in Fresno about two weeks ago, and we’ve still got 70 degree days, so it seems only fitting to wait for fall to celebrate Oktoberfest. Since Jan and I knew our attempts at authenticity would just end up as kitschy misrepresentations, we just decided to embrace the silliness and host an Oktoberfest party in November, which we dubbed “Noktoberfest.”

The theme was completed with the perfect outfits – I went to the Halloween store the day after Halloween to score 50 percent off on a costume simply named “Gretchen.” For Jan, we found him some plaid shorts and green suspenders, to which I sewed on ribbon with a heart and flowers pattern, along with a horizontally sewn thick green ribbon to complete the Lederhosen look. And some of my good sport friends joined in the chance to get another wearing out of a former halloween costume.

Pouring Jägermeister, of course

On the menu were sauerkraut potatoes and German sausages. To round out the meal with a good dessert, I decided on German chocolate cupcakes (which I learned weren’t actually from Germany, but instead popularized by a man from England named Sam German. Since we’d already given up on any authenticity with our outfits, this discovery only seemed to fit into the theme perfectly).

Potatoes with sauerkraut, cabbage, sausage, and dark rye bread
German chocolate cupcakes

I also thought it would be fun activity to decorate our own Lebkuchen during the party, which are decorated gingerbread hearts that can be worn during Oktoberfest celebrations. (And yes, I am the nerd who printed out the Wikipedia article and placed it at the decorating table along with some StockFood.com pictures for inspiration.)

I’d never made gingerbread before, so I looked up recipes and settled on one from Paula Deen, to which I made a few modifications. Since I love the lemon flavored Swedish Anna’s Thins, I added some lemon zest to my batter to try and get a bit of that flavor. And since I wasn’t sure how they’d turn out, I did a test run of the cookie dough the weekend before, baking only about five cookies. They were great, so to save myself some time in the next week when I knew I’d be busy, I wrapped the dough in saran wrap, placed it in a zip top bag, and put it in the freezer.

The night before the party, when I was ready to make the cookies, I thawed the dough by placing in under a bowl of running water for about 20 minutes. On a heavily-floured board I used a rolling pin to roll out the cookies to about 1/8” thick. I used a heart shaped cookie cutter, and even though it was smaller than the pictures of Lebkuchen I’d seen online, I figured it would do. I took apart a Bic pen, rinsed the pen body, and used that to make two holes where the string would go in order for us to wear our cookies.

I tested out using my new Silpat silicone mat for the first time, baked the cookies for 10 minutes, and they came out perfectly, sliding off the mat with ease. After cooking on a wire rack, I set them aside for the next day.

Ready for baking
Cooling on a wire rack
Couldn't squeeze "Oktoberfest" onto a cookie, so settled for polka dots

When it came time for the party, we laid out our spread of German, English (the German Chocolate Cake Cupcakes), and Czech food. Our Czech additions were the open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky (kleb-eech-keh), which we included not only because they’re a part of every holiday celebration in our family, but the Czech Republic does share a border with Germany, so considering all the other themed items, wasn’t too far of a stretch.

Chlebicky = Czech open faced sandwiches

 

And even though I felt silly for asking my guests to decorate their own gingerbread jewelry only minutes after welcoming them into our home, it seemed that the Lebkuchen hearts were a hit. Suddenly, there was a plate of cookies with icing drying, just waiting to be worn. Later, I looked across the room to see one guest playfully (or hungrily?) taking a bite out of her date’s heart necklace. Everyone was joyful, and I had one guess to why: we had the best of both worlds, transported back to being a kid wearing candy necklaces and playing with our food, but with a cold beer in hand.

Lebkuchen hearts: inspiration and execution