August 29, 2010

Banana Bread Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Do you want to know a secret about banana bread? It's cake. The same thing applies to all those other tasty, sweet breakfast baked goods: pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, blueberry muffins, etc. Not that we have any objection to eating cake for breakfast. It's kind of funny, though, that in the general realm of acknowledged breakfast foods, these types of cakes are totally acceptable; you can even throw a glaze on (cinnamon rolls) or a "streusel topping" (a.k.a. butter, sugar, and flour) and still call it breakfast. But once you put frosting on, the item in question loses its tenuous breakfast status and becomes dessert.

When our friend Hannah asked us to make us a cake for her 30th birthday party (not chocolate, she said), we at first thought about carrot cake, because we love carrot cake, and we also love cream cheese frosting. But then we got to thinking about banana bread, which is one of our favorite breakfast desserts, and realized that if we call it a "cake" we could go all out - no holding back on sweet deliciousness because our dessert was masquerading as a breakfast item. We could put on streusel. AND cream cheese frosting. So we pulled out our favorite banana bread recipe, opened up a banana cupcake recipe, got out a classic coffee cake recipe, and readied the cream cheese frosting recipe. The plan: two layers of banana cake with streusel in the middle of each, topped off with cream cheese frosting.

We used a banana bread recipe from the Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, via Gourmet, and a recipe for "Banana Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Buttercream" from The Craft of Baking for inspiration for the cake. The streusel topping comes from our favorite coffee cake, Ashkenazic Sour Cream Coffee Cake from Gil Marks' The World of Jewish Desserts (which we discovered on Epicurious).

Banana Bread Cake
makes 2 9 inch layers

- 1 and 1/2 cups brown sugar
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 4 very ripe bananas, mashed with a fork
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 and 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 1 and 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg

Streusel topping
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and lightly flour two nine inch cake pans.
To make the cake, beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric mixer at medium high speed until the mixture thickens. When you lift a beater and drip a bit of the mixture down, it should form a ribbon and sit on top of the mixture for a couple of seconds before sinking back in (10 - 15 minutes). Meanwhile, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium sized bowl.

When the egg mixture is ready, pour in the oil in a slow stream. Beat in the buttermilk, vanilla, and bananas. Then add the flour mixture in two parts, beating until well combined.
To make the streusel, put all the ingredients in a medium sized bowl and, using your fingers or a pastry cutter, smash everything together until you get coarse crumbs.
Cover the bottom of each cake pan with batter, using about a quarter of the batter in each. Pour half the streusel over the batter in each pan, then pour on the remaining batter, dividing it between the two cakes.
Put the cakes in the preheated oven and bake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35 - 40 minutes. Let the cakes cool for a couple of minutes before turning them out onto cooling racks; let cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appetit
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 8 oz package of cream cheese
- 2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract

Sift the confectioners' sugar. Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth. Add the vanilla extract and blend. Add the sifted sugar in three parts, blending until smooth (you will need to pause occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula). Refrigerate the frosting for 2 - 3 hours before spreading using (it will thicken in the refrigerator).
Spread icing on top of one layer of the cake, stack on the second layer, and ice the top and sides.

August 27, 2010

Middle Eastern Meatballs with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Israeli Couscous

I work at a French bilingual school during the school year, and one of the big advantages (and dangers) of this job is that there is always great food around. The preschool and kindergarten kids have freshly baked baguettes with jam for snack once a week. There was once a near uprising at our January faculty meeting when the teachers found out that there was to be no galette des rois (the usual baker was unavailable). Once a month, the school board meets, and I really have no idea what goes on at these meetings - but I do know that they eat well, because the next day, leftovers appear on the table in the teachers' room. On one of these glorious days, I discovered a bowl of some large round grain looking things, and some meatballs in tomato sauce, and together, they were glorious.

This unexpected bounty stuck in my mind for quite a while. First of all, what was the mysterious large round grain that tasted a lot like pasta? Turns out it was Israeli couscous - one of those things that we should have been eating all along. I started to fantasize about some beautiful meatballs with middle eastern seasonings, served with a spicy tomato sauce over these newfound pearls of deliciousness, topped up with a cool, minty, tangy yogurt sauce. I told Michael about my vision and, with some inspiration from the Eggplant Wrapped Moussaka recipe from The New Basics Cookbook, this is what we came up with. We had ours with a side of swiss chard, sauteed in the drippings of the meatballs.

Middle Eastern Meatballs with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Israeli Couscous (serves 2)

Spicy Tomato Sauce
- 1 lb heirloom tomatoes, or 1/2 can peeled whole tomatoes
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 small shallot, chopped
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- Salt and pepper to taste

If you are using fresh tomatoes, you can easily peel them by bringing enough water to completely cover the tomatoes to a boil. After cutting off the tops of the tomatoes, put them in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let them sit for about a minute, then drain the hot water and pour cold water over the tomatoes. After a minute, drain the tomatoes, and you will be able to easily peel them with your fingers. Squeeze out the seeds and coarsely chop the tomatoes (chopping applies to canned tomatoes too).
In a medium sized skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook until soft. Add the tomatoes and seasoning. When the sauce begins to boil, turn it down to a simmer and let it cook until some of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce has thickened (about 20 minutes).

Middle Eastern Meatballs
- 2/3 lb ground beef, lamb, or a combination of the two
- 1/4 cup toasted breadcrumbs
- 1 tsp olive oil, plus extra for cooking
- 1/2 of a medium-sized onion, chopped
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ginger
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 egg white
- 1 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
- 1 tbsp chopped mint

To make breadcrumbs: put the bread in a food processor and pulse until you get fine crumbs. Heat some olive oil in a skillet to medium high heat and, when the oil is hot, add the crumbs. Cook, stirring frequently, until the crumbs turn brown (5-8 minutes).
Put all the ingredients in a medium sized bowl. Mix with your hands until well blended. Then form the mixture into meatballs, about an inch and a half in diameter.
Heat a little bit of olive oil in a large skillet over medium to medium high heat. Add the meatballs and cook, turning frequently, until nice and brown on the outside (about 10 minutes). When they're finished, add them to the tomato sauce and let them simmer together for a few minutes.

Israeli Couscous
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1/2 of a small onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup Israeli couscous
- 3/4 cup vegetable stock

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan and add the onion. When the onion is soft, add the couscous and stir. Add the stock, bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to low. Let the couscous simmer, covered, until the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender (about 10 minutes).

Minted Yogurt Sauce
- 1/3 cup plain greek style yogurt (whole milk or 2%)
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh mint
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Salt and black pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients in a small bowl.

Here you go - basically a Middle Eastern variation of spaghetti and meatballs (kefta is actually the word for a spiced ground meat dish found in many Middle Eastern countries)!

August 25, 2010

Spiced Lamb Burgers

Remember from the Mujadara post that we had a BBQ party with lamb burgers on account of getting a new grill? Well a week before the party, we had to test out the new grill to, you know, make sure it worked. Well, it worked very well, and produced some of the best burgers we've ever had. So this post is going explain how to make some super easy and amazing lamb burgers. We served them with caramelized onions, pepper jack cheese, and smoked paprika aioli.

Lamb burgers with caramelized onions and smoked paprika aioli
- 1 pound of ground lamb meat
- 2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp zatar
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 small onion
- 1/4 cup of mayonnaise
- Pepper jack cheese (or any cheese of your liking)
- 3 good buns

Prepare the meat
In a medium bowl, mix the ground lamb with 1 tsp of the smoked paprika, the zatar, cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper. Cover and chill until ready for grilling.

Caramelize the onions
Cut the onions in half width-wise, then slice into thin slices. Heat some olive oil in the pan and, when it's hot, add the onions. Cook over medium heat. Add a pinch salt and pepper. The onions will begin to turn brown; keep stirring them.

When the pan is dry and the onions begin to stick, deglaze the pan with a splash of water or white wine (use the wine to scrape up the flavorful bits that are sticking to the pan and mix them back in with the onions). Keep doing this until your onions are nice, soft, and deep golden (it usually takes us about a half hour).

Make the aioli
Aioli is just fancy mayonnaise. All we did was take the mayo, and mix in the remaining 1 tsp of smoked papika.
Grill it up
This part is pretty simple, you probably don't even need to read this, but: Turn on grill. Divide meat up into three discs, and place on hot grill. Flip after 3 - 5 minutes, or however well done you like your meat.
Halfway through cooking the second side of the burgers, put the cheese on so it gets all nice and melted, and place cut burger buns on the edges of the grill so they get some nice grill marks. When the burgers are cooked, apply aioli to the buns, top the burger with caramelized onions, and serve.

August 24, 2010

Black Bean Cakes

How often are your expectations not just met, but actually exceeded-especially when it comes to food? Maybe we're a little too dependent on technology (as the New York Times has recently been telling us, frequently), but there's no denying the advantages of our friends Yelp and iPhone, which let us check out the menu and read reviews of just about any place we might go before we eat there. So we usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect - either we're going to have a great meal or we're on the road and have to suck it up and eat whatever is there.

However, there are those rare occasions when we have been pleasantly surprised, which is exactly what happened to us at our honeymoon in Costa Rica. We stayed at the wonderful Lapa Rios Ecolodge, which we chose because we wanted to see the animals and plants in the rainforest, and because they had an excellent sustainability rating. But the food? This is unusual for us, since many of our trips are actually planned around meals, but we hadn't given it too much thought. So we were delighted to discover incredible breakfasts of pastries filled with fresh guava jelly, tasty arroz con pollo for lunch, and among many tasty dinners, some fantastic black bean cakes - perfectly seasoned, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside.

When we came back we were determined to recreate them, and after perusing various recipes and trying out a few things, this is what we came up with. We like to eat ours with guacamole and sour cream on top and a side of Mexican rice, but these could be enjoyed all sorts of ways - topped with sauteed summer vegetables, any number of salsas, or with a slice of pepper jack cheese on a bun - once I chopped up one leftover cake and put it into a pita with some tomato, cucumber, and hummus, falafel-style. And guess what - if you leave out the sour cream, this meal is actually completely vegan.

Black Bean Cakes (serves 3)
- 1 ear of corn, removed from cob (you can leave this out if corn isn't in season, or just use frozen corn)
- 1 can black beans, drained
- 1/2 of a small onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 egg white
- Juice of 1/2 of a small lime
- 1/2 cup cilantro loosely packed
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup flour plus 1 cup for breading
- Vegetable oil

First, dry roast the corn by cooking it in a dry pan over medium high heat until it starts to turn golden on the outside (about 8-10 minutes). No oil is necessary.
Mix the cumin, chili powder, cayenne, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Put half of the beans in a food processor with the onion, garlic, and cilantro, and blend until smooth. Add the egg white, cilantro, lime juice, and half the spice mixture and pulse.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the corn and the reserved beans and mix. Add 1/2 cup of flour, 1/4 cup at a time (using more or less if necessary), and stir together until the texture is thicker but still sticky (the consistency of soft cookie dough).
On a paper plate or other working surface, mix together the remaining 1 cup of flour with the rest of the spice mixture. Put some vegetable oil in a frying pan (enough to thinly coat the bottom of the pan) over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, scoop out about 1/4 cup of the bean mixture at a time and dredge with flour. Pat it into a flat disk and place gently in the frying pan. Add the rest of bean cakes (you may have to do two batches; we usually get 6 cakes) and cook for 3 - 5 minutes per side, until the cakes are nicely crisped and brown. Lay them on paper towels to drain.
Mexican Rice
- 1 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
- 2 tbsp finely chopped onion
- 2 tbsp finely chopped red bell pepper
- 2 tbsp finely chopped celery
- 1 clove finely chopped garlic
- 2/3 cup long grain white rice
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tbsp chopped tomato (fresh or canned)
- 1 and 1/3 cups vegetable stock
- Salt and black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion, pepper, celery, and garlic, and cook until soft. Add in the rice, spices, salt, and pepper, and stir until the rice is coated. Pour in the vegetable stock and the tomato, stir, and bring the mixture to a boil. Once it is boiling, reduce heat to low and cover. The rice is done when the water is absorbed and rice is tender (about 25 minutes).

This is an ideal version of the recipe, but we often make it with whatever aromatic vegetables we happen to have around - so don't sweat it if you don't have celery or red pepper on hand, and feel free to throw in a carrot or a green bell pepper if that's what you have.

(we firmly believe that packaged guacamole, and bad guacamole in general, is a crime against humanity, considering how easy it is to make great guacamole)
- 2 medium avocados
- 1 small tomato, chopped
- 1 small jalapeno, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp shallot, finely chopped
- Juice of 1 small lime
- Salt to taste
Halve the avocado and remove the pit. Scoop the flesh out and put it into a bowl. Gently mash the avocado with a fork, leaving some large chunks. Add the tomato, jalapeno, shallot, lime juice, and salt, and stir until incorporated, making sure not to over stir, which would make the guac too thin and slimy. Guac should be thick enough to make a thin tortilla chip snap when attempting to scoop it up.

August 22, 2010

Spaghetti with Garlic, Parmesan, and Egg

Here it is Sunday night again - and as we've mentioned, we like to make a simple, unplanned meal with whatever we find in the fridge and the pantry for Sunday dinner. We've been away for the past week, traveling and hiking in New Mexico and Colorado with my dad, so today is our return to the kitchen and home cooked meals, which makes us especially desirous of something simple and delicious. We had a fantastic time wandering through archaeological sites at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde and hiking around the San Juan mountains, and we enjoyed the fact that nearly everything we ate - including the sandwiches we picked up to take hiking - included green chiles. But at a certain point, you do get a little tired of eating sandwiches smushed from being in a backpack all day for lunch and buffalo burgers for dinner (especially when the establishments serving said burgers also feature stuffed relatives of the burger staring down at you from the wall), and are ready to have control over what you eat.

Anyway, it's Sunday, we're home, and we made a dish that has been one of our long standing favorites. It's very similar to a Pasta alla Carbonara, but with no meat - here the garlic provides the flavor rather than bacon or pancetta, while the egg and parmesan coat the spaghetti with a savory sauce with an almost creamy texture. We like the freshness that the parsley adds, and of course you can't go wrong with some delicious, sweet cherry tomatoes on top.
Since tomatoes are finally in full season, we had a caprese salad to go with it. Before we get into the recipe, however, these two dishes give us an opportunity to get two culinary pet peeves off our chests:
1. Spaghetti alla carbonara does not need cream! Really - even Mario Batali agrees.
2. Caprese salad does not need balsamic vinegar! All you need is fresh mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, a little basil, olive oil, salt, and black pepper.

Spaghetti with garlic, parmesan, and egg (serves 2)
- 6 ounces spaghetti (or however much suits your appetite)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves chopped garlic
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
- Salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
Cook the spaghetti and, when you drain it, reserve about 1/4 cup of the water. As the spaghetti is cooking, heat some olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and cook until it softens. Add the cooked spaghetti to the skillet, then add the egg. Let the egg begin to cook a little bit on the hot pasta itself before stirring it in.
Add the cheese, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes (be careful with those red pepper flakes - my hand slipped on this once and resulted in a rather teary dinner), and when the egg is fully cooked, add the cheese and reserved pasta water. Give the mixture a good stir, letting the egg, cheese, and water coat the noodles. Serve, topping with the parsley and the tomatoes, if you desire.

August 11, 2010

Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies

I teach in an intensive English program for international students at UC Berkeley during the summer. The students are college students and recent grads from all over the world - mostly Taiwan, Korea, China, with a few from Russia, France, and other European countries. The students, unfortunately, do not have a very good impression of American food, and the campus eateries and greasy places around Telegraph Avenue don't help much. I feel that it is my patriotic duty to introduce them to at least one delicious American food. And I can proudly say that Americans excel in baked goods. Of course the French are masters, and I give them full credit for the beautiful things they do with butter and flour, but here in the U.S. - we created cookies. And brownies. And any number of combinations of fruit, butter, sugar, and flour - buckle, muffins, crisps, and pies. So every year, I bake up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and feel that in addition to having taught my students about labiodental fricatives (pronunciation) and the language of negotiation (business speaking) I have also introduced them to one of the best parts of American cuisine.

Chocolate chip cookies are, of course, nothing new or creative in the baking scene or in the food blog scene, but these - these take things up a notch with the addition of homemade toffee. My mom used to make chocolate chip cookies with Heath Bar bits 'o brickle (yes, it's officially spelled like that, with the apostrophe before the o. It feels wrong to me, but I'm going to go with it) - basically a bag of toffee pieces (Heath Bar minus the chocolate), and they were delicious. This product is surprisingly hard to find, actually, and fairly expensive, at around $5 a bag. Then we had a revelation. What is toffee? It's butter. and sugar. Those things are neither expensive nor difficult to find. In fact, we can always find them right in our kitchen. Homemade toffee! Caramelized sugar with butter and a little salt! When we finally got a candy thermometer, we gave it a try, and the process was incredibly simple and fun.

Homemade toffee (hybridized from various online sources)
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Dash of salt

Put all three ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. The butter and sugar will melt, then begin to bubble, boil, and thicken. Keep cooking, stirring regularly, until the mixture starts to turn a deep amber color and the temperature reaches 285 degrees (I honestly think that you could fudge this without a candy thermometer by waiting just a couple minutes after the toffee turns brown - this took about 10 minutes for us).
Pour the mixture into an 8 inch x 8 inch baking pan (exact size doesn't matter; you just want something with sides that will let it spread out into a relatively thin layer). Let it cool and harden for a half hour, then break it into bits. There are a number of techniques you could use for this - smashing the pan on a hard surface works; we worked it by driving the point of a knife into the toffee and giving it a little tap, which started some cracks. we did this a few times, then broke up the rest with our fingers.

The chocolate chip cookie recipe is basically the classic Toll House Cookie recipe, with just a few modifications. I cut down on the sugar because the toffee is already adding some extra sweetness. I added some extra vanilla because, well, vanilla is awesome. And - this is the key - I always refrigerate the cookie dough overnight before baking (okay, not always - this takes some measure of self-control, since when one wants cookies, one usually wants cookies now. But you can still eat a little dough right away, which is half the fun anyway). This apparently makes the dry and wet ingredients soak into each other, integrating them - I don't know chemically what exactly goes on, but I can tell you that the cookies come out more uniform; thick, chewy, and not flat.

Chocolate Chip Cookies (tweaked slightly from the Nestle Toll House recipe)
- 2 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 and 1/2 cups chocolate chips, or chopped chocolate
- 1 recipe of homemade toffee from above
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Cream the butter and gradually add the white and brown sugar, mixing until well combined (I use my KitchenAid stand mixer, but you could easily do it by hand). Add the eggs and vanilla and mix. Add the dry mixture in three parts, stirring until just combined. Stir in the chocolate and toffee. Let the dough sit in the refrigerator overnight. Preheat the oven to 375, and drop balls of about two tablespoons of dough onto parchment paper covered baking sheets (parchment paper is not absolutely necessary, but makes things so brilliantly easy).
Bake for 12 - 14 minutes, or until the cookies look nice and golden brown around the edge. Let them cool a couple of minutes before removing them from the baking pan onto a cooling rack.