Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Best Banana Bread

I know you're thinking, the best banana bread? Really? Ok, well the real best banana bread is my Grandma's. But I don't want to make my Grandma's banana bread, because it never comes out the same. I swear she has some special Italian baking magic in her hands. And I can't teach you to make my Grandma's because, well, you'd need to know my Grandma.

So today we will discuss the best banana bread that I have made, to date. I really like banana bread because it is both delicious and resourceful. In my house, we buy bananas every week. I don't particularly like raw bananas. I try to convince myself that they taste good and are good for me, but I just don't like them. Maybe that's because I see what they could become if I leave them in the bowl until they are brown. And that is, delectable banana bread.

First, a tip. Let's say you have all these brown spotted bananas and you are like, there is no way in hell I am turning on the oven in this heat to make banana bread. Well that's ok, because you can just toss them into the freezer, and use them whenever you do feel like making banana bread. Do not get frightened when you open up the freezer later and they are totally black; the inside will be just fine once it is thawed.

Ok, so back to the actual bread. I love sweet banana bread; I want it to be sugary, and I don't want to have to add anything to it when I eat it like butter or jelly or whatever. And if you know me you know that I love anything sugary. So this recipe for banana bread, with Cinnamon Crumble Topping is exactly what I like; and I'm willing to bet it will be exactly what you like too. I got this recipe from Bon Appetit, by way of the fabulous food blog, Orangette. It is moist, sweet and easy to bake. So here we go.

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (3 should do the trick)
2 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup honey
¼ cup water

For topping:
1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 Tbsp. brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350° F. You will want an apx 9X5 inch bread pan for this. If you go larger, the loaf will be a bit shorter; don't go smaller, or it will overflow. Spray this with cooking spray, use parchment paper, or if you want to get really fancy, coat with butter and then flour. (I really don't like this technique, but I suppose it is the "proper way").

Now you have your typical "wet" ingredients in one bowl, "dry" in another. This is pretty common in baking, and it's always good to recognize patterns. So, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. In different bowl, whisk together the banana, eggs, oil, honey, and water (this bowl will be holding all your ingredients, so make it big). Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir well. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. This batter will be pretty liquidy, like a cake batter.

In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle them evenly over the batter.

Bake the bread until a tester inserted into its center comes out clean, about 1 hour for a metal pan, give or take a little (I had to take about 15 more because my pan was ceramic). Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Then carefully remove the bread from the pan, and be careful of the topping. Cool completely before slicing.

The thing about banana bread is, there are only a few rules you need to follow, and really everything comes together on its own.

Rule 1: Do not mash bananas until they are banana juice. Just, mashed bananas.
Rule 2: Do not overmix the dry into the wet. Of course, you want to see no evidence of flour or other dry ingredients, but don't go whisking it up til you see bubbles.
And, the hardest rule of all...
Rule 3: WAIT. You just have to wait until it cools, or everything will go terribly wrong. I have definitely ruined a loaf by waiting say, only ten minutes before trying to take it out of the pan. I have ruined another by trying to cut it when it is "nice and hot" because it might taste better right? Wrong. Let it cool. Reheat it later if you want. The reason? Well, one, it will fall apart and you will cry because all of your hard work is in pieces, and two, it won't taste quite right. It's got to all settle and assimilate together. So let it.

As you can see from the picture below, this banana bread (on the right) is slightly darker than most, so don't worry if it is dark, that does not mean you burned it. It means success! Delicious sugary banana success!

So go ahead, let those bananas in the fruit bowl go rotten. Everyone, even Grandma, will thank you later.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How to "Take Out" at Home; the story of Udon Noodles

Udon noodles. Up until about a year and a half ago, I didn't even know what they were. I was at my in-laws', and my father in law had picked up the recipe and put it in his weekly rotation; as it was one of his favorites, he made it for us. He already knew how to stir-fry from growing up in Hawaii, and he created his own version using udon noodles. He shared the recipe with us, and I'm going to share my version of that version with you. Udon noodles are almost like lo mein noodles, but they are thicker, and absorb more liquid when cooked. You can get them dried, just like spaghetti, or you may be lucky enough to find fresh ones at your grocery store. Either kind work fine for this recipe.

Now that I know what udon noodles are, and how to stir fry them, they have become one of my favorite meals. I have expressed my dislike for stirfry and other things "over rice" but substituting noodles for rice instantly makes a stirfry a million times better. And if you are like me, and crave take out Chinese sometime, this is a much more delicious and healthy way to satisfy that.

The only special equipment you will need for this is a large deep frying pan. If you have a wok, that is great. I don't. I just have a big frying pan. And it works fine. I am sure some purists of Asian cooking will scoff, but, seriously, no wok, no problem.

Udon Noodle Stir Fry

1 breast of boneless skinless chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
1 clove of garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 small onion, cut into eighths
3/4 pound of udon noodles
1/4 cup, plus 1 TBSP of soy sauce
3 TBSP of oil (canola is good, but olive oil works too)
1 cup of chopped fresh broccoli
1 cup of snow peas
2 eggs scrambled
* feel free to add any other vegetables you like: asparagus, red peppers, etc.

Start by marinating your chicken pieces in 1 TBSP of soy sauce and the garlic. You'll want this to sit for about 15 minutes. While this is marinating, heat up a pot of water for the udon noodles. You can cook these just like spaghetti; wait til the water is boiling, and then throw them in. But note! These cook faster than spaghetti. Check them after 3 minutes (for dried, earlier for fresh; fresh pasta always cooks faster).
While the marinating and heating of the water is going on, chop your veggies, and scramble your eggs in a separate pan. (I just take the two eggs, mix them together with a fork, pour into a small frying pan, and move them around with a rubber spatula until they are cooked through.)

Now, get out your large wok/frying pan. Heat 2 TBSP of oil in the pan, keeping the heat on med-high. Once it is nice and hot, add the chicken and all the marinade to the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, and then add the raw onion. Cook these two together until the chicken is cooked through.

The one big challenge with this dish is adding the ingredients in such an order that they all get the proper cooking time for their thickness and desired crunch. You want the chicken to cook the longest, then the onions, then the broccoli, because it will take a few minutes to cook through, and at the last minute, thinner vegetables, like snow peas. Asparagus would go in with broccoli; thinly sliced peppers with the peas. You don't want soggy broccoli or floppy snow peas. Part of the deliciousness of this dish is the contrast in texture, and it won't be half as enjoyable if it's all just squooshy. And this has happened to me quite a few times, so learn from my mistakes.

So here's the assembly. You have your chicken and onions. Then toss in the broccoli and cook for one minute. Then add your cooked udon noodles on top, with the remaining oil and half of the remaining soy sauce (3 TBSP). Stir this around, so that all of the protein and vegetables are incorporated in the noodles, and the soy sauce is evenly distributed.

You want to use your muscles here; you need to mean it when you stir these ingredients, or you'll have a big sticky mess of noodles. To avoid this, I use two techniques. The first is to drain the noodles quickly and then add them right to the wok. If you leave the cooked noodles to the side while you are preparing other things, the starch in them will cause them to become really sticky, and hard to undo, though not impossible. The other technique is to make myself taller. If you are short like me, you might want to use a step stool so you can stand over that big pan and toss everything together thoroughly. You will be surprised how much easier this is. It is also very easy to recruit your 6 foot husband for the job.

After this step, add your snow peas, your scrambled egg, and the remaining soy sauce. Stir around and incorporate 1-2 more minutes until the peas turn a bright green. And that green, my friends, means you're ready to eat!

You can change up the protein and the veggies to suit your liking. Just remember to toss in your ingredients in the order of needed cooking time, and you'll be master of the udon noodle!