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My search for the perfect banana bread ended years ago.  There are plenty of recipes out there, but none that fit my tall list of criteria.  So many have a dead bland banana flavor, others are too dry, or full of overpowering seasoning.  This recipe, which is my standby banana bread, is to my taste, the best. It has just the right amount of sweetness (not a lot), a crispy , crunchy, buttery crust, a moist bananay interior, and a delightful tang from the baking soda.   Chunks of dark chocolate melt into the bread making it just a little more special.

This is why, though I attempted to give another recipe a try last weekend, I simply could not find another one worth baking.  Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread, developed from years of tinkering, is the one for me.   We ate this bread for dessert after a disappointing football game, the rest served as a happy surprise in my son’s school lunch.

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My holiday baking got off to a late start this year.  There are still many edible holiday treats still on my to-do list, but this was one recipe I was not going to let pass.  In fact, this the only batch of holiday cookies that I was able to fit into my schedule this year.   They are so tasty!

Chocolate Candy Cane Crackle Cookies combine rich fudgy chocolate with a hint of peppermint flavor and crunch from candy canes and peppermint schnapps.  If you like dark chocolate and peppermint, these should definitely be on your “To Bake” list. The recipe is based on one from Dorie Greenspan that ran in the November 2006 Bon Appetit.  I made the original recipe years ago and enjoyed it very much.  The seasoning (cloves and cinnamon), make it more of an adult flavored cookie.  My adaptation below follows Dorie’s basic recipe, but leaves out the spices.  In their place are chunks of candy canes and a touch of peppermint schnapps. (Finally a use for that bottle I picked up at a white elephant gift exchange last year!)

There are a few things to keep in mind when you make these cookies.  First, the candy cane chunks are bound to melt in the oven.  There is nothing really wrong with this since they will still impart their flavor, but if you, like me, want to be able to see the candy canes in the final product, be sure to leave the chunks rather big (1/4 to 1/3 inch long).  Second, the dough is tough to work with.  It is super dry and firm and  tough to roll in your hands.  Both my kids were helping to roll and we ended up with chocolate crumbs everywhere and a bunch of squarish cookies.  The good news is, it does not really matter.  The cookies will still taste great.  Lastly, do not overcook these cookies.  Since the dough is so dry, it is much better to undercook them.  Think of brownies.  You want to pull them when the dough just begins to set, but is not completely cooked through.

My happy helpers bagged these up and delivered them to our friends and neighbors.  What are your favorite cookies to bake during this time of year?

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Soft Ginger Cookies

November 26, 2011

Perhaps it is illogical to bake the day after Thanksgiving.  Perhaps I should be following up a long run in the rain with salad and a nap.  But on the other hand, it may be best to let oneself down easy after a big feast.  No use going cold turkey (pun intended) on the rich food when the air is cool, and everyone is still lounging around the house enjoying the long weekend.  Why not break out the butter that did not make its way in the mashed potatoes make up some delicious treats?  When you really think about it, cookies seem to be an appropriate coda to the traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Soft Ginger Cookies are tender, buttery, intensely ginger flavored treats.  Roll the chilled dough in balls and then spin through a dish of sugar to give each cookie a sparkly look.  Slices of candied ginger add a decorative touch, as well a strong gingery spice.

This recipe makes a generous number of cookies, which provides a good excuse to drop in on your neighbors and friends.  You can also form the cookies and  freeze them to bake up later.

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Pumpkin Coconut Pudding

November 19, 2011

Pumpkin pie is essential at any Thanksgiving feast, but to be honest it is not the part of the meal that I look forward to.  After a heavy meal of turkey, gravy, and of course stuffing, I find it hard to rally excitement for pie.  Generally I enjoy a few bites of the filling and leave the crust lonely on the plate.  This is what got me thinking about skipping the crust completely and making a pumpkin pudding in its place.

Pumpkin Coconut Pudding is a thick, silky coconut milk based pudding seasoned with traditional pie spices.  This rich pudding is familiar enough to satisfy the expectation of a Thanksgiving pumpkin dessert, yet different enough to stand out as something special.  Using coconut milk means that the pudding (without the whipped cream) is actually vegan, so you can safely serve to a mixed crowd including those lactose and gluten intolerant folks who seem to be cropping up in every family.  This pudding could not be simpler to make.  Heat the coconut milk and pumpkin, then stir in a slurry of spices and cornstarch to thicken it.  For a casual fare, spoon it directly from a serving bowl and let guests add their own toppings.  For a fancier presentation, spoon hot pudding into beautiful dishes or glasses and decoratively top before serving.  This may be a break in tradition, but who knows, perhaps I am not the only one who is happy to leave the crust behind.

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Classic Apple Crisp

October 17, 2011

When I see my children voraciously take down one apple after another, it is hard for me to believe that I hated apples as a child.  But you remember those days, do you not?  Living in a suburban/ urban community before the food revolution, when an apple was a Red Delicious, donning a shiny waxy coat, stored for too long under the wrong conditions.  Apples were mealy and bland with tough skins and I did not want to eat them.  At around age 10, I discovered Granny Smiths.  Ohhh a tart apple, I began to adjust my verdict, but still they were nothing to sing of.  It may have been a long journey, but I have finally learned the virtues of the apple.

We have one apple tree in our backyard, but it supports five varieties of apples, all grafted on different limbs.   These are REAL apples.  Apples with character, flavor, aroma, variations of texture and shape. The apples ripen at different times keeping our family flush with apples through most of the season.  For this we are grateful, because our kids love apples.  No need to tell them the “apple a day” story, left to their own devices they would gladly eat more than that.  Fortunately, my parents have multiple apple trees, so our pantry generally has a large box of apples to choose from through the months of August and September.  We also keep a box full in the fridge for longer storage.  What we can not fit in the refrigerator is cooked down into applesauce, sliced and dried, or cut and bagged for the freezer.  This ensures we can enjoy the taste of our own apples through the winter.

One of the simplest and most delicious ways to treat apples is to prepare a Classic Apple Crisp.  The apples are cored and sliced, then tossed in a bit of sugar.  Lay them down in a buttered baking dish and sprinkle a mixture of flour, butter, oats, and brown sugar.  Sweet, tart, buttery, delicious.  Do not leave out the vanilla ice cream.  In fact if you ask my son, he will straighten his posture, squint his eyes, and tell you, “The rule is: you must have ice cream with apple crisp” in a tone that is frighteningly authoritative for a five year old.  It is best to do what he says.

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Everyone needs a go-to cookie recipe and this is mine.  I have made it more times than I can remember for snacks, parties, camping trips, gift bags, potlucks, you name it.  They are my favorite!  Adapt it to what you have on hand by adding nuts (walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, etc.) or leaving them out.  The chocolate chips can be replaced with peanut butter chips or white chocolate, but do not dare leave those out!

Mix up the dough, then chill it in the refrigerator until you are ready to bake them (at least two hours).  You can also freeze the dough if you want to make it in advance.  Portion out the dough before freezing to make it easier to use.  The cookies bake up slightly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.  They are great straight from the oven,  as well as days later.  There is never a shortage of taste testers!

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Apple Blackberry Cake

August 24, 2011

Summer is not complete without a morning spent picking blackberries.  Last weekend, under the pressure of a fall-like chill in the air and the craziness of back to school time, the kids and I pushed out for a ramble along the creek.  We brought the wagon, a gazillion containers, and a baby doll or two.  We dressed in our jeans and forced socks and closed shoes onto our spoiled summer feet.    We were ready for a  real berry picking session.  What we found however is that like all other summer fruits (tomatoes especially!) everything is super late this year.

Not about to let a little thing like red under-ripe blackberries get us down, we assigned ourselves roles for our Blackberry Team.  I picked the berries, my little man dumped the small containers into the bigger ones, and my little lady dragged the wagon up and down the trail laughing hysterically.  After an hour of hard work (and just a few scrapes), we cruised home with a half-gallon of berries.  Just enough for a few smoothies and Apple Blackberry Cake.  While we suffer a shortage of ripe blackberries, we have boxes and boxes of Gravenstein apples from my parents’ trees.

Apple Blackberry Cake is a treat to make each late summer or fall.  Though it is simple to prepare, somehow the cake has the ability to pass as both an elegant special dessert and a casual weeknight treat.  This time it even disguised itself as a birthday cake.  The apples are peeled and sliced and then pressed into a basic butter and brown sugar batter.  The blackberries scatter across the top lending both a colorful burst and a tart contrast to the apples.  The sugar and cinnamon sprinkled over the top help to form a nice sweet crunchy topping.  This cake is well matched with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.  I would not mind eating a slice for breakfast either with a nice cup of coffee.

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