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Sweet Indian finish: Mango lassi panna cotta

31 March 2006

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Meena over at Hooked on Heat offered a challenge this month to cook a fusion dish, an international recipe adapted to express Indian flavors. Thinking about it, I was reminded of the first time I ate in an Indian restaurant. It was only two or three years ago. I was a shrinking wimp when it came to heat in my food - no spicy wings, no fresh pepper, certainly no horseradish. Curry was simply out of the question.

But I finally accepted an offer from some friends and went with them to an Indian restaurant for dinner. I was struck by the complexity of the flavors - sour, tangy, sharp and spicy, deep and warm. The cinnamon and cumin lingered far back on my tongue, along with the smooth sauces and crisp, golden samosas with fiery chutneys. The warm, elastic bread had garlic and butter in it, soaking together with the rich sauce as we scooped it up. This was different from the suicidal, one-note hot wings the guys would eat in college, a macho game of mouth burning. This was sophisticated, complex food that had so many levels and flavors that I couldn't sort them all out - just enjoyed.

My taste for spices has grown exponentially since then, getting turned on to South Indian dosai and Keralan fish with tamarind. A rava masala dosa stuffed with tender, melting yellow potatoes, with a side of lip-clenchingly sour lime pickle and a dish of cool yogurt sounds like the perfect way to start a day. Beautiful star anise, musky cardamom, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, tiny red hot peppers - they all have their jars, lined up in a colorful array in my kitchen.

But the thing I remember most, from that memorable and defining meal, was the end. My friends ordered me a mango lassi. I don't think I had ever even eaten a mango, at that unenlightened point in my life. This bright orange, foamy drink came and I sipped that cool, sweet and tangy staple of Indian restaurants the world over. It was a long, sweet finish to a meal of warmth and spice.

I've tried to make it several times, experimenting with different combinations of yogurt, milk, and buttermilk - fresh mango, puree, and canned slices. The ripe sweetness of a good mango - rare in the US, even here in the southern parts - paired with the tang of yogurt blended into a froth is one of my favorite flavors ever.

So this is what I thought of, when Meena announced this theme. I love panna cotta - the Italian cooked custard made with gelatin instead of eggs - soft, delicate, a little wobbly. Substitute buttermilk for the cream and make up the liquid with pureed mangos, and a mango lassi in gently set pudding is born. This is a wonderful dessert for one or two - it's fairly healthy, buttermilk being not as fatty as it sounds, and the fruit is rich in vitamins. It also takes only about 10 minutes to make. I use canned mangos from Thailand, as they seem the most dependable in flavor. If you use fresh mango, be sure to strain the liquid before pour it into cups in order to get the fibers out. Also, I suggest a whole packet of gelatin to thicken the custard. Most panna cotta recipes won't call for this much, but buttermilk is thinner than cream and I think it needs a little extra help.

The taste and texture of this is wonderful - the same smooth familiar taste and tangy bite, with a small pinch of spicy cardamom to bring out the sweetness.

Mango Lassi Panna Cotta

1 15oz. can of sliced mango, syrup drained off
1 envelope of unflavored gelatin
1.5 cups of well-shaken buttermilk
0.25 cup of sugar
cardamom to taste

1. Put 0.5 cups of the buttermilk into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it to soften.
2. Pour the rest of the buttermilk (1 cup) into a small saucepan over medium-low heat.
3. Process the mango into puree in a food processor and add to the saucepan. Stir well.
4. Whisk in the 0.25 cup of sugar.
5. Bring the saucepan's contents to a light, simmering boil, then remove from the heat.
6. Add the softened gelatin in its buttermilk to the saucepan and whisk vigorously.
7. Add a few pinches of cardamom and whisk again..
8. Pour mixture into small cups or ramekins and chill at least four hours, or until set. Serve with a sprinkling of cardamom and lime wedges on the side. This is also good with fresh strawberries piled on top.

Serves 1, 2 or 3, depending on size of the serving cups. Good for breakfast, too, especially if you don't add much sugar.

Note: if you plan to try to unmold these and serve them freestanding on a plate, lightly oil the the cups beforehand, and definitely use the full packet of gelatin. Soak in hot water for just a moment to release, then run a thin knife around the edge of the cup and turn out onto a plate.

Posted by Faith at 31 March 2006 | Comments (2) | TrackBack

IMBB 24: Flash in the pan fish

22 March 2006

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6:55 I walk in the door and thud go my grocery bags on the floor. I turn on the oven and bang a pan on the stove. 30 minutes till dinner!

For anyone just joining in, the Food Blog Universe hath certain merry conventions, including but not limited to "Is My Blog Burning?" - a monthly cooking challenge where people join in to cook around a given theme. This month's theme: "Make It In 30 Minutes." Most excellent! Especially for us singletons, who tend to work too much anyway.

Like they said, anyone can open up a can of soup and call it supper. But I am a firm believer in well-rounded meals, even if you're only cooking for one. Well-rounded meaning dessert at the end. So I was all set to make a balanced meal: Fish with capers and wine; a spinach-arugula salad with parmesan, sweet red peppers and walnuts; and a walnut cake with lemon syrup. Sound too fancy? It doesn't take but half an hour. Really.

6:57 I take things out of the bags and realize, suddenly, an error that is going to strain the edges of this 30-minute meal. I forgot to defrost the fish! Thin tilapia fillets. Hopefully they'll defrost quicky under running water. In they go, from the freezer to the sink. Much water wasted, down the drain.

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7:03 I pull out my KitchenAid food processor and the walnuts. A meal is not complete without dessert.

This scrumptious treat, made for one, is a Walnut Cake with Meyer Lemon Syrup and Yogurt. You grind up some walnuts, add some eggs and a little flour, some sugar and lemon zest. All I had were Meyer lemons (tough, huh) and they lent a floral, Earl Grey fragrance to this firm, tender little cake. Brown on top and soft throughout, soaked with lemon syrup after baking, it's the perfect dessert for one. And it doesn't take but five minutes.

I may be cheating a bit with this here, since it wasn't finished until I was about to start eating. But it was in the oven in a flash, and how strenuous, really, is it to take an itty-bitty cake out of the oven in the middle of your meal?

7:10 Cake's in the oven. I check my fish in its crumpled foil. The profligate waste of water continues. Time for salad, I guess. I bring out the spinach/arugula mix I found at the grocery, and chop a red pepper. I throw on some parmesan and Annie's Natural Goddess Dressing. I sprinkle some of the leftover walnuts on top. Crunchy, sweet, savory and spicy.

I squeeze some lemon juice, a bit of sugar and some water into a small saucepan and leave it to simmer for the cake.

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7:15 OK, time for the main event. The fish is going on, ready or not. I rub on some salt and pepper. I heat up the frying pan. It needs to be hot, hot, hot. I put in a dab of butter and a glug of olive oil. When the fizz dies down a bit the fish goes in, carefully, with tongs. This is a noisy, spluttery dish, which at a not so distant time was responsible for some rather remarkable oil burns. (Story another time.) The fish only needs to be cooked a couple minutes on each side. I didn't dry the fish well, so it sticks to the pan, leaving little strips of delicious fried fish cracklings. I turn these and everything else out into the waiting plate by 7:21.

7:21 Sauce! Another large pat of butter sizzles into the pan and I pour in a stream of white wine and half a small jar of capers. Spectacular steam! (This is one of those very impressive dishes. Makes you look like a professional sizzler.)

The sauce bubbles for about a minute and then it gets poured on the plate, over the fish. This is one of the best, easiest dinners that I know how to make. The fish is crackly on the outside - crispy and skillet fried. On the inside it's meltingly tender, flaking apart. The wine and butter and capers - so simple! - are tart and soft and aromatic. I've had friends reach for anything else on the table to sop up the rest of the butter sauce: bread, then leftover vegetables - one swirled the rest of her salad around in the last drops of butter.

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7:23ish Time for dinner! OK, fine, I didn't eat right away. I had to take a few pictures.

A quick, flash in the pan meal, with a satisfying blend of flavors and a not-too-heavy weight in the stomach. And it don't take but 30 minutes. Or less, if you remember to defrost the fish.

Tagged with: +

Fish With White Wine & Capers
Fudged from Bittman's indispensable How To Cook Everything

2 thin fish fillets (tilapia, cod, or something like that.)
A few (or more) tablespoons of butter
Olive oil
Some white wine
Some capers
Medium-grained salt & fresh cracked pepper

Rinse the fish and pat it very dry. Pat on some salt and pepper. Heat a heavy, large skillet. When it's smoking hot, put in some olive oil and a pat of butter. When the fizz dies down, carefully lower the fish in. Turn it after a couple minutes. It should take no more than four or five minutes, tops. Take the fish out of the pan and put on a plate.

Put another pat of butter in the pan and let it bubble for just a moment. Then, carefully, pour in the wine and capers. It will shoot steam into your rafters, so be careful of your face! Let it simmer for a little less than a minute, then pour it over the fish.

Spinach-Arugula Salad with Red Pepper, Parmesan, & Walnuts

OK, who am I fooling? This isn't a recipe. It's a memory tag for me so I remember a great little combination: spinach, arugula with some rough salt and pepper, chopped sweet red bell pepper, fresh parmesan and romano cheese blend, and a healthy handful of walnuts with some Annie's Natural Goddess Dressing on top. I really love that stuff - it's the only packaged salad dressing I keep around. I'm usually a vinaigrette girl.

Walnut Cake
Adapted from Epicurious

For cake
1/3 cup walnuts (1 oz)
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1 large egg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

For syrup
1 lemon
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons mild honey

Baking dish: a 6- to 8-oz gratin dish or ramekin
Accompaniment: whole-milk yogurt

Cake
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Pulse nuts in a food processor until coarsely chopped and reserve 1 1/2 tablespoons in a small bowl. Add sugar and a pinch of salt to nuts in processor and pulse until nuts are finely chopped. Add butter and zest and process until smooth, then add egg and process until blended, scraping down side of bowl. Add flour and pulse just until incorporated, 2 or 3 times (do not overblend). Pour batter into ungreased dish and sprinkle with reserved nuts.

Bake until cake is browned around edge and puffed, and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer cake in dish to a rack.

Syrup
Finely grate a teaspoon zest from lemon, then halve lemon and squeeze enough juice to measure at least 2 teaspoons.

Bring lemon juice, sugar, water, and honey to a boil in a very small saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then boil 1 minute. Stir in zest and take off the heat.

Run a thin knife around edge of cake to loosen and pour syrup over hot cake in dish, letting syrup run down sides and underneath cake.

Posted by Faith at 22 March 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cooking for one: An ode to beets, with a whiff of goat cheese

21 March 2006

I have always had a thing for red, for the deepest, plummy reds. And when it comes to red, beets are one of the most lavish, well-turned vegetables on the table. To me, they are simply unparalleled by crispy celery, bright carrot, or pleasant squash. Even the scarlet tomato looks a little orange, next to a beet.

But I had small inclination towards beets until recently - the extent of my association being the canned jelly substance turned out into a bowl now and then, especially around holidays to keep the ribbed cranberry sauce company. And the ubiquitous beet and goat cheese combination? Not ubiquitous to me. Just this year, in the course of my kitchen wanderings, I took a chance on a roasted beet and goat cheese salad for the first time.

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I found that when you take a pan of roasted beets out of the oven, and peel back the foil, their red juice has bled out a little, seeping into the pan and clouding the yellow oil with pools of scarlet stains. Then you take them in your hands, between mitts of paper towels, and quickly rub the papery skins off and leave them naked and purple, with stains all over your fingers. When you chop these and mix them with a pungent goat cheese, and then smear this soft, sweet, tangy mixture all through bitter greens - with a healthy dash of spicy peppercorns - well, as probably everyone else but me knows by now, it's astonishing. The warm and tender beets leaving pink stains on my bowl, the tangy goat cheese and spicy greens underneath - this was good. It was very good.

And ever since then I have been on the hunt for other recipes with this oh-so-classic-for-the-right-reasons combination. So when I came across this recipe for a beet and goat cheese tart, with the inspired addition of some meaty walnuts, I was gung-ho. Try it - it's excellent. I added the stalks and the greens as well, cooked with onions, so the final product is really more of a baked beet and greens cake, held together loosely by melted cheese and custard, with crunchy walnuts and spicy parsley on the top.

Quiches and their ilk are great in cooking for one; they can do double-duty as breakfast and supper, just substitute a clementine for a green salad and a glass of wine. They wrap up nicely for a quick lunch at the office, and this one stayed fresh for five days in my fridge. I was sorry to see the last of it go.

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Crustless Beet & Goat Cheese Tart

4 small beets, along with their stalks and greens, washed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons dry white wine
4 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces fresh goat cheese
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley

1. Heat the oven to 350° F. Wash the beets and dry them with a paper towel. Place the beets in a small ovenproof pan, drizzle them with the olive oil, and season with a little salt and pepper. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake until the beets are tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 1 hour. Allow the beets to cool. Peel the beets using a small knife and cut them into a medium dice.

2. Meanwhile, while the beets are roasting, chop the stalks into 1-inch pieces and cut the greens into short ribbons. Heat the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion, season with a little salt, and cook, stirring every few minutes. Add the beet stalks and cook until they and the onion are just tender, about 7 minutes. Add the greens and sauté until soft and wilted. Season with cracked pepper. Add the white wine and cook for another minute, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.

3. Heat the oven to 350°F and butter a 9-inch springform pan. Toss the chopped beets and onion mixture together and put them into the prepared pan. Whisk together the eggs and cream, season well with salt and pepper, and carefully pour over the beets and onion, letting the cream seep evenly into the beets. Dot the goat cheese all over the top of the tart. Put the tart on a baking sheet and bake it for 20 minutes. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts on top of the tart. Return the tart to the oven and bake until just set, an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle the tart with the chopped parsley and let it rest for at least 5 minutes before serving

(Adapted from Gordon Hamersley's recipe at Leite's Culinaria, a most excellent site.)

Posted by Faith at 21 March 2006 | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Squirting almonds

10 March 2006

Tonight I indulged in a new favorite activity. Squirting almonds!!

Yes, people, peeling blanched almonds should be referred to as squirting in reflection of the endlessly entertaining and satisfying occupation that it is. I am glad that I do not have small children to steal this pleasure from me.

You see, if you dump whole, unpeeled almonds in boiling water for just a moment - a minute at most - their skins get all loose and wrinkly, like two-hour-bath fingers but more so, and these skins sag around their wet, smooth little bodies. You squeeze the almond with its soggy pillow of water between your fingers and, tada! Squirted almond, just like the watermelon seed shot through your greasy nine-year-old fingers towards your cousin at the barbecue. Except this time, that seed's left its dress behind.

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It should be tedious, peeling all these almonds. It wouldn't cost me much more just to buy the almond meal I need for a flourless cake tomorrow night. I'm saving three dollars, tops. But when someone suggests that I take the convenient road I just sort of stammer and hem and make myself look like a tightwad with too much time on her hands.

Because the truth is I like to sit down in front of a movie for an hour and squirt almonds into a bowl. Really. Try it. You'll see.

Posted by Faith at 10 March 2006 | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sloppy delicious dumplings for one

8 March 2006

As Exhibit A in cooking for one I present you with: Pork and Leek Dumplings with a Side of Pear Chiffonade, a well-balanced meal for one.

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In actual fact, I walked in the door hungry and exhausted tonight, feeling like my head was pounded somewhere into the same plane as my knees and my shoulders with it. What that convoluted sentence meant to say is that I was beat and could hardly drag myself to the kitchen.

Dumplings to the rescue! The only recipe you need for these silky, savory, fragrant darlings is this: Go to your closest Asian grocery. Find the frozen section. Pick out a bag of frozen dumplings that looks good to you. I happen to like anything involving leeks. Buy them. Boil and eat. Hopefully you accomplish all but the last step before you come home tired, cranky, and hungry.

The extent of any actual cooking here is that I mixed a splash of hoisin sauce with soy sauce in my bowl while I waited the five minutes for these little beauties to boil. That's it! I didn't even clean up the bowl for the picture. My only regret is that I finished off the bag and I need to now repeat the more challenging steps of this particular recipe. But it hasn't failed me yet.

Posted by Faith at 8 March 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Spiced tea tea - or, as known in these parts: masala chai tea

8 March 2006

I was first introduced to chai, like most of us here in America, by the heavy sweet blends of milk and spices that are sold in the stores and in coffeeshops. I went to a church for a little while that brewed it up from a mix and served it steaming hot and very, very sweet in huge cups. It was the most popular thing on the coffee station.

But the sweetness was overpowering to me, and I lost my taste for hot sweet drinks a few years ago. So I quit drinking it.

But then I had a tiny cup of masala chai in an Indian restaurant - so spicy it bit the tongue - and I was hooked again. Not too milky, no sugar - just hot steeped spices and tea.

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So I started making my own in the evenings. It's grown into a comforting ritual, and I vary the details a little each time. The recipe below may not bear any resemblance to something a true chai-wallah would serve, but it generally suits me. I like the bite of the pepper and the complexity of multiple spices; sometimes I add a little anise or some fresh ginger. I grind the spices to get the most bite - this is really not necessary, in all likelihood, and necessitates a messy extra step of straining. But maybe I just like my tea difficult.

Chai: An Improvisation

6 peppercorns
8 cloves
4 cardamom
2 green cardamom
10 whole coriander seeds
pinch of ground ginger
2 small bits of cinnamon
half a vanilla bean

1. Grind all of the above ingredients in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle.
2. (A profligate waste of a vanilla bean, you say? Well, I get mine on eBay - 30 cost me about 7 bucks. So I don't feel too bad. It gives the chai this smooth deep sweetness. A used vanilla bean husk with its seeds already scraped out would do all right too.)
3. Put spices in a saucepan, along with half a cup of milk, a bit of sugar, and three (decaf) black tea bags.
4. Heat two cups of water to boiling in a kettle and pour over contents of saucepan.
5. Simmer on low heat for about ten minutes.
6. Take out the tea bags and throw them away.
7. Strain the milky tea into your teacup and enjoy - preferably with some ginger cookies.

Posted by Faith at 8 March 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cupcakes and a failure of food coloring

8 March 2006

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I really have no business making cupcakes and writing about them here - not when people like Chockylit and The Cupcake Queen are on the loose. I mean, really. It's enough to give a girl an inferiority complex. But a coworker had a birthday last week, and I wanted an excuse to buy a decorating set. So there.

One problem: my coworker's favorite cake flavor is the Southern classic Red Velvet, which I'd never made and only had a vague sense of being some sort of pale devil's food cake in disguise. After a bit of research I decided that it has a nice ring - "Red Velvet" - scarlet as a Southern belle and her riding habit, swept up and sitting pretty and red-cheeked, looking like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. But - ultimately disappointing, seeing that there isn't much more to your average Red Velvet than a standard white cake with a dollop of cocoa and a guilty secret.

I was determined to make these cupcakes something more, something better - but to preserve the red badge of Southern charm, of course. I did see some interesting old style recipes involving beets, but I regretfully bookmarked these to try later. With coworkers involved, that was taking the experiment a bit too far.

After a lot of reading around I smashed together a couple recipes - one from Chockylit and another from here.

The result? Well. I should have known better than to mess around with a classic.

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Here's the final recipe I hacked together, with due comment. People, when a recipe calls for four ounces of red food coloring? Stop. Stop right there. I mean, it probably won't give you cancer immediately. But in the meantime you really should doublecheck your cupboards as to whether you actually have such large amounts of said substance.

I did not, hence my cupcakes failed utterly in the "red" department. They were faintly pink in their very chocolatey brown, like a blushing hazelnut.

The final product was rather good to eat, dense and moist, with a chewy bite and smothered in Chockylit's excellent vanilla bean cream cheese icing. I did throw in a few extra tablespoons of Droste cocoa for good luck, so there was enough chocolate and vanilla to keep me happy. But there was not enough scarlet to call these Red Velvet. The Red Dye #40 was simply not radiant.

But that's OK. It's a pretty good base recipe, and I still have leftovers. I'm not complaining about that; these are remarkably good straight from the freezer.

Not Red Velvet Cupcakes

HUGE batch alert: this is a doubled quantity - makes at least 50. I made a small 9x9 cake plus about 36 cupcakes

4 cups sugar
1 pound (4 sticks) butter
4 eggs
9 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 small tube of red food coloring, plus half a tube of red decorating gel, squeezed in at the last moment in a halfhearted gesture of good measure
5 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups buttermilk
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Prep a bunch of cupcake tins.
3. In a huge mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter.
4. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well after each addition.
5. Add the cocoa and food coloring to the bowl.
6. Sift together flour and salt.
7. Add flour mixture to the creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk.
8. Blend in vanilla.
9. In a small bowl, combine baking soda and vinegar and add to mixture. (This is fun! A la second grade science experiments. See, they do come in handy later.)
10. Pour batter into cupcake liners.
11. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
12. If so inclined, put in freezer for half an hour to cool. This gives them the slightly denser, fudgy texture that I happen to like.
13. Frost with icing of your choice. I liked the not-too-sweet vanilla cream cheese icing. I topped with nonpareils and slightly icky but pretty Boston Baked Bean candied peanuts.

Posted by Faith at 8 March 2006 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What to do with leftover chocolate (if you ever have such a problem): Banana Chocolate Muffins

7 March 2006

I was in the mood to bake for the office last Sunday night, and suddenly I had this irrepressible and inexplicable urge to make banana chocolate muffins. It was a little startling, as I don't think banana and chocolate really belong side by side, unless there's ice cream in the middle to mediate. But the craving struck and I obeyed.

The nice irony of it all is that I actually had chocolate around - but no chocolate chips. Just a couple of old Hershey's bars languishing in a plastic bag up with the baking supplies. I chopped them up and gave them a final resting place in these soft, toothsome little muffins. I like the texture that chopped chocolate gives, the flakes being of all different sizes - some large enough to make a satisfying crunch-thud between the teeth, others tiny and silky, melting unexpectedly under the tongue.

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This recipe is cobbled together from several different sources - a basic muffin recipe, and a cake that I love. I added some other things, including the extra chocolate, just to use it all up.

Banana Chocolate Muffins

2 cups plain flour
1.5 teaspoons baking soda
0.5 teaspoon salt
1 stick + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 ripe bananas, mashed
0.5 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
0.5 cup walnuts (just because)
1.5 cups mediocre quality chopped chocolate (hey, why waste the good stuff?)

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Mix the flour, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar, then add eggs, bananas, milk, vanilla extract & chocolate chunks.
4. Add the dry ingredients & stir to combine, being careful not to overmix. The batter should be somewhat runny.
5. Pour the batter into buttered or lined muffin tins.
6. If you want a topping, cut together roughly equal amounts of butter and brown sugar, add a little flour until it is crumbly, then mix in some cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. I added about a teaspoon of rum flavoring, too. Sprinkle this over the muffins before you put them in the oven.
7. Bake for 20 minutes or until done.
8. After they are finished baking, let them cool for five minutes on a wire rack, then put the pans in the freezer for 45 minutes.

Posted by Faith at 7 March 2006 | Comments (0)


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