>> Saturday, August 28, 2010

I always seem to have the same problem. I buy a bunch of bananas and the final two turn black, sickly sweet and soft before I have a chance to take them to work and have them for morning tea with some yoghurt and honey. I usually throw them in one of our freezer drawers until Chris and I start to crave my mum’s wonderful Banana Crunch Cake.

A few weeks ago I already had three frozen bananas hiding in the freezer and two more ripening at lightning speed in our fruit bowl. Something had to be done. I felt too guilty to add them to the pile that was growing slowly but surely in the deep freeze. So I took a banana from the freezer and the two from the bench and got baking. (See my baking tip on freezing bananas here.)

For some reason banana bread popped into my head; the chewy kind you can spread butter on. I kind of like the 1970’s associations that come with banana bread – healthier and a bit more down to earth than cake. It should be baked in a brown kitchen with brown and cream linoleum on the floor and orange-flowered crockery on the shelves. While wearing flares.

Am I right in thinking that banana bread is meant to be a bit more glutinous and, well, more like bread than cake? That’s the kind of texture I was looking for but, sadly, this banana bread was more like banana cake or banana loaf. Don’t get me wrong; it was totally delicious! We ate the whole thing within a couple of days; Chris even eating his share for breakfast. Though that’s not necessarily the measure of a good cake – he always does that.

Actually, when I think about it, this bread was very similar to the Banana Crunch Cake my mum makes but without the crunch. It has a touch of cinnamon added to the batter which achieves the same sort of overall flavour; just a little more plain and restrained. The cake (I should say ‘bread’ really shouldn’t I?).... the bread itself is light and soft; a nice basic banana cake (no! bread!) with a hint of spice that adds a pleasant depth of flavour. A slice of this would be perfect with a cup of tea when you want something simple but a little more satisfying than a plain biscuit. I wouldn’t toast it though, the crumb is too loose and it would fall apart in your toaster. And that’s it right there isn’t it? The reason why it isn’t ‘bread’. You can’t toast it.

I’ve given up. I now officially rename this recipe, ‘Banana Loaf’. (I seem to be doing that a lot lately don’t I? Renaming recipes....)

And so my quest for a chewy, dense banana bread continues.... When I find it, I’ll let you know.


After re-reading the recipe and looking at the picture on the website, I think I know why my banana bread turned out so light and delicate and more like cake:

I have a feeling I mashed the banana too intensely. I think making a chunky mixture with a few whole pieces of banana still intact rather than a smooth paste would moisten the bread and help it to develop a more glutinous texture. I think next time I'd add an extra banana as well which would help.

The recipe says not to over mix the batter. While this is really important when trying to make a cake as light and airy as possible, a banana bread can do with a little more mixing. I basically only mixed until combined which turns out wasn't quite enough, so I'd recommend mixing for another minute or so after the ingredients have come together. Don't overdo it though, otherwise your bread will become tough.

I didn't have any walnuts in my pantry so had to miss them out. Next time I'll make the effort to find some because I think they would have helped to retain a little more moisture in the cooked loaf and produced a slightly chewier texture.

(or Banana Bread, adapted from the Joy of Baking website)

1 3/4 cups (230 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated white sugar (I used caster)
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 ripe large bananas, mashed well (about 1-1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) and place oven rack to middle position. Butter and flour or line with baking paper the bottom and sides of a 9 x 5 x 3 inch (23 x 13 x 8 cm) loaf pan.

In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.

In a medium-sized bowl combine the mashed bananas, eggs, melted butter, and vanilla. With a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, lightly fold the wet ingredients (banana mixture) into the dry ingredients just until combined and the batter is thick and chunky. (The important thing is not to over mix the batter. You do not want it smooth. Over mixing the batter will yield tough, rubbery bread.) Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until bread is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 55 to 60 minutes. Place on a wire rack to cool and then remove the bread from the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. This bread can be frozen.



>> Friday, August 20, 2010

I recently purchased Yotam Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, Plenty. When it was released it created quite a flurry of excitement in the food world – and for good reason. While most vegetarian cookbooks make cooking sans viande seem like a chore or, at best, repetitive, Plenty celebrates the diversity of vegetables, grains, pulses, pasta and nuts and clearly demonstrates that with a little care and creativity, vegetarian food can be vibrant and varied. Based on his weekly column in the Saturday magazine supplement of the Guardian, it’s a compilation of colourful and inspirational vegetarian recipes which literally leap from the page. It’s a beautiful book; the cover is bright white and slightly cushioned, the pages thick and shiny.

It’s also overflowing with tempting recipes – almost too many to choose from. But since it was the middle of July and I was looking for a dish to compliment the warm weather, thankfully my choices were narrowed somewhat. Some new summer inspiration is what I needed. And I found this:

Tomato Party.

Now who wouldn’t want to make that?

Apparently me, because I changed the name of this post from ‘Tomato Party’ to ‘Summer Tomato Salad’. But while the name is slightly reminiscent of something you’d invent to try to encourage your three year old to eat vegetables and conjures images of tiny cartoon tomatoes with big smiling faces decked out in party hats and paper whistles throwing confetti into the air (you’re imagining them aren’t you?), it looks amazing and tastes even better.

It’s summer on a plate.

Don't bother making it in the dead of winter with watery, insipid tomatoes flown in from Kenya. This is a celebration of summer and to do it justice you need tomatoes that have grown ripe on the vine and picked when they’re at their best. Tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a commercial refrigerator. Or a plane.

So a trip to Borough Markets was on the cards. The ordinary tomatoes from the supermarket just weren’t going to cut it. It can be relatively expensive, but oh it’s fun. And the food.... Let’s just say that if I could live in Borough Markets I would. Chris and I wandered down on a perfect, sunny Saturday morning with a market basket my mum brought me from France. We came home happy and warm from the sun, the basket overflowing with fresh eggs, chilli hot sauce from Chris’ favourite Mexican stall, a packet of fudge, a tub of the green Sicilian olives we love and, of course, a rainbow assortment of tomatoes.

What I liked the most about this salad was the contrast of the different ingredients; the plump and juicy-sweet caramelised tomatoes alongside the firm crunch of the green tomato slivers, the soft grain of the couscous next to the fresh and lively herbs.

The original recipe called for fregola or Israeli couscous but I couldn't find these very easily, so I made do by doubling the couscous and adding a can of drained chickpeas. To be honest, I think this combination compliments the rest of the ingredients far more than the sometimes gluey consistency of fregola or Israeli couscous would have. The chickpeas provide a slight velvetiness and the extra couscous helps to fill out the salad if you’d like it to stand on it’s own rather than act as a side dish. My recommendation: stick to the chickpeas and forget the fregola unless you have some loitering in your cupboard.

We ate this by itself as a light supper while watching a bit of Rick Stein waltzing and eating his way through France. It was light and delicious and made us feel just a little virtuous. If you want something a bit more robust (or you’re feeding your father who only classifies something as a meal if it includes some kind of meat), finish it off with a few pieces of char-grilled steak or spiced lamb with the juices spooned over the top.

So; the verdict?

A salad for a hot summer's day, a barbeque, a picnic. Or even a party....

(adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi)

250g couscous
salt and pepper
olive oil
300ml boiling water
1 410g can of chickpeas, drained
5-6 medium vine tomatoes, quartered
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
a punnet of yellow cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped oregano leaves
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped tarragon leaves
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped mint leaves
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 small to medium green tomato, sliced very thinly in wedges
1 medium orange tomato (or yellow/red/purple), sliced thinly in wedges
a punnet of tomberries (or halved cherry tomatoes)

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Put the couscous in a bowl with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of oil. Pour over the boiling water, stir and cover the bowl with cling film. Set aside for 12 minutes, then remove the cling film, separate the grains with a fork and leave to cool. (If using fregola: add 150g to salted boiling water, simmer for 18 minutes or until tender, drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Leave to dry completely.)

Meanwhile, spread the vine tomatoes over half a large baking tray and sprinkle with the sugar and some salt and pepper. Drizzle the balsamic vinegar and some oil over the top. Place in the oven. After about 20 minutes remove from the oven and increase the temperature to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. On the empty side of the baking tray, spread the yellow tomatoes. Season them with salt and pepper and drizzle over a little oil. Return to the oven and roast for 12 minutes. Remove the tomatoes and allow to cool down.

Mix together the couscous and chickpeas (or fregola) in a large bowl. Add the herbs, garlic, the baked tomatoes with all their juices, the green tomato, the orange tomato and tomberries or cherry tomatoes. Very gently mix together using your hands. Taste for seasoning: you might need to add salt, pepper and some extra olive oil.

Garnish with a few whole tarragon, oregano or mint leaves.



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