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Monday, March 15, 2010


Me -- I don't like surprises.  No "surprise" birthday parties, no "surprise gifts"...thank you very much.  There is uncertainty in a surprise.

The occasional 'pleasant' surprise is okay, I suppose.
A bright, sunny day when the forecast was rain.  A ten dollar bottle of wine that's pretty good.
Calculations that show you'll get a tax rebate this year.

Truthfully...I find that things go so much better when there's planning.  And things you can rely on.  Without surprises.  Makes me sound a little stodgy, I know.  What can I's part of my tv producer DNA.  Leave nothing to chance.  Plan ahead.  
So, it's logical that I am a follow-the-recipe girl.  No 'surprise' there, ha ha...
I rarely, if ever, "invent" things in the kitchen.  On occasion, I will adapt a recipe, tweaking or correcting according to my personal taste, but hey...there must be a recipe to start with.
 I figure, leave the experimenting to others.

Typically, when a recipe works out really well (also known as "a keeper") I simply throw it into perpetual rotation.

To know me, is to know my biscotti, my chicken soup, my Bolognese sauce.
And, until banana bread.

I've been making the same banana bread since the 80s.  Talk about something you can rely on.  The recipe, from my original Silver Palate cookbook, now falling apart and held together with a rubber band, is simple and a real winner.  It comes together virtually on its own and the result is a perfectly moist-not-mushy, rich loaf redolent with vanilla, and sans walnuts.  (I am of the opinion that walnuts have no place in chocolate chip cookies OR banana bread.)  It's homey baking at its best and always leaves me feeling virtuous, having using up the icky, brown guilt-inducing bananas that have been sitting on the counter for days.

So a few months ago, I came across a recipe that stopped me in my tracks:  Chocolate Banana Bread.
Now you may laugh and say you've known all about this twist on banana bread for ages.  Where have you been all this time, Marcia?!  Anyone who has thought about banana bread for any length of time has come to the conclusion that the addition of chocolate would be pure genius.  What can I say?  Late to the party...that's me.

I tried it and am now here to tell you that the addition of chocolate to banana bread really IS pure genius, and if you too had not given it much thought, and have your own steadfast, tried-and-true banana bread recipe, I am asking you, no begging you, to consider giving this one a shot.  It's got the same joy of a banana split (which, you have to admit really does rely on the excellence of the chocolate/banana combination) and the delight of a cake-like texture.  It's super easy to throw together and looks simply gorgeous sprinkled with a bit of powdered sugar.

Trust me on this.  Chocolate Banana Bread is going to be "a keeper".  No surprises...and that's just the way I like it.

Chocolate Banana Bread
adapted from Tyler's Ultimate

Makes 1 loaf

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
2 large eggs
3 very ripe bananas*
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
NO walnuts (yeaaay!)

*You can mash the bananas, but I did not.  Instead, I simply broke the bananas into large pieces.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
In the bowl of a stand mixer cream the butter until lightened, then beat in the melted chocolate, eggs, bananas and vanilla.  Stir in the dry ingredients just until combined; do not overbeat.

Pour the batter into the buttered loaf pan and bake until a toothpick stuck in to the center of the bread comes out almost clean, 50 to 60 minutes.  Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for at least 15 minutes before unmolding.  Cool completely before wrapping tightly in plastic.  Will keep for several days.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Back Into Battle

Remember Battle Chocolate?
Well, months had gone by and my co-workers and I were feeling spunky enough to proclaim it time for...Battle Citrus.

Yet another happy benefit of living here in California is that citrus season during the deep winter months brings with it an entire rainbow of options in the category known as 'liquid sunshine'.  So, even though it may rain for fourteen days straight, we have the most incredible selection of citrus fruits I've seen anywhere guaranteed to brighten the darkest days.

So... as winner of Battle Chocolate and holder of the tacky whisk trophy...did I have a specific citrus dessert in mind for the competition?  I guess my first thought was to enter my trusty, yet humble, Lemon Poundcake.  Nothing fancy, but it is delicious and I thought maybe I would change it up a little by using Meyer lemons.  A friend who lives in Berkeley has a tree in his backyard and every so often will bring in large grocery bags full to share.  It makes me giddy to even think about such an abundance of this special citrus.  (The anguish of going store-to-store all over Chicago on the hunt for one, single Meyer lemon is still fresh in my mind.)

But then I started to surf the web a bit, searching for different citrus recipes--damn you Internet!  And  this recipe caught my eye.  Tangerine Semifreddo?  With Salted Almond Brittle? 
Oh.  That sounded good.  And looked impressive.

Call it hubris or what you will, but suddenly I was possessed by the intense need to try...and conquer... something new.  Something complicated.  
(Can you say 'show-off'?)   
Semifreddo (so suave!  so sophisticated!)  in Italian means 'half-cold' and then, there was the description I read somewhere that sold me..."half-frozen mousse".  I thought I had another winner on my hands.  I was not going to rest on my laurels.  I was going way out there on that dessert-making limb.  Talk about leaving your comfort zone.
A good portion of the weekend prior to Battle Citrus was spent making the various components.  (One of my all time best tips?  READ the recipe.  Not once.  Not twice.  But, three times.  Seriously.  It will make all the difference in the world.)  

Day One.  There was Salted Almond Brittle to be made.  For heavenssakes, this meant pulling out the damned candy thermometer, so clearly that is no longer the phobia it once was for me.  

Day Two.  The actual 'mousse' part, which would be frozen, included Adventures in Meringue--yikes.  Henry, the dog, offered moral support by not budging from his spot in the corner of the kitchen, while I cursed, holding a borrowed hand mixer in one hand and adding miscellaneous ingredients with the other.  (Multi-tasking, coordination activities make me a little surly and the Lemon Poundcake idea was looking like it would have been a better choice.)

Day Two -- evening.  The creation of the Honey-Tangerine sauce to be served on the side.  Labor intensive supreme-ing and juicing of many, many tangerines followed by a long, long (I mean come-on- how-long-is-this-going-to-take?!) reduction time.  More cursing.  

Day of Battle.   Distracted and running late, I chopped up my semifreddo and dished up the sauce.  (Why, oh why had I NOT taken the time to chill the serving platter?  Or, make a nice sign for my entry? sigh...)  

My colleagues had come up with an impressive array of citrus desserts, ranging from multiple versions of lemon bars, a chocolate-orange mousse, lemon cookies, lemon meringue cake, petits-fours (!) madeleines and adorable key lime tartlets (the winner, as it turned out).

My semifreddo started to melt into a gorgeous creamsicle-colored puddle just minutes after I plated it.  The flavor was wonderful -- all creamy, Dreamsicle goodness--and combined with the crunch of the salted brittle, it was truly unique. There was something really lovely about seeing the genuine excitement and effort my co-workers put into their entries (yes, we are kind of a bunch of foodies, most of us...) and, despite the dessert overload and stomachaches some of us had on that Monday afternoon, everyone agreed:  Battle Citrus was a success.  

As for my slightly bruised dessert-making ego?  It was soothed a bit by the stellar Lemon Poundcake I turned out the following weekend.  

Bring on the next battle.

Final photograph courtesy of V. Simpson.

Tangerine Semifreddo with Salted Almond Brittle recipe can be found here and the link above.
I followed it to the letter.  My only note is:   Serve on chilled dessert plates.