Best Banana Bread I Ever Made

Banana Bread

Baking becomes a bit of a challenge for me in the summer, since I don’t care to turn on the oven for long periods of time and heat up the house on a hot July day. This year, however, has been a bit strange weather-wise. Monday offered temps in the 60’s… I had six bananas that were heavily speckled with brown spots… and a lack of Candy Crush lives.

I really liked how this  turned out. Most of the time banana bread is dense and mushy. This recipe (from America’s Test Kitchen) solved that problem by removing and reducing the moisture in the bananas. It may take a few minutes longer to make than other recipes, but it’s worth it! The sugar sprinkled on the top caramelizes the banana slices and gives the loaf a crispy crust. You can add 1/2 cup of chopped toasted walnuts to the batter before putting it in the loaf pan… if you like that sort of thing.

 

8.75 ounces all-purpose flour (1 3/4 cups)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon table salt

6 large very ripe bananas, peeled

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

2 large eggs

5.25 ounces light brown sugar (3/4 cup packed)

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

 

  • Whisk flour, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl. Set aside.
  • Place 5 bananas in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and cut several steam vents. Microwave on high for 4-5 minutes until the bananas are soft and have released a lot of liquid. Strain the bananas in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and allow the liquid to drain, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. You should end up with somewhere between 1/2 to 3/4 cup of liquid.
  • Transfer the liquid to a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the banana liquid is reduced to 1/4 cup. Place the microwaved bananas in a medium bowl, add the reduced liquid and mash with a potato masher until fairly smooth.
  • Whisk in the butter, eggs, brown sugar and vanilla. If your bowl of bananas seems particularly hot after mashing, let it cool for a few minutes so you don’t end up with scrambled eggs in your batter (ewww).
  • Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Do not over mix.
  • Spray a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan with vegetable oil spray and scrape batter into the loaf pan. Even it out with a spatula.
  • Slice the remaining banana diagonally into 1/8 inch thick slices and shingle the bananas on top of either side of the loaf. Make sure you have at least 1.5 inches of space down the center of the loaf to ensure an even rise. It should look like this:

Unbaked Banana Bread

  • Sprinkle the 2 teaspoons of sugar evenly over the entire loaf.
  • Bake at 350 degrees in the center of the oven for about 50-65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Start checking at 50 minutes.
  • Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove from the pan and finish cooling on the rack.

This is truly best the same day it’s made, but you can wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and store it on the counter for up to 3 days, however once wrapped it does lose some of the crispiness on top, but it’s still delicious!

Baked Potato Soup

Baked Potato Soup

This is not something I normally make during the summertime, however last week we had two unseasonably cool days, so I was willing to heat up the house a bit. This soup is thick and creamy… and with some bread or croissants, you can definitely make a meal out of it. It should be noted that this is not a quick meal, you will need a couple of hours to make this, but it’s not all active cooking time. Here’s what you’ll need:

4 large russet potatoes

1 pound thick cut bacon

1/2 cup unsalted butter

3 Tablespoons bacon fat* (see note below)

2/3 cup flour

8 cups milk

6-8 green onions, thinly sliced

2 Tablespoons minced fresh chives

8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon table salt

1 Tablespoon fresh ground black pepper

 

*If using bacon fat in the soup weirds you out, you could substitute more butter instead. Using some bacon fat really gives the soup a full, well rounded, bacon-y flavor.

 

  • Bake the potatoes as you normally would for a dinner side dish. I usually pick out the 4 largest potatoes I can find at the grocery store, poke them a few times with a fork (to release steam… you don’t want a potato explosion in your oven, do you?) and bake them at 350 degrees for about 75 minutes. Sometimes they take a little longer. I usually start checking them after an hour. I wish I had a better way to describe when the potatoes are done, but I don’t. It’s when they “feel right.” I suppose if you’ve never baked a potato before, this recipe probably isn’t for you. No need to oil the skins or salt them or anything. You’ll be removing the skin later. Allow the baked potatoes to cool on a cooling rack for one hour.
  • Cook the bacon until crispy. You can do it in a frying pan on the stove, but I prefer to do it on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper in the oven. The bacon cooks much more evenly. You want the bacon to be fairly well done (but don’t burn it!). Once you add it to the soup later, the bacon loses some crispiness as it absorbs soup liquid, so if you start with undercooked, fattier bits, they’ll be really rubbery in the final product – not good. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat and set aside.
  • Chop the cooked bacon into bits and set aside.
  • Peel the potatoes with your hands. It will be easier than you think, but may take some time. Cut potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes. If you want bigger chunks, that’s fine. Do whatever you want. I just like smaller bite sized potato pieces in my soup. Set aside the cubed potatoes.
  • Add the butter and bacon fat to a large pot or dutch oven. Melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and whisk together to form a roux. Cook over low heat about 5 minutes, until bubbly.
  • Slowly add the 8 cups of milk, whisking constantly. Do your best to not form lumps of roux within the milk. If your roux seems to be clumping, just keep whisking. It’ll all work itself out. Once all of the milk is added, turn the heat up to medium and continue whisking constantly until the mixture starts steaming and begins to thicken, but isn’t simmering yet.
  • Once it starts to thicken slightly, add the potatoes, onions and chives. Stir with a wooden spoon constantly until the soup comes to a simmer. During this time it will get significantly thicker. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot while you’re stirring. Reduce the heat and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Add the bacon, stir to combine.
  • Add the shredded cheese, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir each addition until completely melted. If you add all 8 ounces at once, you risk the cheese not melting properly, and you certainly don’t want to ruin your soup at this stage.
  • Add the sour cream, salt and pepper. Stir until sour cream is melted into the soup.
  • Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
  • Garnish with additional cheese, bacon and chives.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Warm and buttery, these flaky biscuits are great with sausage gravy for breakfast or a little jam for a quick afternoon snack.

I’ve been making biscuits and sausage gravy for years, long before I was married. My old roommate’s now husband used to request this now and again when he would stay at our place. It’s taken years for me to perfect this. I’d tried using different amounts of butter, adjusting how much baking powder I added, and even fiddled with oven temperatures and baking times. For some reason, the bottoms always came out tough.

Eventually, I turned to shortening. This is the one and only recipe in which I will use the product. The flavor of butter is much better, but unfortunately did not produce the soft biscuit bottom and tender crumb I was seeking on it’s own. After much trial and error, I think I’ve adjusted the butter to shortening ratio and quantities to my satisfaction. Here’s what you need (best part is most of this will already be in your pantry and fridge):

  • 4 cups all purpose flour
  • 8 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 & 1/2 teaspoons table salt
  • 8 tablespoons (one stick) very cold butter cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons very cold butter flavored shortening cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 cups buttermilk

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt

Add your butter cubes to the flour. Once I cut the cubes, I typically put the butter and shortening into the freezer for 10 minutes to make sure it’s well chilled. This is especially true on a warm day. The key to making your biscuits flaky and tender is to have the butter very cold when it hits the hot oven.

The butter and shortening should be cut up like this.

The butter and shortening should be cut up like this.

Cut the butter into the flour. I like to use the pastry blender pictured below. Before I had one, I found the best tool for this job is two hands. Just get in there with your fingers and rub the butter and flour together until it looks like wet sand. There will still be many pea sized butter pieces, but that’s ok.

Love this pastry blender.

Love this pastry blender.

This is what the mixture looks like once the butter is cut in.

This is what the mixture looks like once the butter is cut in.

Here you can see some pea sized butter pieces. That's good. That's where you want it.

Here you can see some pea sized butter pieces. That’s good. That’s where you want it. You can click on any of these photos for a larger view.

If the room is warm, or you used your hands, it would be a good idea to put this flour-butter mixture in the freezer for 5-10 minutes. You’d be surprised how quickly the heat from your hands can soften and melt your butter.

Next, make a well in the center of the bowl, and pour in the buttermilk. Stir until it JUST  combined. Do not overmix. You will be sorry.

Overmixing will result in a tougher biscuit.

Overmixing will result in a tougher biscuit.

Turn the dough out onto a well floured work surface, dust the top with flour, and knead 4 or 5 times to bring the dough together.

There's still some dry spots here, but it'll all work out with a couple quick kneadings.

There are still some dry spots here, but it’ll all work out with a quick kneading.

Once you bring the dough together (again, work it as little as possible), pat it out into a 1 inch thick round on your work surface. You may want to re-flour your work surface to ensure the biscuits don’t stick when cut.

You may want to re-flour your work surface once you knead. This stuff is sticky.

It doesn’t need to be a perfect circle. Just try to pat it out evenly.

Begin cutting rounds with a 2 inch biscuit cutter. Re-flour the biscuit cutter between each cut and place biscuits on a parchment lined baking sheet.

I neglected to re-flour my board, and a couple biscuits were sticking. They still turned out fine!

I neglected to re-flour my board, and a couple biscuits were sticking. They still turned out fine!

Line them up about 1/4 inch apart from eachother on the sheet like this.

Line them up about 1/4 inch apart from each other on the sheet like this.

Rework the scrap dough as little as possible, and pat into a 1 inch round again. Make cuts, and place remaining biscuits on the pan. Throw away remaining scrap dough. It will be too overworked if you try to make a third cut. Today I got 14 biscuits. Sometimes I get 16. It just depends on the day I guess.

Bake the biscuits in a 425 degree oven for 15-18 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through cooking time.

When the biscuits are GB&D (golden brown and delicious), transfer to a cooling rack and cool for 5 minutes.

Let them sit for 5 minutes so you don't burn your mouth.

Let them sit for 5 minutes so you don’t burn your mouth.

You can serve them once the 5 minutes are up, or cool them completely and store in a plastic container at room temperature for a couple days.

YUM!

YUM!

 

Summer Fruit Salad with Ginger Lime Reduction

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These sweet summer fruits combine with the spicy kick of ginger and the tangy zip of lime to create fireworks in your mouth!

This is a quick and easy recipe. You can use many different types of fruit. This works well with honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, raspberries, kiwi, strawberries… just use whatever you like (or what’s on sale, which is why I used pineapple and strawberries this time).

Summer Fruit Salad with Ginger Lime Reduction

  • cut fruit (at least 4 cups, up to 6 cups)
  • juice of 4-6 limes (you should end up with somewhere between 3/4 and 1 cup of juice)
  • zest of said limes (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 2 tablespoons of minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • pinch of salt

First, zest all of your limes. Don’t make a rookie mistake and juice your limes before zesting them. You will be displeased.

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Next, peel and mince your ginger. I know there are a lot of Americans out there who see this ingredient as a foreign object they have never touched let alone purchased before. Don’t be afraid. It will be tasty. Don’t worry too much about getting ALL of the ginger peel off. You’re going to strain this out in the end anyway.

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Set your lime zest and minced ginger aside, and juice your limes. Pour the lime juice and sugar into a small saucepan and add a pinch of salt. Turn the heat to medium and simmer until it becomes honey colored and syrupy, and has reduced to about 1/4 cup.

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Here’s the lime juice prior to heat being applied.

This is what it looks like about half way through. Bubbling away...

This is what it looks like about half way through. Bubbling away…

Here you can see that the bubbles are starting to stack up on top of each other, and the color is notably darker. You can also see a dark brown ring around the inside of the pan. Don't worry, it won't be a pain to scrub if you throw it in the dishwasher.

Here you can see that the bubbles are starting to stack up on top of each other, and the color is notably darker. You can also see a dark brown ring around the inside of the pan. My dishwasher does a good job, so this isn’t a pain to clean up.

After about 10-15 minutes, it will have reduced to this color and consistency.

After about 10-15 minutes, it will have reduced to this color and consistency.

An important note… keep an eye on this after the 10 minute mark. If you forget about this while you’re chopping fruit (which I once did), it will go from beautiful a lime syrup to a burned sugary mess in NO TIME. You have been warned.

Once your lime juice looks like mine in the photo above, add the lime zest, minced ginger and lemon juice. Stir, and steep for 1-2 minutes.

Add lime zest and ginger.

Add lime zest and ginger.

Stir and let steep.

Stir and let steep.

Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl or another vessel (I like to use this measuring cup), and strain out the zest and ginger, pressing on the solids with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. You should have approximately 1/4 cup of liquid (no worries if it’s a bit more or less. It’s hard to screw this up).

You can really see how much darker the juice is in this photo.

You can really see how much darker the juice is in this photo.

Ideally, you would have been chopping your fruit while the lime juice was reducing on the stove. As previously mentioned, KEEP AN EYE ON THAT SHIT! If you let your lime juice go too far, it is a nasty mess… and it doesn’t smell all too pleasant either.

The strawberries were on sale and looked great!

The strawberries were on sale and looked great!

I hate cutting a pineapple.

I hate cutting a pineapple.

Throw all that fruit in a bowl.

Throw all that fruit in a bowl.

Finally, pour the warm ginger lime syrup over the fruit and toss to coat.

Yummy!

Yummy!

Serve immediately, or refrigerate for a few hours.

This doesn’t last more than a day or two in the fridge, but you’ll likely eat it all before then, so no worries!

 

I said it was good… I didn’t say it was healthy

Remember when I did that blogging thing for awhile?

I’m bringing it back… and in most cases it will be in very food-centric ways. Let’s face it, I’ve got some TIME on my hands at the moment. One can only waste so many hours playing Candy Crush (Yeah, I’m outta lives. Send me one?)

Last night I made what is arguably one of my favorite weeknight meals. In all fairness, it began as an America’s Test Kitchen recipe. As with most recipes, I could not leave it alone and it has since been tweaked to my satisfaction.

Here’s what you’ll need:

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Sourdough bread, parmesan, provolone, pecorino romano and gorgonzola cheeses, penne, butter, cream, flour, salt & pepper.

You don’t have to use sourdough, any high quality bread will do… just don’t make the mistake of using store bought breadcrumbs, or you’ll be sorry. Don’t worry, they’re easy to make. Just take two slices of fresh bread, tear them into pieces and pulse 10-15 times in a food processor. It should look like this:

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Get about 4 quarts or so of water on the stove at this point if you didn’t do that already. You can heat that up while shredding the cheese, which is what you’ll be doing next. Don’t cheap out when you buy the cheese, and DO NOT try using anything like the Kraft pre-grated parmesan that comes in a can. You need to buy REAL parmesan and romano for this recipe. The couple extra bucks will be worth it (plus you’ll have a hunk of parmesan in your fridge and you’ll find all sorts of uses for that later).

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How much cheese? About this much. About 3/4 cup shredded parmesan, 3/4 cup shredded romano, 1 cup shredded provolone. You shoulda bought the gorgonzola already crumbled, this container is 4 oz.

All of you blue cheese haters out there can go home. Gorgonzola is pretty mild, and combined with the pungent flavors of the other cheeses, the final dish does not taste particularly “blue-cheesy.” The original recipe calls for fontina instead of provolone, but when the only fontina available at my local grocer is $11 for 4 ounces, I’m willing to substitute in provolone for a small fraction of that price. Take half of the parmesan and add it to your breadcrumbs, along with about 1/2 teaspoon of pepper (freshly ground, please) and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Toss it together with a fork.

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Dump the remaining parmesan and other cheeses into the biggest mixing bowl you’ve got and toss them together (seriously, this’ll get messy later if you don’t heed my warning). I like this ginormous one that also gets frequently used as the “popcorn” bowl.

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Stop worrying about the gorgonzola situation. I already told you, it’s not gonna taste like blue cheese.

Now is a good time to open one of these,

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Let’s ignore the fact that all of the bottles in my wine rack are clearly empty.

because a watched pot never boils!

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“T-T-T-Today, junior!”

and occasionally you have to deal with unexpected visitors…

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B-Bones offers his assistance.

While you’re drinking your wine (and waiting for that damned water to boil) melt about a tablespoon or so of butter over medium-low heat. Add about a tablespoon of flour and whisk until no lumps remain. Give it another 30 seconds or so to cook out that raw flour taste and then slowly add 2 cups of heavy cream while whisking.

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Can you multi-task? I hope so, especially with one hand occupied by a glass of wine. Hey look, the water is ready!

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Make sure you have a rolling boil going. Anything less can and will result in mushy pasta. Patience is a virtue! (but seriously, why can’t hurry the F$*! up be a virtue too?}

Throw in a pound of penne and cook until just shy of al-dente. Don’t choose another pasta. The tube shape and outside ridges are the key here. They help trap and hold onto all of the cheesy goodness. Hey! Don’t forget about that cream sauce you started. You turned up the heat to medium and have been whisking it every minute or so, right? Good. Once it starts to boil, turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer for one more minute (it’ll have thickened up at this point). Add about a 1/4 teaspoon of pepper and a 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Whisk, remove from heat, cover and set aside.

When your pasta is ready, drain it but don’t shake off the excess water. You want it to be slightly wet. Dump the steaming hot pasta directly on top of the cheeses in your mixing bowl. Immediately pour the cream sauce on top of the pasta and cover with plastic wrap. Let it sit for 3 minutes to get the cheeses melting.

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At this point, B-Bones had been fed and was no longer interested in dinner preparation photo bombs.

Once 3 minutes have elapsed, stir it up, making sure to scrape the bottom with a spatula to get all of the cheeses stirred in and melted.

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Dump that deliciousness into a 9×13 baking dish. Nope, you don’t need to spray it or butter it or anything, just pour that cheesy mess in there. Make sure you use the spatula to scrape any remaining cheese mess from the bowl.

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Remember the bread crumbs we made earlier? Nope, you don’t need to pre-cook or toast them. Just sprinkle them evenly over the top and press down lightly.

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Throw this into a 475 degree oven for about 13-15 minutes. You did preheat the oven, didn’t you? If not, you’ll just have extra time to work on that bottle of wine. Slice up some of that sourdough, cause it goes really well with the pasta!

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The bread anxiously awaits the arrival of the pasta… and worries about a possible altercation with B-Bones…

Here’s the finished product. Ta-Da!

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Let it sit for 5 minutes before serving. Try not to over-eat. Let me know how you liked it if you end up making this!