Thursday, January 29, 2009

Banana Blueberry Muffins

Banana-Blueberry Muffins

This book From a baker's kitchen came from an unlikely source: my husband. He researched it carefully, looking for a book that included more than just recipes to help feed my growing baking habit. This one has a lot of information about equipment and methods, and a nice variety of baking recipes that aren't just sweet recipes. It's especially unlikely coming from my husband because he won't have anything to do with muffins.

My 2-year-old used to live on "mana-manas" (bananas). I had to hide them to get her to eat anything else for dinner. Now she refuses everything, including bananas. I still buy bananas, in the dimming hope that her former affinity might revive itself, but I keep underestimating the depth of resistance of a toddler. As a result, I end up with a lot of overripe bananas. And tonight, those bananas met my Baker's Kitchen book.

Nice when the first thing I do with a recipe is leave out one of its title ingredients. Well, sometimes one just must make do. I thought I had frozen blueberries (already unacceptable, as this recipe called for fresh), but they're either buried in the freezer or were long since snagged for something else. I almost used frozen cranberries, but instead made use of some delicious (Warren?) pears that were getting on the soft side anyway.

The method is easy and muffin-universal: mix wet ingredients first, then dry, then put them together carefully. In the first two steps, you mix well. But the combination of wet and dry should be done very carefully, so as not to overdevelop the gluten. And the batter shouldn't be pourable, it should be lumpy and dropped in glops (my word) into the wells. So says the book. This was definitely worth a try.

I was very surprised to see how little sugar this recipe calls for -- only 1/3 a cup. Even adding in the natural sweetness in a banana, that's not much. I routinely cut sugar down by at least a third, but not this one.

I also used half "white whole-wheat flour", which looks so much like plain white flour that I'm not really sure it counts. Half is more whole-wheat than I usually use, but muffins aren't supposed to be super-delicate.

The recipe also called for a higher oven temperature than most muffins -- 400 degrees. I'm not sure what that means exactly, especially since my oven treats temperature as more art than science.

Emboldened by the low sugar content, I made another popular modification: sprinkling a little cinnamon sugar atop the batter before baking. I like how this affects the appearance, and gives the first bite some bite!

My batter came out exactly like the book said it should: thick and lumpy. As a result, the muffins expanded and cracked slightly at the top, and had a nice coarse, but moist texture (lots of pear bits help that I'm sure). I don't think I've ever made true muffins before -- all previous muffins were really cakes in the shape of muffins. But these were unique!

Yummy, pretty.

And pretty yummy. Hearty and substantial, but not heavy, and definitely not oversweet. I don't think I'd change a thing next time!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Vegetable Tian

Vegetable Tian

Most of my Ina recipes come from watching her TV show "Barefoot Contessa" on Food Network. I just love her simple, often elegant recipes and straightforward descriptions, and have a new appreciation for how she prepares things ahead of time and enjoys her guests instead of scrambling in the kitchen. This lady knows how to party.

Turns out, her books are much the same way. My Mom got me Barefoot in Paris for Christmas, and I just love it. My husband and I were invited to a New Year Eve's dinner with vegetarian friends, and asked me to bring a salad. And I did. But I couldn't let it stop there.

So, thumbing through my new cookbook, I came across this Vegetable Tian recipe. Simple, straightforward, prepare in advance -- Ina's fingerprints were all over this one.

I learned quickly that "simple" doesn't always mean "fast" or "easy." A key feature to this dish is the lovely presentation, which means finding tomatoes, potatoes and zucchini of all about the same diameter. Turns out, I'm no good at estimating the diameter of a circle by looking at the circumference of a cylinder! Who knew my inattention to geometry would be a liability in the kitchen. I cut twice as many vegetables as I needed to in order to get roughly same-sized circles. And even halving the recipe, that was a lot of slicing.

Somehow I roped myself into a lot of shopping too. I used baby dutch potatoes from Trader Joe's, plum totatoes from Whole Foods, and zucchini from Safeway. There must be a better way.

A bed of sauteed onions, a blanket of freshly grated gruyere cheese, and this was truly a recipe for simple, elegant fabulousness. The actual baking was a two-step process, which was perfect for preparing ahead of time (bake #1) and bringing to someone else's house and finishing it off (bake #2). With the vegetable disks layered in perfect rows, its beauty belied its simplicity. And the fresh thyme smelled wonderful while baking, earning forgiveness for being such a pain to chop.

The only thing this recipe doesn't do well is be photographed, at least by me. But other than churning up math issues I should have resolved in 6th grade, this was a complete winner. Happy New Year!