Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

When one makes it known that they like to bake or cook, it’s easy to get gifts for them – just go for an interesting-looking cookbook. I have been gifted all sorts of cookbooks over the last several years, to the point where I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to them:

cookbooks

The above does not include the large number of Sunset and BonAppetit magazines I have elsewhere. At some point, one kind of has too many cookbooks. I know that sounds blasphemous, but it’s kind of true. At one point when we got the Curries, Jewish, and Greek Cooking books, Mikal and I went through them and flagged the recipes that looked most enticing to us, with the intent of eventually making all of these items. I don’t know if we even got through a handful – it’s a lot of food! Lots of recipes! It’s a bit daunting. Imagining making even half of the items contained in that bookshelf…. I could easily have a few years’ worth of recipes on my hands.

You know, at this point that sounds a bit like a fun adventure, especially with the food we get from the CSA (community-sustained agriculture). I’ve actually been doing that a bit this week – we purchased a full share from the CSA for this quarter, and it’s just a ton of food, mostly vegetables. So Tuesday night I made a ratatouille variant (didn’t have eggplant, but had zucchini and yellow squash), and last night I made citrus chicken with herby-cheesish baked zucchini and tomatoes. It was kind of fun to do some random.

Speaking of zucchini – that’s a lot of what we have been getting lately in our share: giant zucchini. I love making zucchini bread. It’s so delicious and I can pretend it’s vaguely healthy. Even before using one giant one for the last two nights’ dinner, I grated down a couple more and came out with 9 cups of zucchini. That’s a lot of zucchini bread. Just saying.

As with banana bread, I have a zucchini bread recipe that works pretty well, and is pretty damn good, but I’m pretty sure it’s not amazing. I have personally gotten a bit tired of eating zucchini bread muffins over the last couple of weeks. This prompted me to start looking through my cookbooks, checking to see if there are any interesting other items out there I could try. I came across Chocolate and Zucchini, a book my grandparents got me a couple of years ago. I’m pretty sure I have tried one or two recipes from it at some point, but I had not been brave enough to attempt the recipe the book and blog were named for – chocolate zucchini cake. The author has a blurb about it and how she started making it, and as had happened when my mother first made zucchini bread, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Even knowing that zucchini bread is awesome, and that you can’t really taste the zucchini, I just couldn’t reconcile the flavors of zucchini and chocolate.

Getting sick of a particular something does help bypass a lot of that feeling, though. So I took the plunge and made cupcakes rather than cake, and they were absolutely amazing. The zucchini traps in moisture, as it does with bread, and gives the cupcakes a richness that belies its decently moderate use of cocoa powder and chocolate. The moisture bit is particularly useful because of what is going on with my baked goods. You see, my office recently got some new furniture, including a beverage station. That in itself was pretty awesome (no more having to run to the kitchen in the back when guests want some coffee), but what made it just that much more awesome was that a tiered pastry dish was included. I don’t know if the powers that be that assembled the set for the office had me in mind at all, or even know that I bake, but I have taken over that pastry dish with a passion. I now bake goodies twice a week to ensure that it is adequately stocked.

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Those are the plain zucchini muffins. The moisture that the zucchini helps lock into the bread helps these puppies stay fresh over a few days so that I’m not making a batch every day. No, those biscotti aren’t mine – though eventually I’ll figure out better packaging and they will be.

I don’t have an image for the chocolate zucchini cupcakes, but I will undoubtedly make more. Nine cups of zucchini. Nine.

Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

from Chocolate and Zucchini

1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature, or 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp instant coffee granules
3 large eggs
2 cups unpeeled grated zucchini
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (or cut-up Dove dark chocolates)

Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a muffin tin or line with paper baking cups.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt. With a mixer or food processor, cream the butter and sugars. Add vanilla, coffee granules, and eggs, mixing well between each addition.

Reserve a cup of the flour mixture and add the rest to the egg mixture. Mix until just combined.

Add the chocolate chips to the reserved flour mixture and toss to coat, then do the same with the zucchini. Fold into the batter and blend with a wooden spoon – don’t overmix. Pour into the prepared pan and level the surfaces with a spatula.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the middle cupcakes comes out clean. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes, then fish the cupcakes out of the pan and let cool to room temperature before serving. At this point you can sprinkle the tops with confectioners’ sugar (very pretty), or glaze with melted chocolate.

A more amazing banana bread

Banana bread has become one of my standbys – takes very little prep time or energy, and generally tastes pretty damn good no matter the time of year. I’ve played with making banana bread muffins, recently branched into banana scones… Whoever first developed banana bread had a really good idea.

That being said, once I came across the recipe I presently use, I hadn’t really branched out or futzed with it because it is that good. That is, until this week. As Thursday was 4th of July, I had the day off and didn’t really have to bake. knowing I had the day off, I didn’t give much thought to baking, making sure I have ingredients, or anything of that sort. I was running low on butter anyway, so I thought I would forego the process for this week.

Luckily, I was invited to a barbecue. My first thought: AWESOME BBQ! My second thought: what should I bring? My host had no particular preference, so it was up to me to come up with something awesome. I really really really really wanted to use the last of my butter and try making roti buns, and I did…. but that became quite the aborted attempt when they decided to not rise properly. I may have over-kneaded the dough, or I might have failed with the yeast, I don’t really know – that will be retried again in the near future. It left me scrambling, though. I could try muffins, but it would be chocolate and I had already made tons of chocolate muffins in the last couple of months… So bananas it was. I unburied my trusty banana bread recipe, and found that I had approximately half an over-ripe banana more than I needed. Instead of putting it back in the fridge to let sadden, I tossed it in; half a banana can’t hurt, right?

Oh…was I correct on that one! That half-banana made just enough of a difference with the moisture that even though the loaves were sliced and placed on a platter and generally sat around half the day waiting to be eaten, they were still moist! The bread falls apart just a bit more easily with the extra moisture, at least when you’re slicing them up straight out of the oven (it was smelling so good that Mikal insisted we have some… oh buttons, so good).

So, the following is the reworked recipe. I have baking times for both loaves and muffins, so I will put that in too.

Banana Bread

Adapted from Sweet Amandine

1 1/2 cup flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 large overripe bananas – approx. 1 1/2 cups
2 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 1/2 tbsp packed golden brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1-2 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 tbsp flour
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a metal loaf pan, or line a muffin tin with liners. Spray liners with cooking spray if you do not want to watch people licking at the liner to get all the yummy goodness off.

In a large bowl, whisk the mashed bananas, eggs, vegetable oil, honey and water together until smooth. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until combined. Stir in the 1/2 cup walnuts. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

For the topping, mix together granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon and flour. Fork in the room-temperature butter until decently incorporated – you’ll have a moist clumpish substance. Sprinkle the remaining walnuts over the loaves/muffins, and top with the buttery clumps. This helps to adhere the nuts to the top so that they don’t fall off as easily should you slice the loaf and present it, or when you’re moving the muffins.

If making loaves, bake the bread for about 1 hour, until a toothpick comes out clean. IF USING METAL LOAF PANS check at about 45 minutes, and keep an eye out thereafter – I have noticed that the bread will take on a distinctly browned flavor if I just let it go for the whole hour or so. If making muffins, bake for 20-23 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. If making mini-muffins, bake for 15 minutes.

Happy Birthday, Leslie!

Some time last week, I realized that I had never asked Leslie what her favorite cake is. After having known her for a year, I hadn’t asked that question. It felt strange, as we had talked about all kinds of other foods, and being the person I am, I try to know what to make someone for their birthday, or more generally just to make them happy.

At any rate, I did the blatant thing and asked Leslie what kind of cake she likes. Her answer: No Idea. It turns out she had some idea (she always has an idea or at least a hunch, which is one of the amazing things about coming to her with off-the-wall questions – you know you’ll get an answer that will likely prove useful), and her guidelines were such: moist, airy, icing, fruit is always good. At one point she was listing some of her favorite fruits, and I latched onto blackberry. I’m not really sure why, as outside of blackberry cobbler I haven’t really had much experience baking with them. My biggest beef with them is their seeds – small and hard and annoying, and they mess with the enjoyment of the wonderful flavor of blackberries. I let that stew in the back of my mind while I approached the second question – what cake can I make that would stay moist? I ran through all of the cakes and other confections I had made and realized that most of my cakes, while light, tend to be on the dryer end of things. So I went on a hunt.

Lo and behold, my old standby bonappetit.com had a recipe for French yogurt cake. It’s essentially pound cake without all the butter, and the image they selected for it – a thin slice of the cake – makes it apparent it’s quite a bit lighter than regular pound cake. Add to that a nice lemony taste, and it sounded like heaven; just how to integrate the blackberry?

Yet another tidbit Leslie let slip in telling me what she does like in a cake was layers and lots of frosting. Once I had discovered the yogurt cake recipe, my imagination went a little wild; I initially imagined something of a marbled/ribbon cake, with a beautiful purple streak running through it. But I don’t really know how to do that, and I would rather not botch it that much. The previous week we had purchased Allouette crème fraîche from Grocery Outlet so that I could see what real crème fraîche is supposed to taste like (I had only ever made the homemade pseudo-stuff out of heated buttermilk and cream left to culture at room temperature). I got it into my head that blackberry and crème fraîche would make an amazing combination – and suddenly I had my layer filling.

So I made two of the yogurt cakes, figuring it would be an amazingly good idea to actually put one together and make sure that it would actually be as good as my mind was telling me it would be. It was pretty amazing, let me tell you. It has a bit of sweetness, especially if you top it with a simple glaze and let it run down the sides; a little bit of tartness both from the blackberry reduction and the crème fraîche; and the yogurt cake provides a wonderful base for it all.

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French Yogurt Cake with Blackberry-Crème Fraiche Filling

Adapted from BonAppetit

Blackberry Sauce
1 lb frozen blackberries
1 cup sugar

Yogurt Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp finely grated lemon zest
3/4 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

In a medium sauce pan, heat the blackberries and sugar over medium-low heat until blackberries are fully thawed and turning to mush. Put the fruit into a blender and purée, then pass the liquid through a mesh sieve back into the pan to remove the seeds. Heat the sauce over low heat until reduced by half, then place in a container and let cool in the fridge until you assemble the cake. This can be done much ahead of time – just make sure you start at least a few hours before you’re ready to assemble the cake.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat loaf pan with vegetable oil, dust with flour, and tap out excess.

Whisk 1 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, and kosher salt in medium bowl.

Using your fingers, rub sugar with lemon zest in a large bowl until sugar is moist. Add yogurt, oil, eggs, and vanilla extract, and whisk to blend. Fold in dry ingredients until just blended.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until the top of the cake is brown and a tester into center comes out clean, approximately 50-55 minutes.

Let cake cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely before assembling.

Once cooled, cut the cake horizontally into two to three pieces – it all depends on how many layers you want. This is where you can have some fun: for my initial cake, I spread blackberry sauce on both faces of the layers, and spread crème fraîche in between them before smooshing them together. This looked good, but was rather messy. I ended up spreading the blackberry sauce on the bottom bit of the bottom slice, then doing a layer of crème fraîche, placing that in the pan, then doing the same on the next slice up. Finally, I topped it with the top slice, poured over a quick glaze of powdered sugar, milk and vanilla, then drizzled more blackberry sauce over the top. It looked pretty darn good, I have to say.

Peasant Bread

Bread seems like one of those things it should be pretty hard to screw up. I mean, it’s flour, water, yeast, sugar, and salt. That’s all you really need. So I have to keep asking myself why my bread doesn’t turn out. When we lived in Olympia, I blamed it on the generally low ambient temperature – none of my doughs ever seem to rise enough, and came out way too dense.

I thought that would change once I got down to California. The ambient temperature in the bay area is pretty awesome, generally speaking, so the dough should rise pretty easily, right? No such luck. So I stopped attempting bread as I was obviously doing something wrong. Perhaps it was the temperature of the water that the yeast sits in to become active; perhaps it was the yeast itself. I’m betting on one or both of those, because when I tried this recipe, I busted out a new package of yeast I got in bulk, and that yeast was foaming in the water like there was no tomorrow. (I guess for them, there wasn’t >_>) I had previously been using the little envelopes, though at one point I had used a small jar of active dry yeast…

In any case, the recipe below is AMAZING. It’s a bit odd to handle – very wet, so you need to bake it in a container – but even that doesn’t deter me from wanting to make a couple of loaves EVERY DAY. I started a batch day before yesterday in the morning, but I seem to have not incorporated the flour and water together all that well because when I went to check on it, somehow a bunch of the water had separated to the bottom and it was just completely lost. I tossed that batch, and in the afternoon started another. I kind of forgot about it, so it sat for a good couple of hours before I headed to bed and had an oh-shit moment. I separated the dough into two pyrex bowls, covered them with plastic wrap, and tossed them in the fridge for their second rising. Even so, when I baked them yesterday morning, Mikal and I scarfed down one of the loaves as soon as we could get it out of the bowl. Even with over-proofing, it still came out light and fluffy, and the buttering of the bowl creates a wonderful crust – remember not to skimp on that, because it’s a beast to get out otherwise.

Peasant Bread

from Alexandra’s Kitchen

1lb 2oz all-purpose flour (approx. 4 cups)
2 tsp salt
2 cups lukewarm water
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp active-dry yeast

room-temperature butter, approx. 2 tbsp

A couple of notes: With the flour, the recipe specifies to go by weight, but if you can’t, you measure scant-cups of flour by scooping the flour into the measuring devices with another cup or spoon, then leveling off below the rim of the measuring device. As I have a scale at home, I just went with the weight measurement because it was much easier. 

Additionally, the recipe gives a wonderful tip for achieving the correct temperature for the yeast to have some fun in: boil some water, and add a half-cup of the boiled water to 1 1/2 cups cold water – it does seem to do the trick fantastically. 

Finally, there is a warning about the baking vessels: you do need to make sure to use two or more smaller bowls or whatever for the baking, as the dough is too moist/fragile to bake up well in the larger bowl. 

In a small mixing bowl, dissolve the sugar into the water. Sprinkle the yeast over the top. (The recipe then goes on to say that there is no need to stir it, but I found that if I just sprinkled it the yeast didn’t seem terribly active; with stirring, there was a party in that water in no time. Do whatever you are comfortable with.) Let stand for 10-15 minutes or until the mixture is foamy and/or bubbling just a bit. While this is happening, measure out the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Once the yeast mixture is ready, add to the flour mixture with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Cover the bowl with a damp tea-towel or plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 1-2hrs until doubled in bulk.

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Butter up two oven-safe bowls (this makes a couple of nicely-rounded loaves; I haven’t attempted to use a different pan, but you could undoubtedly use a loaf pan – I’m totally going to do that next). Using the spatula, punch down the dough, folding it in on itself. Divide the dough evenly between the two bowls. (This is where it’s a little odd to handle – you can just divide the dough in half and toss into the bowls – I had to finagle it a bit because it is that wet.) Let the dough rise for 30 minutes or until it has risen to around the top of the bowls.

Bake for 10 minutes at 425°F; reduce the heat to 375°F and bake for 22-25 minutes longer. Remove from oven and turn the loaves out onto cooling racks. If, for whatever reason, your loaves seem a bit pale once they are out of the bowl, stick them back in the oven without the bowls for 5 minutes or so.


As Mikal and I were eating that first loaf, I had a few different ideas of what to use the bread for: grilled cheese sandwiches, french toast, something else that has run away rom my mind… Just keep in mind that this bread is rather…soft. It’s probably not ideal for everyday sandwiches, or spreading peanut butter on. I may have to do a bit more experimenting to see if I can figure out how to make it just a bit more universally useable without messing with the simplicity of the recipe – because this is so simple I could easily make it every day.

Buttermilk Granola Muffins

When Mikal first suggested granola muffins to me, I had two thoughts: 1) that would be crunchy; 2) why didn’t I think of that?

This particular recipe comes out decently moist, but it still looks like a bran muffin, which I believe is a large part of the reason very few of them were eaten throughout the day. Mikal had yet another ingenious idea to make them look more appetizing: instead of topping them with granola, make a cinnamon-apple mixture to top the muffins with. Doesn’t that sound delicious?

Buttermilk Granola Muffins

from King Arthur Flour

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (I have a blend of all-purpose and wheat that is approx. 50/50, and I used that; I’m still a bit iffy about using full whole wheat flour because I have not come across a recipe that keeps the baked good moist enough)
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup prepared granola
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Topping:
3/4 cup prepared granola

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly grease the cups of a standard muffin tin, or use paper baking cups and grease those. (I don’t grease mine – yes, there tends to be stuff stuck to the paper once one eats it, but I just don’t feel like taking the time to grease them.)

Whisk together all dry ingredients, including granola. In a separate bowl, whisk together vanilla, vegetable oil and buttermilk. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir until just combined.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling them nearly full. Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with additional granola (or a wonderful apple-cinnamon mixture). Bake muffins approximately 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of one of the center muffins comes out clean.

Remove muffins from the oven, and let cool 5 minutes or so before transferring to a rack to cool.