Mocha Banana Bread

Trying to find space on my kitchen counter to photograph my food is tough. The area that gets the most sunlight is always strewn with things: my daughter’s drawings, grocery lists, cookbooks, library books, keys, the laptop and ipad. I don’t mind it much though; after all, the kitchen is the place that gets the most traffic in my home. It is where we hang out most of the time and where my kids first head to when they want to find me.

The above is a slice of banana bread waiting to be wrapped up and taken to work by my husband for his snack. Not just your regular banana bread, this banana bread is spiked with an ample dose of cocoa and coffee. I had a slice this morning for breakfast and it was one of the best things I have woken up to in a long time. Instead of drinking a cup of coffee and eating a slice of banana bread for breakfast, this is like combining the tastes of both in each bite. This is a shortcut I’ll gladly take as I usually have my breakfast standing up over the counter as I prepare my daughter’s school lunch and catch up on my emails.

I was inspired to make this by Nigella Lawson’s Italian Breakfast Banana Bread from Nigellissima. I did make Nigella’s recipe and although I found the texture a little too damp (rest assured that I did not underbake the bread), the flavour was awesome. Undeterred, I used my favourite banana bread recipe as the starting point and stirred into the batter my own concoction of two tablespoons of cocoa powder and one tablespoon of instant coffee that I dissolved in two tablespoons of hot water (from the tap). It was a great success!

The cocoa in the resultant baked bread was barely noticeable but I find it enhanced the flavour of coffee. Perhaps only in my mind. Regardless, I know for a fact that my banana bread tasted much better after an overnight’s rest. My husband and son loved it but my daughter not so much.

I feel that whenever I give a review of who eats what in my family, there is rarely a consensus and on the rare occasion when there is one, the recipe almost always involves chocolate. My kids are five and two years old – I hope this is normal. Please tell me it is.

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Birthday Cake; A Labour of Love

The perfect birthday cake for my five year old girl

My son’s birthday falls in April and my daughter’s birthday in May; that means we have two birthday cakes to feast on in back to back months. Sweet.

I never fail to bake a birthday cake for my kids and my husband on their birthdays. Although I do get them presents, I like to think of my homemade effort as the real birthday present. I start planning months in advance sourcing for a recipe that would make the perfect cake for the birthday person, taking into account deciding factors like the ever changing tastes of my kids, the seasonality of the ingredients and now that my daughter is old enough to request it, the colour of the frosting. In short, I invest a lot of time in the birthday cake making process. I consider it a labour of love.

Where birthday cakes are concerned, chocolate is a non-negotiable ingredient for my family. And they always have to be a double layered, frosted affair. That makes my job easier yet it does get kind of boring after a while and I look to fancy things up by making little changes. For my son’s birthday back in April, I replaced the usual chocolate cake layers with banana cake. He loves banana bread and chocolate; putting them two together was a no-brainer and the end result was really delicious.

For my daughter’s birthday yesterday, I had many consultation sessions with her before her final mandate to me was for a cake with “chocolate cake layers and pink frosting”. And I got to work.

So here goes:

For the chocolate cake layers, I used the simple and delicious recipe from Ina Garten – her Beatty’s Chocolate Cake. So easy to make and stays moist for days, it is my go to recipe for a basic chocolate cake.

For the chocolate ganache filling between the cake layers, I melted 3 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chips and whisked in half a stick of room temperature butter until everything is glossy and smooth, adding a few tablespoonfuls of milk to get the ganache to the spreading consistency I was looking for.

For the pink frosting, I wanted one that is tinted pink with strawberries and not food colouring. After intensive googling, I settled on this recipe that I found on Allrecipes. It turned out great, it was full of strawberry flavour and most importantly, it was pink!

Oh and of course, I couldn’t leave out the obligatory rainbow sprinkles.

And now, my little girl is five!

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Olive Oil Cake

Nigella's gluten and dairy free chocolate cake

Chocolate cake is the most popular treat in my family and my kids go crazy when I serve it for dessert. I have made just about every variety of chocolate cake there is, from the glorious layered type where two chocolate sponge cakes are sandwiched together with chocolate frosting to the flourless kind containing only butter, dark chocolate, sugar and eggs. I have also tried a version by Nigel Slater that contains beets. I have a few trusted recipes that I make over and over again but when I encounter unique ones, I am always game to give them a try.

Being almost fanatical about chocolate cakes, I was naturally excited when I came across this chocolate olive oil cake by Nigella Lawson in her new cookbook, Nigellissima. Olive oil in any dessert intrigues me; it’s such a versatile cooking fat and I prefer its robust flavour over butter any day. It also happens to be one of my favourite smells in the kitchen, lemon and vanilla being the other two.

I had high hopes for this cake, I truly did. It is a chocolate cake. It is moistened with olive oil and ground almonds. But it fell slightly short of what I was expecting. Looks wise, my cake came out of the oven pretty much deflated into a thin inch-tall disc but I won’t proceed to judge a cake by its height. Taste wise, although it was meltingly tender (in Nigella’s words) and was deeply chocolaty at that, I felt something was missing. An extra shot of vanilla or a boost from espresso, perhaps? In all, I would say that it was a good gluten and dairy free chocolate cake but it was not chocolate cake as I prefer it.

My cake was finished within four days and I felt it improved in taste as it sat so if you are planning to make this cake, I recommend making it a day in advance before serving. And I would like to add that despite my reservations both my kids loved this cake, they inhaled their petite slices and asked for seconds, to which I obliged. Well, the slices were really petite to begin with.

Hot Cocoa

A steaming cup of hot cocoa

While a cup of hot chocolate in winter can provide much needed warmth, salve and satisfaction (it’s warm liquid chocolate after all), you’ve got to admit that it is usually never seen as an extravagant or luxurious treat. The best cups are always those that are made at home.

It is the drink mothers make for their children to warm them up after being out in the wet and cold. It is the drink to make for a loved one who is ill and has no appetite for much else. It is the perfect hot drink to have before you go to bed. I have made it for my daughter for her 3 a.m. snack when she was two and severely jet-lagged upon returning to Toronto from Singapore.

But making myself a cup of hot chocolate (from scratch, not from a packet) is serious self-pampering in my world. It is my idea of luxury, for I would not make a steaming hot cup for myself if I did not have the chance to curl up on the couch and totally immerse in a good book while sipping it. In other words, I like to have the time to savour my cup of hot chocolate. It is not a drink to be quickly gulped down like espresso. I like to sip it slowly and enjoy it thoroughly, while making sure that I finish it all before it has the chance to go cold.

I like to use cocoa powder instead of chocolate to make my hot chocolate. What with all the health-boosting qualities of cocoa powder that I have been reading all over the internet, why not? I start off with the recipe that is printed on the can of Fry’s brand cocoa powder that I buy but make it my way. It is all very simple to do: dissolve a tablespoon of cocoa powder in a couple tablespoons of milk in a small pot over the stove. Once no lumps remain, pour in a cup of milk (I like to use half unsweetened almond milk and half whole cow’s milk) into the pot and heat gently until steaming hot, stirring constantly. And now is the time when I add the sweetener to taste: of all the sweeteners I have used – honey, maple syrup and confectioner’s sugar – honey is my favourite as it gives the hot cocoa a lovely subtle floral taste.

Pour the hot cocoa into a cup and enjoy with a good book in hand. Or present it to a loved one as an unexpected treat.

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread

Chocolate chip banana bread

Every time I read the descriptive head note for a recipe for banana bread, it will more likely than not contain a line like this, “it is a great way to use up over ripe bananas”. And I get completely envious of people who need to think of ways to use up bananas that are too ripe to eat. In my kitchen, bananas get consumed too rapidly to get to the dalmatian-spotted stage – the stage where they are perfect for baking.

This winter, a loaf of banana bread has been a weekly staple in my kitchen. I have been deliberately buying huge bunches of bananas so at least three of them can over ripen on my counter in time for my weekly bake. It doesn’t help that the supermarkets I go to all sell bananas that are as green as Kermit. Since an 8″ x 4″ loaf doesn’t last more than 24 hours in my house (we have four banana bread fans), it is always quite an agonizing wait for the next fresh loaf.

I find that banana bread is quite the perfect food to tame your hunger in between meals. My husband and I like to have a slice for our bedtime snack. My daughter likes to have a small slice packed into her lunchbox on days when she stays in school for lunch. My son loves to end dinner with something sweet (a habit inherited from me, I’m afraid) and I like giving him homemade chocolate chip banana bread, which he will put away into his tummy in record time.

My all time favourite recipe for banana bread is the Low Fat Banana Bread from Epicurious. I have a serious problem with following recipes to a T and thus have never made this the same way twice. Sometimes I replace half the all-purpose flour with whole wheat, sometimes I throw half a cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips into the batter, sometimes I use brown sugar instead of all white. Despite my tweaks, this reliable recipe produces a great loaf every time I make it; the bite is chewy and the taste is comforting and familiar as how banana bread should always be. And those two slices you see above? They became mine and my daughter’s afternoon snack after their photo shoot.

And now, I’m off to bake a tray of lemon shortbread that I plan to cut into little cookie hearts with the help of a cookie cutter for Valentine’s Day tomorrow. I’m going to pack one into my daughter’s lunchbox for an extra special lunch treat!

Chewy Chocolate-Gingerbread Cookies

Chewy chocolate-gingerbread cookie

I know I’m in the minority by baking and feasting on cookies in the middle of January when most people typically begin their year by resolving to eat healthily but I just can’t help myself. I’m too much of a cookie monster to deny myself cookies. Besides, nothing comforts me more than a cookie or two in this miserable winter (feels like -20 degrees celsius, people!). Well, maybe a slice or two of banana bread.

For the last two weeks of December in 2012, I caved in to the festivities by whipping up batches upon batches of various cookie dough to store in my freezer and baking off a few each day for our daily treat. I marveled at how perfect it is to have an efficient system that enables my family to have freshly baked cookies at our fingertips. One day, and not surprisingly, I finally OD-ed on cookies. Now, never will I complain about having homemade cookies to feast on for two weeks straight but sometimes, too much of a good thing can turn out to be…. well, not so good. I just didn’t want to taste another spiced cookie until Christmas season 2013.

But I suppose I spoke too soon. My husband was rummaging through the freezer yesterday and found a ziplock bag containing balls of these Chewy Chocolate-Gingerbread Cookie dough. I decided to rescue them from the deep freeze and bake them all off. This recipe is found in Martha Stewart’s book, Martha Stewart’s Cookies, and the drool-worthy cover photo is of this cookie. I’ve owned this book for years and I don’t know why it took me so long to make this cookie – all the ingredients are constantly in my pantry and the gorgeous cover is absolutely enticing.

These cookies are such a hit. My daughter loves them. She adores gingerbread and chocolate and when the two combine to form one of her favourite food groups – the Cookie – it just can’t get any better than that for her. The recipe calls for dried and freshly grated ginger but it is not overly gingery; it is deeply spiced yet mellowed by the semi-sweet chocolate chips studded throughout. This cookie is definitely a sophisticated cousin to the always reliably good chocolate chip cookie. It is a winner if you love chocolate, gingerbread and a chewy cookie. My husband, ever the gingerbread purist, thinks the cookie could do without the chocolate chips – and this is where he parts ways with the rest of his family.

Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats

Chocolate Rice Krispies TreatsMy daughter’s school held its annual Christmas concert yesterday where the kids (between the ages 2 1/2 and 6) belted out a series of holiday songs for the parents. I realised that kids of this age group are naturally comical and endearing at the same time without meaning to. I mean, they don’t even have to sing all the songs perfectly; just by being themselves they managed to put up a performance I think is the best I’ve seen this year. Obviously, we had a wonderful time. My daughter was one of the kids asked to introduce a song and she was very proud of that. After the concert, she kept asking us to make sure that we heard her loud and clear. Of course we did.

For the after-concert party, I made these Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats. The recipe is taken from the Martha Stewart website and their given name is Crispy Chocolate-Marshmallow Treats. But nevermind the name, these little chewy squares are essentially the same as the original Rice Krispies Treats, where tiny beads of rice crisps are bound together by a mixture of melted butter and marshmallows. This is just a chocolate version of the original, with cocoa added and melted chocolate drizzled atop.

As these contain chocolate and are sweet and crisp, my kids loved them. Which kid wouldn’t? But my husband commented that these are not as gooey as those of his childhood memory. True, these are not gooey at all, but they are still good, like “I can’t help but polish off four pieces in a seating” kind of good.