apple nut muffin cake

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I wasn’t expecting great things from Pisa, although that wasn’t Pisa’s fault. I had a cold, because I learned the hard way that you have to eat the occasional fruit or vegetable, even on vacation. We had to get up early and rush to the train station, spend 2 hours on a train to get to Pisa, where we had 3 hours before we had to board another train to get to Rome, where I had a suspicion we’d get lost looking for the hotel. I knew it would be worth it to see the iconic Leaning Tower, but I wasn’t looking forward to the trains, the constant concern over my Kleenex supply, or the crowds I assumed surrounded the famous tower.

pisa

But I was wrong. Not about getting lost in Rome, which we did, and not about the need for Kleenex, which lasted for the next few days, but about Pisa having nothing to offer other than a poorly constructed tower and hordes of tourists. Instead, we took a relaxed walk down a lovely street full of bicyclists, shops, and cafes; peeked into a dark, quiet church that was perhaps my favorite of the trip; and detoured to a wonderful street market where, having learned our lesson, we bought some fruit to snack on while I ogled the squash blossoms, giant porcini mushrooms, crates of fresh figs, bins of artichokes, and baskets of uncured olives. Best of all, we found a farmacia that sold six-packs of Kleenex packets – a lifesaver for the 4-hour train ride ahead.

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But that was Pisa and now I’m back in southeast New Mexico, where fresh figs are nowhere to be found, to say nothing of squash blossoms and fresh porcini mushrooms. (They do have Kleenex here, gladly.) So I skipped the fig cake chosen for Tuesdays with Dorie – but here’s the apple cake I missed while traveling.

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I tried to pretty it up by adding streusel, but it melted into the cake and didn’t contribute much more than a delicious sugary crust. Not that the cake needed any help in the taste department, as it was already moist and sweet and pleasantly appley. Next time I’m in Pisa, I’ll pick up some fresh figs to make Dorie’s fig cake with; until then, apple muffin cake will have to do.

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Katrina chose this for Tuesdays with Dorie a few weeks ago, and she has the recipe posted. If you want to add streusel to the top, try this one; the one I used didn’t work very well.  I doubled the salt, as usual, since I like my desserts saltier than Dorie.

One year ago: Apple Pie
Two years ago: Sweet Potato Biscuits
Three years ago: Chocolate Cupcakes

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cooks illustrated’s ultimate banana bread

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I’ve always wanted to do a banana bread comparison post, and I still plan to someday, but usually I make banana bread for one primary purpose: to use up old bananas. And this recipe is the best for that, because it uses five bananas (six if you include the garnish, which I usually don’t), which is about twice as many as most other banana bread recipes. Furthermore, this recipe actually works better with previously frozen bananas, which mine always are.

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It manages to fit so many bananas into one loaf because the liquid is extracted before the batter is mixed. I love sucking the liquid out of ingredients before using them in recipes, especially quick breads like this zucchini bread. But I have to admit that I hadn’t realized bananas contained so much water. With zucchini, it’s obvious because water droplets immediately appear on a newly cut surface, but bananas had always seemed relatively dry to me.

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That’s until you freeze and then defrost them, when they turn into a pile of gross brown mush soaking in gross brown liquid. And this is perfect, because the mush is ready to mix right into the batter, and the liquid can be simmered down into a concentrated banana syrup, so not one bit of banana flavor is wasted. And if you don’t constantly have a bag of bananas taking up space in your freezer, of course you don’t need previously frozen bananas for this recipe – a quick trip to the microwave achieves the same effect.

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The end result is a banana bread that’s moist and tender, even if I go ahead and utilize my favorite quick bread tricks of subbing half whole wheat pastry flour and reducing the fat by 25% by replacing some of the butter with oil. Plus I figure that all that extra fruit in there contributes more fiber and nutrients. It’s not over-the-top banana-y either, despite containing so much more banana than most loaves. It’s so good that it’s actually worth making just for the sake of eating it, not just to use up the ingredients!

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One year ago: Pappa al Pomodoro
Two years ago: Risotto with Swiss Chard
Three years ago: Gazpacho

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Ultimate Banana Bread (from Cooks Illustrated)

I’ve reproduced Cooks Illustrated’s recipe exactly below. However, I don’t particularly care for the sliced bananas on top. They’re pretty, but they’re too sweet and candy-like (which really doesn’t sound like me, come to think of it).

You can slightly healthy up this recipe by replacing half of the flour with whole wheat pastry flour, and using 4 tablespoons butter plus 2 tablespoons canola oil instead of 8 tablespoons butter. The oil helps keeps the loaf moist, and of course leaving all that butter in contributes flavor.

1¾ cups (8¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon table salt
6 large very ripe bananas (about 2¼ pounds), peeled
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 large eggs
¾ cup packed (5¼ ounces) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)
2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.

2. Place 5 bananas in a microwave-safe bowl; cover with plastic wrap and cut several steam vents in the plastic with a paring knife. Microwave on high power until the bananas are soft and have released liquid, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bananas to a fine-mesh strainer placed over a medium bowl and allow to drain, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes (you should have ½ to ¾ cups liquid).

3. Transfer the liquid to a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until it’s reduced to ¼ cup, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir the reduced liquid into the bananas, and mash with a potato masher until fairly smooth. Whisk in the butter, eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla.

4. Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined with some streaks of flour remaining. Gently fold in the walnuts, if using. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Slice the remaining banana diagonally into ¼-inch-thick slices. Shingle the banana slices on top of both sides of the loaf, leaving a 1½-inch-wide space down the center to ensure an even rise. Sprinkle the granulated sugar evenly over loaf.

5. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, 55 to 75 minutes. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove the loaf from the pan and continue to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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chocolate allspice cookies

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September is an ambiguous time. School and football, two signs of fall, have started. Labor Day is over. It might not be meltingly hot out every single day. On the other hand, that all important sign of autumn, fire-colored leaves, hasn’t started except in the most extreme of climates. And besides, tomatoes are still in season. Everyone knows that tomatoes belong to summer.

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When I lived in upstate New York, where summer was disappointingly short, I refused to acknowledge fall until October 1st. I wouldn’t make anything with pumpkin or apples, and I wouldn’t buy candy corn for Dave. (I’m mean.)

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But come October 1st, I was all about fall. I love it for all the reasons everyone loves fall – the colors, the chill, the apple cider. We don’t get any of those things in southern New Mexico, so I welcome what little there is here that feels like fall, no matter when it happens.

Dave thinks anything with ginger or allspice or cloves tastes like Christmas. I say it tastes like fall. And even in early September, I’m not complaining.

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Jessica, who chose these cookies for Tuesdays with Dorie, has the recipe posted. I doubled the spice, plus I freshly ground my allspice berries in a coffee grinder just before mixing the dough. I also increased the salt.  I had ground almonds to use up, so I made the dough in the mixer instead of the food processor.

One year ago: Peanut Butter Crisscrosses
Two years ago: Espresso Cheesecake Brownies
Three years ago: Chocolate Whopper Malted Drops

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kofta

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A lot of people in my town hunt. I think they expect me to be against hunting, due to my hippie stance on other issues, like recycling and reducing waste. (The blue recycle bin is right next to the trash can, so what possible reason could you have for not recycling paper? And what’s with drinking your daily coffee out of Styrofoam cups?) But, assuming it’s carefully controlled, and in my area it is, I’m pro-hunting. I’d rather eat animals that lived their lives outside doing animal things than stuffing themselves in a feedlot.

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That being said, I don’t want to do it myself. There is the issue of whether I could actually bring myself to kill a beautiful creature, and I really don’t know how that would go. But moreover, I have plenty of hobbies as it is and don’t need to take up another. But if someone wanted to bring me venison, that would be okay.

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And someone has! Twice, my coworker has brought me ground venison. We made burgers with the first pound, and for the second pound, I took his suggestion to make kofta. I’d never had it before, but it was so obviously something I’d like, with the mix of meat, savory seasonings, and warm spices, not to mention tzatziki and grilled pita. (Incidentally, I brought my coworker two pounds of Tartine country bread dough to thank him for the meat – and encourage him to give me more!)

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Lean venison is perfect in kofta because the addition of bread helps the meatballs hold onto moisture. Plus, lamb is the traditional main ingredient, and both meats are often considered gamey. Dave and I love that gamey flavor, and it just gets better when it’s liberally seasoned with herbs and spices. And everything is better with grilled pita and tzatziki. I suspect I’ll be making this meal with lamb in the future, because my desire for kofta will surely outrun my uncertain supply of venison.

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One year ago: Rhubarb Crumb Coffee Cake
Two years ago: Pickled Coleslaw
Three years ago: Sausage and Red Pepper Hash

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Kofta (adapted from Gourmet via Smitten Kitchen)

The original recipe includes grilled chunks of marinated zucchini, but I didn’t think they added anything special to this.

Grilling meatballs on skewers is a hair-raising experience, but they turned out great and we only lost one on the grill. Just be careful and try not to move them around much.

I grilled some onions to add to the sandwiches, because you can’t go wrong with grilled onions.

2 slices firm sandwich bread, torn into small pieces
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
¼ cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves
¼ cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
16 ounces ground lamb
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon black pepper
⅓ cup pine nuts, toasted and finely chopped
tzatziki

1. Pulse the bread, onion, and herbs in a food processor until finely chopped. The juice from the onion should start to soak into the bread, and the mixture will form a paste. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and mix with all of the remaining ingredients except the tzatziki. With your hands, mix until well blended. Form one tablespoon of the mixture into a ball; repeat with the remaining mixture to make about 24 meatballs.

2. Prepare a medium-hot grill. Thread meatballs onto skewers, leaving about ¼-inch between each. Generously oil the grill rack. Grill lamb, turning over once, until golden and just cooked through, about 6 minutes. Serve warm with tzatziki and grilled pitas.

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tropical crumble

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My family’s beach vacations in Mexico always include swimming, beer drinking, wave watching, margarita drinking, cooking, and wine drinking. And so far, they’ve always included hovering neaby while someone cuts cubes of perfectly ripe mangoes, which are snatched up as soon as the knife is out of the way. There are few things in life better than eating mangoes on the beach in Mexico while on vacation.

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Baking a banana-mango crumble the day after vacation is less fun. For one thing, after a week of fried fish tacos, I was ready for some detox. For another thing, I do not feel that chunks of banana are meant to be baked.

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To compromise, I made the recipe with many changes. I cut the butter in the fruit filling by half, then cooked only the banana, over medium-high heat to brown it in the sugar mixture, bananas foster style. I reduced the butter in the crumble topping to 6 tablespoons and doubled the flour. Alongside a scoop of lowfat Greek yogurt, this dessert wasn’t half-bad, and it was only half-bad for me too.

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Gaye chose this for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted. However, other members of TWD had a number of problems with it. With the changes I noted above, mine came out well.

One year ago: Oatmeal Breakfast Bread
Two years ago: Brownie Buttons
Three years ago: Granola Grabbers

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carrot spice muffins

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I am against vegetables in cake, but I am pro vegetables in muffins. I am against raisins in cake, but I am pro raisins in muffins. The same goes with nuts. Basically, carrot cake is an abomination, or at best just a vehicle for cream cheese frosting, but carrot muffins are awesome.

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Awesome to eat, that is; they’re a bit of a pain to make, what with the carrot shredding and nut toasting and spice measuring. But they’re worth it in the end, hearty and moist and studded with sweet raisins and bitter pecans. I have to confess to wondering if they would be even better topped with cream cheese frosting though.

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Nancy chose these for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted. I reduced the oil to ½ cup, replaced 1 cup of all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour, doubled the salt, and increased the carrot slightly.

One year ago: Chocolate Ganache Ice Cream
Two years ago: Banana Bundt Cake
Three years ago: Blueberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

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pesto

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Pesto is super simple, right? Just dump some ingredients into the food processor, and thirty seconds later, you have pesto. And while that’s true, with a few extra simple steps, you can ensure that your pesto will live up to its maximum potential every single time.

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Traditionally, pesto was made in a mortar and pestle, which smashes the ingredients into each other instead of cutting them like the food processor does. It sounds horribly tedious. You don’t want to do that.

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However, it is important to do more than slice basil with the food processor blade. Consider that when you want to smell an herb, what do you do? You rub it between your fingers, not tear it in half, because bruising the leaves is what produces flavor. So to maximize the flavor of your basil, you need to bruise the leaves before cutting them.

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You can do this with almost no extra effort using a trick I picked up from Jamie Oliver – just put the basil in the food processor, but with the plastic dough blade instead of the knife blade. It takes only a few seconds longer and produces just one more small utensil to clean, but it makes a big difference in flavor. Before I started using this trick, sometimes my pesto would taste grassy, but now it always tastes basil-y.

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You probably also know that toasting nuts brings out their flavor, and it isn’t hard to do on the stovetop. I also like to toast the garlic, because I am not a fan of the tongue-stinging sharpness of raw garlic. Toasting the unpeeled cloves in a dry skillet tames garlic’s bite with very little effort. And that’s it – you’ve maximized the potential of every ingredient in pesto, ensuring dependably outstanding pesto, and it only took an extra minute or two.

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One year ago: Yogurt-Marinated Lamb Kebabs
Two years ago: Tortellini Soup with Carrots, Peas, and Leeks
Three years ago: Summer Rolls

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Pesto

2 ounces pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
Salt
1 large bunch (6 ounces) basil leaves, washed and dried
1-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ ounce (¼ cup) freshly grated parmesan

1. Heat a small empty not-nonstick skillet over medium heat for several minutes. Add the pine nuts and cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute, until they’re golden brown and fragrant. Pour the nuts into a food processor bowl fitted with the knife attachment. Add the garlic to the skillet and toast, without stirring, for about 1 minute. When the first side is dark brown, turn the garlic cloves onto another flat side and continue toasting for another minute. Peel the garlic and transfer it to the food processor with the pine nuts.

2. Add ¼ teaspoon salt to the garlic and pine nuts. Process until the nuts and garlic are finely ground, 10-15 seconds. Replace the knife attachment with the plastic dough blade. Add the basil to the food processor and pulse until the basil is bruised and fragrant, about ten 1-second pulses. Remove the dough blade from the bowl and return the knife attachment. Process until basil is finely chopped, a few seconds.

3. With the machine running, slowly pour the oil into the feed tube. Scrape the sides of the bowl; process until evenly mixed. Stir in the parmesan. Serve, refrigerate for a few days, or freeze for months.

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farro and pine nut salad

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It’s a good thing I really like farro, because I accidentally bought 26 dollars worth of it. Apparently I need to pay more attention to the prices on the bulk bins. I should also start enjoying barley or wheat berries or some other equally healthy grain that doesn’t cost $12 per pound. (I actually looked at the prices the next time I was at the store, and farro cost about five times as much as the other grains.)

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I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about farro that I like so much. I don’t think the flavor of the different grains are so different that I notice a big difference once dressing and other ingredients are mixed in, so it must be more textural. It’s all about a balance of the tender and the chewy. Rice is soft and tender. Barley is very chewy. Farro is just right.

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Usually I mix it with caramelized onions and feta, which, with a squirt of hot sauce, becomes one of my favorite meals that also happens to be incredibly healthy. But having two pounds of farro is good incentive to branch out. There are few things that aren’t improved with the addition of summer vegetables, pine nuts, chickpeas, and a squirt of lemon juice, farro included. It looks like I have another delicious farro meal that also happens to be healthy.

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One year ago: Grilled Potato and Vegetable Salad
Two years ago: Casatiello
Three years ago: Soba Salad with Feta and Peas

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Farro and Pine Nut Salad (adapted from Self magazine via epicurious)

If you choose a grain other than farro, your cooking time will probably be different.

The original recipe included jalapenos, which is why they’re shown in the photo above, but I decided not to use them.

1 cup farro (or another whole grain, such as wheat berries, barley, or brown rice)
salt
1 clove garlic, unpeeled
¼ cup pine nuts
Juice from 1 lemon
½ small red onion, very thinly sliced
2 large heirloom tomatoes, chopped, or 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 small cucumber, quartered and sliced ⅛-inch thick
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 cup feta, crumbled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Bring 2 quarts of water to a roiling boil; add the farro and 2 teaspoons of salt. Cook for 20 minutes, until the farro is tender but slightly chewy. Drain.

2. Squeeze the juice of the lemon into a large bowl; add the onions and a pinch of salt. Set aside.

3. Heat a small not-nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and toast it, turning once, until browned, about 2 minutes. Remove the garlic from the pan. Add the pine nuts to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant and slightly browned, 3-4 minutes. Remove from the pan. When the garlic is cool enough to handle, peel and mince it.

4. Stir the drained farro into the onion vinegar mixture, then add the remaining ingredients. Let the salad stand at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before serving.

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peanut butter and jelly muffins

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I used to make a recipe similar to this – but without the peanut butter – and I loved it. Something about a dollop of jam baked inside of a muffin tastes so much better than a spoonful of jam spread over it once it’s baked. My old recipe also had a warm overtone of nutmeg I enjoyed.

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The only thing that wasn’t perfect about it was that it seemed too cakey, too dessert-like. These days, I like a heartier muffin. I also like to squeeze protein in wherever I can, and besides, everyone knows that peanut butter is a perfect partner for jelly.

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These peanut butter muffins are mixed a little differently than a standard muffin, in that the peanut butter is cut into the dry ingredients before the remaining liquids are added. Maybe this contributed to how light and soft the muffins were once baked, or maybe it was just the fat content of the peanut butter. Either way, with a good proportion of whole wheat flour and a layer of fruity jam in the middle, these are even better than my old favorite.

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One year ago: Lemon Curd Tart
Two years ago: Puff Pastry Dough
Three years ago: Pain a l’Ancienne

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Peanut Butter Jelly Muffins (adapted from Real Simple and Jeanne Lemlin’s Vegetarian Classics)

I used half whole wheat pastry flour.

Update 5/5/2014 : I made these again and think they needed more sugar, so I’ve doubled it from the original ¼ cup.

1 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (3.5 ounces) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch nutmeg
⅓ cup (3 ounces) peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)
About ¼ cup jam

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray the bottoms of a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick spray or line with paper liners. In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg, butter, and vanilla.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large mixing bowl with a hand mixer), combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Add the peanut butter; mix until evenly combined. Turn the mixer off, add all of the milk mixture at once, and mix on low speed just until combined (small lumps are fine).

3. Place one heaping tablespoon of batter into each muffin cup. Spoon about a teaspoon of jam over the batter in the cups. Divide the remaining batter evenly between the cups.

4. Bake until a toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. Set the pan on a rack to cool slightly, about 5 minutes, then use a thin-bladed knife to remove the muffins from the pan.

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whole wheat almond bread

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I’m not always as practical as I should be. Once I get an idea in my  head, I stubbornly cling to it regardless of whether it makes good sense. For example, yesterday I gathered up my laptop, its mouse, a glass of water, and a bowl of farro and lentils and carried it about twenty feet. The mouse kept falling, the water was sloshing over the rim of the glass, and the bowl was sliding around, precariously balanced on top of the laptop. Why didn’t I just make two trips, which probably would have taken less time in the end?  It is a mystery.

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Why didn’t I bake at least one of the loaves of almond bread in a regular bread pan that I’m familiar with? Why did I insist on baking both loaves in closed pans even though I have no experience baking in covered pans and didn’t know how it would affect the baking time or how I would test for doneness?

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My mom found these pans during a mass cleaning of my grandmother’s kitchen, and although they were in their original packaging, there were no baking instructions with them. And the toothpick test doesn’t work when the center of your bread is five inches from the edge of the pan. The outside few inches of each loaf were perfectly baked, slightly sweet, and intensely nutty. The middle portions were doughy, slightly sweet, and intensely nutty. And that was the case for both loaves, because I just had to take a chance with the whole batch instead of taking the safe route with at least one of them. Typical.

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One year ago: Jamaican Jerk Chicken
Two years ago: Aligot (French Mashed Potatoes)
Three years ago: Poached Eggs with Arugula and Polenta Fingers

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Whole Wheat Almond Bread (adapted from Joy the Baker)

Makes 2 small loaves

This is the baking time for a regular, uncovered bread pan. In a covered pan like I used, increase the baking time to 50-60 minutes and use a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the loaf to test for doneness.

2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sliced, toasted almonds, divided
4 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup honey
2 large eggs
1½ cups almond milk
¼ teaspoon almond extract
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray two 8.5 by 4.5-inch bread pans with non-stick cooking spray.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and almonds. In a medium bowl, whisk together honey, eggs, milk and melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Fold until the batter is evenly mixed; small lumps of flour are okay.

3. Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf comes out dry. Set the pans on a wire rack and cool 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of the pans; invert onto the wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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