Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Home Again in the Kitchen

As I write this, I am sitting out in my parents’ backyard, surrounded by flowers my mom planted, trees I have known my whole life, and raspberry bushes I will eagerly plunder later as I have done every summer of my life (well, almost). It’s something I’ve missed since I left Long Island: having a backyard with space to move and a little patio all my own. In Riverside we have a front stoop we share with the other tenants of the four-plex Todd is renting, and there was no outdoor seating at all at our place in Maastricht (unless you count the café across the street, but that wasn’t actually ours of course). It’s nice to have a space like this, a place that is outdoors but still private, a little oasis from the rest of the world.

Of course I am seeing everything through a rosy light right now, being back in my childhood home (just recently vacated by both my sister and me) for the first time since January. Five or six months isn’t really that long, I guess, but it feels longer when you are separated from the place where you grew up by several thousand miles of either continent or ocean. That’s how far away from my family I’ve been since I decided to go to grad school in London, and then to move in with Todd in California after that.

By the time I leave for Riverside again, a month from now, I’m sure I’ll be more than ready to go. But until then, it’s good to be home. It’s also good to be baking again.

I started baking long before I started cooking (or attempting to cook, anyway). But in Maastricht I was afraid to touch the convection oven/microwave/grill in our apartment, plus I was reluctant to buy a whole bunch of supplies when I was only there temporarily (and the fabulous bakeries, including the one right next door, meant we were never deprived of baked goods anyway). So my baking has been on hold these past few months. I’ve missed it.

There’s something comforting about following a recipe, step by step, measuring out ingredients and knowing that (provided the recipe was written correctly) at the end of the prescribed time period you would have something warm and delicious that you made yourself, to present to the people you love and make them happy.

Of course, since I started reading food blogs, I have become more eager to play around with recipes, tweaking things based on my preferences and what I have on hand to come up with my own variations. That’s how these banana-ginger muffins were born.

My mom, knowing that I haven’t had the chance to flex my baking muscles for a while, mentioned that we had a couple of bananas lying around that were somewhat past their prime. To a baker of course, mushy bananas are the best kind because they mean one thing: banana bread. Or in this case, banana muffins.

Most store-bought muffins are really just mini cakes in disguise, but since these would become snacks for my family, including my dad, who is watching his sugar intake, I wanted them to be relatively healthy. So I searched on Cooking Light Magazine’s website (I’ve had success with their baked goods before) and found a recipe for banana-walnut muffins that would also use up some of the carton of milk we have in the fridge (no one in my family really drinks milk, except me in my coffee). The original muffins were topped with an oatmeal streusel, but I wanted something less fussy, so I left that out. I’m also not a huge fan of nuts in baked goods, so I omitted the walnuts too. I didn’t want the muffins to be too boring, however, so I cast around for flavoring ideas, and hit upon a recipe by Molly Wizenberg, aka Orangette, for Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger, featured on Luisa’s lovely blog (the recipe is actually from Molly’s book, A Homemade Life, which fits the theme of this post pretty well, wouldn’t you say?).

I decided to replace the walnuts in the original Cooking Light recipe with candied ginger, chopped very finely so the pieces would spread evenly through the batter. Chocolate chips would have been excellent as well I’m sure, but keeping in mind my dad’s sugar issues, I decided - a bit reluctantly, I’ll admit – not to include them (next time). I also substituted the cinnamon in the original recipe for freshly grated nutmeg – I’m not sure how much exactly, since I just grated it right into the bowl, but probably about ¼ tsp.

The other big change I made to the recipe was to up the amount of whole wheat flour, using half all-purpose flour, half whole wheat, keeping the total at 2 cups. This meant the muffins were hearty, slightly chewy when cool, and more the texture of a quick bread than cake-like bakery muffins, which to me is a good thing as you can feel good about eating one (or two) for breakfast or a snack without feeling like you’re actually eating dessert in disguise. Feel free to stick to the original flour ratio or to use all AP flour, but I wouldn’t use all whole wheat for texture reasons. I also used skim milk instead of 1% because that’s what we had in the fridge, and I reduced the oven temperature to 350 because that’s what I’m used to baking at, and because I didn’t want the muffins, with the higher ratio of whole wheat flour, to cook too quickly and risk getting tough.

I’m really happy with the way these turned out: great banana flavor, nice and tender, with bursts of spice from the ginger bits in every mouthful. Best of all, they made the kitchen smell fantastic for a while. Oh, how I’ve missed that smell!

Yes, it’s good to be home.

Banana-Ginger Muffins
Adapted from Cooking Light

            1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (about 6 3/4 ounces)
            1/2 cup whole wheat flour (about 2 1/2 ounces) [I used equal amount AP and WW to get 2 cups total of flour]
            2/3 cup packed brown sugar
            2 teaspoons baking powder
            1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon [I subbed in nutmeg, approx. 1/4 tsp, but use your judgment here, and grate yours fresh if you can!]
            1/4 teaspoon salt
            1 cup mashed ripe banana (about 2 bananas)
            3/4 cup 1% low-fat milk [I used skim; I imagine any fat content would work]
            3 tablespoons canola oil
            1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
            1 large egg

1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted [I subbed an equal amount of minced candied ginger]

To prepare the muffins, lightly spoon all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flours and next 4 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl; make a well in center of mixture [I didn’t do this, don’t really see why it’s necessary]. Combine banana and next 4 ingredients (through egg) in a bowl; stir well. Add to flour mixture. Stir just until moistened; fold in walnuts [or ginger, in this case, and you might try chocolate chips too to get the flavors of Molly’s famous bread – whatever you add, do so before the dry ingredients are completely mixed into the wet to avoid over-mixing]. Place 12 muffin cup liners in muffin cups [I didn’t bother with liners, just sprayed the pan with nonstick spray, but you could certainly use them if that’s what you prefer]. Spoon batter into muffin cups. Bake at 375° for 22 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean [I opted for 350 as noted above, and they were just about perfect after 18 minutes].

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