Category Archives: starch

Double Chocolate Banana Bread

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It was 70° on Saturday. Then on Sunday it turned cold and misty. And today it was colder still with a forecast for snow. It’s springtime in Chicago. A season that always seems intent on doubling back on itself a few times before it settles in for good.

It’s a good day for simple comforting baked goods. Like this double chocolate banana bread.

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This comes from Deb of Smitten Kitchen, so I’m pretty sure the whole internet already knows about it. But if somehow you missed it, I’m here to testify to its greatness.

Chocolate and banana are a classic pairing–from frozen chocolate covered bananas to banana and nutella filled crepes. I’ve made plenty of banana breads with chocolate chips, but this was the first time I made one where the cake (er, bread) itself was laden with cocoa powder.

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It’s a simple one-bowl job, as easy as any other basic banana bread. And it might be even easier to love. It’s rich and chocolatey but the banana flavor really shines through.

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It’s sweet enough for dessert, but there’s fruit in it (three whole bananas!) so you can justify having it for breakfast as well. I made it in three mini loaf pans and put two of the resulting loaves in the mail to be a birthday treat for my sister-in-law in Kansas.

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That left one little loaf for me, which wasn’t nearly enough.

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Double Chocolate Banana Bread

Adapted from Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen

This chocolate banana bread is a snap to make. You’ll want to use cocoa powder that is labeled Dutch-process (sometimes called alkalized) rather than natural cocoa powder here, the latter is acidic and can change the chemical reaction. I doubt that most people have mini loaf pans (I got mine from King Arthur Flour and I can no longer find them on the site, but they’re similar to these), so I’m providing instructions for one standard (9″ x 5″) loaf pan. If you choose to make the mini loaves, they take 30-40 minutes in the oven.


3 overripe bananas (the darker the better)
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 oz, 115 g) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup (5 oz, 145 g) brown sugar (light or dark)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
1 cup (4 1/2 oz, 125 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup (6 oz, 170 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, mash the bananas with a fork. Add the brown sugar, melted butter, egg, and vanilla extract and stir until combined. Place the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a large fine mesh strainer and sift over the wet ingredients (cocoa powder has a tendency to be lumpy, so resist the temptation to skip the sifting). Stir in the espresso powder (if using) and the chocolate chips or chocolate pieces.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about one hour or until a toothpick placed into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before inverting it onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

Keeps, well-wrapped at room temperature, for up to 5 days.

Yield: One 9 x 5 loaf or 3 mini loaves

Baked Sweet Potato with Marinated Feta, Olives, and Red Peppers

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This dish is perfectly balanced between hot and cold, sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy, bright and mellow.

It’s a spin on a stuffed baked potato, but this time it’s a sweet potato and the filling takes a turn for the Mediterranean with salty olives and tangy feta and crunchy sweet bell peppers and red onion all drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with mint.

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It’s a dish I used to make all the time, but had somehow sort of forgotten about as I took on new cooking projects. I was reminded of it when I was leafing through some of the older residents of my cookbook shelves, looking for inspiration and little gems on their pages I might previously have overlooked. When I saw this recipe when I was flipping through Diana Henry’s wonderfully titled cookbook Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, I remembered just how much I loved it and knew I had to make it right away.

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It’s a dish that feels perfect for the cusp of spring. It relies on produce that is easily findable in winter, but manages to combine them in surprising ways that wake up the palate and feel fresh and new. And it uses so many colors that it’s a feast for the eyes as well.

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And it could barely be easier. You throw the sweet potatoes in the oven to bake for about an hour, and while they’re roasting, you chop some olives, some red pepper, some red onion, some mint. You squeeze some lemon, crumble some feta, toast some spices, toss it all together in a bowl and drizzle in some olive oil and let everything marinate while the sweet potatoes finish baking.

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Then, when the sweet potatoes come out of the oven, you split them open and pile in the minty marinated feta-olive-red-pepper mixture and viola, you’ve got a meal. Or I suppose it could also make a pretty spectacular side dish, if you’re the organized, fancy sort of person whose meals tend to include main dishes and side dishes.

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Baked Sweet Potatoes with Marinated Feta, Olives, and Red Peppers

Liberally adapted from Diana Henry’s Crazy Water Pickled Lemons

I love this dish so much. It combines familiar flavors in an unexpected way and the combination just works. If you’re an olive hater, you can leave them out and still have a great dish. The amounts here are pretty flexible given the variable sizes of sweet potatoes. I try to look for ones that are on the medium-small side rather than the huge ones that so often populate the grocery store islands. If all you can find are huge ones, you can certainly cut them in half after roasting and pile the feta-olive-red pepper mixture on top. 

2 medium sweet potatoes
4 ounces (113 g, about half a block) feta cheese, roughly crumbled
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1/2 medium bell pepper, thinly sliced and chopped into 1 inch segments
1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced and chopped into 1 inch segments
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
small bunch of fresh mint, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Scrub the sweet potatoes under cold water to remove any stray dirt, place them on the foil lined baking sheet (no need to x or prick the skin) and bake for 45-60 minutes (depending on size) until they feel tender to the touch.

While the potatoes are baking, add the chopped red onion to a medium bowl and pour the lemon juice over it and let it sit for a few minutes. This will help to take the bite out of the raw onion. Toast the fennel and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle and add them to the bowl. Add the olives, bell pepper, mint and olive oil to the bowl and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until the sweet potatoes are finished baking.

When the sweet potatoes come out of the oven, put them on plates, slice them open lengthwise, and divide the feta-olive-red pepper mixture between them. Eat.

Yield: Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side (easily scaled up or down)

Triple Cream, Cheddar, and Sage Butter Grilled Cheese

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What could be better than grilled cheese? It is one of the simplest most comforting meals I know.  I subsisted on grilled cheese for most of my freshman year of college (let’s not talk about how much weight I gained that year….). It’s become more of a treat food than an everyday food now that I’m in my thirties and a smidge more health conscious than I was in those halcyon days.

A few weeks ago, I caught an episode of America’s Test Kitchen where they made a fancy grilled cheese that looked good, but it was one of those cases where they took a recipe and made it too complicated for it’s own good. It involved putting brie and cheddar and shallots in a food processor and making a paste.  I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I’m getting out a food processor, let alone cleaning one, just for grilled cheese.

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Still, they were onto something with the brie. Adding a triple cream cheese to an aged cheddar makes for a gooey, unctuous filling for a sandwich. But it turns out there’s an easier way to get it there. Triple creams are by nature soft cheeses, and if you let them sit at room temperature for a few minutes, they become spreadable.

I had a nub of Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt Tam, a buttery, decadent triple cream on hand. I removed the rind and spread the soft cheese on my sandwich bread, then layered it with slices of sharp aged white cheddar.

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I could have stopped there, and proceeded as usual, and it would have been a dynamite sandwich, but I turned again to a trick I learned years ago from Judy Rodgers’s fantastic Zuni Cafe Cookbook. After spreading the outside of the bread with butter, I crumbled up some dried sage leaves and added a few cracks of black pepper. If you’ve ever had pasta in a sage butter sauce, you know how those two ingredients harmonize.

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It’s a simple thing to do, but it gives a grilled cheese an herbaceous complexity that I find utterly beguiling.

This is still simple comfort food. But it’s elegant comfort food. Perfect for a rainy day lunch when you want to treat yourself without going to too much trouble.

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Triple Cream, Cheddar, and Sage Butter Grilled Cheese 

This is grilled cheese. Odds are, you know more or less how to make it. It’s a recipe where precise measurements are unnecessary. This version is crisp and delicately herby on the outside and rich and gooey with sharp cheese flavor on the inside. You can use any triple cream you like. I used Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam, which is a triple cream I love, but anything from a basic buttery brie to St. Andre to Delice de Bourgogne would be fantastic on this sandwich. As for cheddar, I went with a basic Cabot cheddar (what can I say, I married a Vermonter). Don’t use anything aged more than a couple of years or it will be too dry and crumbly and won’t melt well. There’s no need to break the bank on cheese for this, though it’s a great way to use up any odd bits you have lying around.

2 slices of sandwich bread
about a tablespoon of triple cream cheese (such as Mt Tam, brie, or St. Andre), rinds removed
about 2 ounces of aged white cheddar (enough to cover the bread), thinly sliced
butter, softened to room temperature
a few dried sage leaves
black pepper

 Let the triple cream sit out at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to allow it to soften. Spread the cheese in a thin layer on one slice of bread. Cover with a layer of cheddar cheese, and top with the other slice of bread. Spread butter over the top of the bread and sprinkle with crumbled sage leaves and a few cracks of black pepper.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Put the sandwich butter side down into the skillet. Butter the bread that’s now on top. Sprinkle with sage and black pepper. Cover and cook on medium low until the bread is toasty and the cheese is beginning to melt. Flip and cook on the other side until both sides of the bread are deeply browned and toasty and the cheese is thoroughly melted.

Remove the sandwich to a plate or cutting board and let sit for a few minutes to allow the cheese to firm up just a bit. Slice and serve.

Yield: One sandwich

 

Simple, sturdy: eggplant pasta

There’s something about this meal that is just so honest.

It isn’t flashy. Or even particularly pretty. It is eggplant, slumped and simmered. Simple.

Weeknights beg for meals like this. For things you can set on the stove while you relax and open a bottle of not-too-expensive red wine while you pad around the apartment in bare feet. A meal that relaxes into itself, like a comfy old t-shirt. It isn’t the sort of thing you put on for company, but it is the sort of thing you keep around for when you are tired and don’t want to think about it anymore.

Eggplant isn’t always easy. It can be bitter and seedy and stringy. I get why people don’t like it. It isn’t always my favorite either. But this is a sauce that plays to the strengths of the unassuming aubergine. Chunks of eggplant melt down in the pan absorbing the flavors of garlic and red pepper flakes and thyme. Bits of sun dried tomato punctuate the mellow sauce with intense pops of flavor, and a chiffonade of fresh basil enlivens the gray with dots of bright green.

Tossed with whole wheat linguine, the sauce feels sturdy and nourishing, comfortable and relaxed. Complete unto itself, it doesn’t even need a grating of parmigiano. It holds up well for a few days in the refrigerator, and makes a respectable work lunch to boot.

For the record, I should add that Dan wasn’t crazy about this. He said it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t really his thing either, so perhaps this won’t win over every eggplant skeptic. Oh well, more for me I guess.

Simple Eggplant Linguine

Source: Adapted from Francis Lam on Gourmet.com

The best eggplants tend to be the freshest eggplants, so if you can get them at the farmers market or a store with high turnover you can improve your odds of avoiding bitter ones. I tend to have better luck with smaller eggplants than larger ones. If you do end up with bitter eggplants, you can toss in a little sugar or honey or an extra glug of olive oil to round out the flavor. This dish takes about thirty minutes from start to finish, which makes it a great weeknight meal.

1 pound eggplant cut into half-inch chunks
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4-6 sun dried tomatoes (not the oil packed variety)
small handful fresh basil
1 cup water
salt
8 ounces whole wheat linguine (any other long pasta is fine)

Soak your sun dried tomatoes in a cup of water for about 10 minutes or until soft and pliable. Drain the tomatoes over a small bowl to reserve the liquid. Dice the tomatoes and set aside. Salt your eggplant and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, put a large saute pan on the stove over medium-low heat and add the olive oil, garlic, thyme and red pepper flakes.

When the garlic is fragrant and starting to show a hint of color, add the eggplant and turn up the heat to medium. After a few minutes, when the eggplant begins to turn translucent, add the reserved water from the sun dried tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down so the water is simmering, and cover, but leave an opening for steam to escape. Let the eggplant cook for about 20 minutes, until soft, stirring occasionally.

Put a big pot of water onto boil for pasta.

When most of the water is absorbed and the eggplant is soft, mash it together with a fork or a wooden spoon until no big chunks remain. Add the sun dried tomates and stir.

Cook and drain your pasta, and add it to the sauce. Chiffonade the basil and add it to the pasta.

Serve immediately.

Yield: About 4 servings.

A better way to frozen pizza

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Some days I don’t want to make the effort. I really don’t.

I love good food, but I’m tired, I’m hungry and I just want to order a pizza. Or stop by the freezer case in the grocery store and pick up something I can have done in fifteen minutes. Or maybe just have some baby carrots and a spoon of peanut butter and those Girl Scout cookies that I think I still have tucked away somewhere. I can’t exactly say I feel sated and refreshed after a dinner like that, appealing as it may have seemed at the time.

But I have good trick for those days. If I can think ahead a little.

It’s about a million times better than most commercially made frozen pizza. And I can even pronounce all of the ingredients.

It’s my homemade frozen pizza crust.

This is more of a method than a recipe. I have a favorite recipe, slightly modified from Peter Reinhart’s Neapolitan pizza crust in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice. You can find a trimmed down version of the recipe here. But you could just as easily use your favorite pizza dough recipe.

This is the sort of thing that I hear people recommend and I think, pshaww, I will never make and freeze a huge thing of whatever and eat it for months. That sounds onerous.

But it turns out that it doesn’t feel so terribly onerous, at least not on a lazy Saturday when I have a few hours of afternoon to fill.

And it feels absolutely terrific to open the freezer a week later and remember that I can have homemade pizza for dinner in less than an hour.

Homemade Frozen Pizza Crust

I have often come across recipes that recommend freezing balls of dough before the first rise. That turns out beautiful pizzas, but it requires thawing in the refrigerator overnight and a few hours of rising out of the refrigerator after that. When I get home from work and I’m hungry, that frozen ball of dough doesn’t do me much good (and even the one in the refrigerator means I’ll be eating late). This method gets the pizza from the freezer to the table in about 40 minutes, only about 5 of which requires any active work. I can handle that on a week night.

A batch or two of your favorite pizza dough (such as this one), mixed. If yours uses 2 cups of flour or less, I’d think about doubling it
olive oil
parchment paper
plastic wrap
gallon-size zip top freezer bags
a couple of baking sheets (or any sturdy, freezer-safe flat surface)

Lay some parchment paper out on the counter and cover it with a thin film of olive oil.  Spray oil works, so does spreading a few drops with your fingers. Take your dough and divide it into six-ounce balls, about the size of a small fist. This doesn’t have to be precise, but something close to this size fits nicely in a gallon-size freezer bag. (My recipe makes 6 of these.) Set them on the oiled parchment, spaced at least a couple of inches apart. Lightly oil the tops of the dough, and cover with plastic wrap. Let them rise until doubled in size, about an hour or two.

Cut one piece of parchment paper a little larger than your freezer bag for each ball of dough. Gently pull the dough into a circle roughly 9 inches in diameter, place on the parchment paper, place that on a baking sheet, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and put the whole thing in the freezer. Repeat with the other dough balls.  I usually manage to find space to freeze about four of these, stacked on top of each other, at once. Keep any dough that you have yet to shape and freeze tightly covered to prevent it from drying out.

Freeze the dough for about 45 minutes, or until it feels reasonably solid. Remove the dough from the baking sheet, but keep it on the parchment. Double wrap it in plastic wrap, place it in a freezer bag, and return it to the freezer.

On the day you want to make the pizza, pull the dough out of the freezer about 40 minutes before you want to eat (keep it covered with plastic wrap). Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. After a the dough has been sitting at room temperature for half an hour, top it with your preferred toppings, and bake on a pizza stone or baking sheet for about 8-10 minutes.

These keep for about two weeks in the freezer.

the end of the tomatoes, with bread

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We’ve had a bit of a cold snap around these parts. A little autumnal chill that hints at the jacket weather to come. The kind of weather that begs for closing up windows and putting on warm socks.

Of course, yesterday it was too warm for long sleeves, and even though there was apple pie and roasted squash, it was clear that fall has only been teasing us and has yet to be reliably here.

In the midst of this fitful seasonal hot and cold, there are still odds and ends of summer to use up. And this is something you need to know how to make if you have a few odd tomatoes lying around waiting to be put to good use.

It’s so easy it’s hardly even a recipe. It was invented by those thrifty Tuscans who were always looking for ways to use up old bread (their saltless pane Toscano seems to have left them with an overabundant supply of the stuff).

Panzanella is the sort of dish everyone should have in their back pockets, ready to pull out and assemble in hungry moments. It sounds too simple to be so incredibly delicious. But it isn’t. Really.

It’s another take on the familiar combination of tomatoes and starch so popular in spaghetti and pizza and bruschetta, and it can hold its own against any of them. When I made it for the first time about a year ago, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been eating it forever. Just crusty bread, tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and basil. And some good salt and a few cracks of black pepper. And you have a dinner to devour. Really.

Panzanella, or Tuscan Tomato Bread Salad

This is a dish with so many variations. Some versions add slices of cucumbers or onions or olives, some use red wine vinegar instead of the balsamic I use here. The traditional method seems to be to soak pieces of day-old bread in water, but I prefer the depth of flavor and complex texture that toasted bread brings to the dish, especially since I usually make this with fresh bread that needs to be a little dried out to soak up the oil and vinegar and tomato juices. If I’m feeling decadent, I sometimes add some fresh mozzarella. Feel free to experiment, but do use a good artisan loaf of bread and the best tomatoes you can find. I’ve given rough amounts here for one person for a main dish, multiply as you see fit.

1 medium tomato per person, sliced into bite-sized pieces
2-3 thick slices of crusty bread, cut into rough 1-2 inch cubes
1 clove of garlic, peeled and smashed with the flat side of a knife
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
3 teaspoons good quality extra virgin olive oil (plus an optional smidge of any old olive oil)
a few big leaves of fresh basil
kosher or sea salt
freshly cracked black pepper

In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat add a smidgen of olive oil (optional) and add the garlic clove and the bread cubes and toast until the bread gets golden on a few sides. Stir and toss the bread cubes and garlic occasionally and watch to be careful that they don’t burn. This should only take a few minutes. Add the bread and garlic to a medium bowl. Add the tomatoes and the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Tear up the basil and add it to the bowl. Add a pinch of salt and a few good cracks of black pepper. Give everything a stir and let it sit for about 10-15 minutes. Give it a stir again. (You can pull out the garlic clove if you like. Its flavor should have rubbed off on everything.) And eat–either straight from the bowl or on a plate if you can wait that long.

Yields one main course serving. (Easily multiplied.)

chickpeas, in pancake form

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When I first saw this recipe, I was intrigued by its primary ingredient. Chickpea flour sounded so much more exotic than plain old chickpeas, which manage to make their way to my table in various forms on a regular basis. I couldn’t imagine how the knobby little garbanzos I know so well would behave as flour.

It turns out they behave quite well. Ground to a fine powder, chickpeas retain their characteristic flavor and pale beige hue, a few shades deeper and warmer than all-purpose flour but not as bright as yellow corn meal or as dark as whole wheat. Chickpea flour is fine and soft, not at all gritty or tough. It is a common ingredient in Indian kitchens, where it often goes under the name of besan or gram flour. In Sicily, it is used in the popular street food panelle, or chickpea fritters. In Italian markets in the U.S. it is often sold as ceci flour. It is also one of the main ingredients in socca, a popular snack in the south of France.

In these curried chickpea pancakes, chickpea flour makes for a satisfying main course. This recipe comes from Peter Berley’s Fresh Food Fast, a cookbook that gets plenty of use in my kitchen. These have more heft than any other pancake I’ve eaten. The eggs and baking powder give them plenty of lift, while the chickpea flour gives them a filling density. My turmeric-heavy curry powder turns them a lovely yellow-orange, but other curry powder blends would likely give them a redder cast, which would be lovely too. The green onions and cilantro fleck subtle bursts of green throughout. Every time I make them, I am reminded of how solidly good these are, and I resolve to make them more often, though for some reason they seem to have a tendency to get lost for a few months before I can remember to bring them out again.

But really, I am going to make them again soon.

Curried Chickpea Pancakes

Source: adapted from Peter Berley’s Fresh Food Fast: Delicious, Seasonal Vegetarian Meals in Under an Hour
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The chickpea flour is the only tricky-to-find ingredient here, but it is, of course, essential. I found it under the name garbanzo flour at a local natural foods store. It is also available through various online sources. The tahini sauce here is a nice touch, but, as Berley says, they are also good with a garlic-cilantro yogurt sauce, and I think they’re even quite tasty unadorned. If you don’t like cilantro, you could substitute flat leaf parsley or a combination of parsley and mint.

Chickpea Pancakes:

2 cups chickpea flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup plain yogurt (I use fat free)
4 eggs
1 tablespoon canola oil (or other neutral oil)
6 green onions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
freshly ground black pepper

Tahini Sauce:

1/2 cup tahini, well stirred
1/2 cup water
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice (approx. the juice of one lemon)
1 clove minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
a pinch of cayenne pepper

First, make the tahini sauce. In a small bowl, combine tahini, water, garlic, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne and stir well. Set aside. (Can be made ahead, covered and refrigerated for about a week.)

Then, make the pancake batter. In a large mixing bowl, combine chickpea flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, curry powder, and salt. In another bowl, mix the wet ingredients–yogurt, eggs, and oil–until well combined. Add the wet mixture to the dry and stir until well-mixed–a few lumps are okay. Stir in the green onions and cilantro and black pepper.

In a large skillet or griddle, add a thin layer of canola oil over and heat over medium. With a ladle or a measuring cup, add about a half-cup of batter to the pan and cook until bubbles start to form in the middle, about 2-3 minutes. Flip over and cook for another few minutes until the pancake is cooked through and both sides are golden. You can transfer the cooked pancakes to plate and tent it with foil or keep them warm in a 200°F oven until all of the pancakes are done and you are ready to serve them.

You can drizzle with tahini sauce, or leave it on the side for each person to add to taste.

Yields 4 main course servings.

return of the scone, with chocolate chunks

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Sometime early in our relationship, when we had been dating for perhaps several months, Dan and I started making scones. It was an almost weekly occurrence, a satisfying project that could be completed in under an hour, proof that we had done something productive in the course of an otherwise relentlessly lazy weekend.

I no longer remember how we settled into scones. I imagine it had something to do with their sturdy, homey appeal, which makes them so comforting to nibble on combined with their faint air of Britishness ((Even if a scone in Britain is something closer what Americans call a biscuit.)), which lends them a certain cosmopolitan stature and makes them seem somehow less pedestrian than a muffin. Or maybe it was just their undeniable deliciousness.

We tried different recipes, added blueberries or raspberries or cinnamon chips, played with amounts of butter and fat content of milk and ratios of whole wheat pastry to all purpose flour. We ate our share of scones. My sister and our roommate even joked that Dan and I should open a bakery selling scones (and pizza, our other staple at the time).

After a while, for no particular reason, we drifted out of making them. We branched out into other baked goods and found ourselves with busier weekends when we sometimes baked nothing at all.

But we recently revisited the habit with a new recipe and were reminded why scones were so easy to fall for in the first place. This recipe is another one from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet. Made with cream and no butter, these scones are rich, yet light, and crumble when bitten into. The dough is noticeably less sticky than other scone doughs I’ve worked with, and it comes together easily. Out of the oven, these scones are golden on the edges but otherwise a delicate pale speckled with dark bits of chocolate. I think they’re even better on the second day, when their lightness gives way to a pleasing density. I think I could get used to having scones around again.

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Cream Scones with Bittersweet Chocolate Chunks

Source: slightly adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet

These scones are quite delicate and not too sweet. Any type of chocolate works here, and chocolate chips would be fine, but I prefer the texture of uneven bits of melting bittersweet. These are probably too delicate to stand up to any fresh or frozen fruit, but I have a hunch that dried fruits, such as currants, tart cherries, or apricot pieces would be lovely in lieu of chocolate. Cinnamon chips or other flavored chips could also work, if you aren’t in the mood for chocolate. With more than a cup of cream, they are not exactly health food, but they’re worth the splurge for a treat. A coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara will be prettier on the tops, but any mildly flavored sugar, including plain refined white table sugar, will do. You can replace a half cup of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour, white whole wheat flour or regular whole wheat flour for a slightly heartier, but still tender and light, scone.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small chunks
about 1 tablespoon milk or cream for brushing tops
about 1/2 tablespoon sugar, preferably turbinado, demerara, or coarse raw sugar for sprinkling tops (optional)

Preheat oven to 425°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until well combined. Stir in chocolate chunks. Add the cream and mix until the dry ingredients are moistened. The dough will seem a little dry, but should hold together when pinched. With your hand, knead the dough in the bowl, gently, until it all comes together in a smooth ball.

Turn the dough out onto a clean counter (or silpat or sheet of parchment paper) and pat into a circle about 8 or 9 inches in diameter and about 3/4 of an inch thick. With a butter knife or bench scraper, cut the dough into 8 wedges. Place the wedges onto the prepared baking sheet. Brush the tops with milk or cream and sprinkle with turbinado (or other) sugar, if using.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges and tops have turned golden. Cool on racks.

Yields 8 scones.

in search of spring

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Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches–
William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All”

Spring comes to Chicago in fits and starts. We swing from freezing temperatures to upward of 70-degrees and back again, sometimes within the same day. The sun teases us into thinking we barely need jackets, but the wind off the lake reminds us that we should have brought gloves and heavy sweaters, and the ominous clouds urge us to carry umbrellas.

T.S. Eliot famously called April the cruellest month for wantonly stealing away winter’s comforting covers, and there have been years when I’ve been inclined to agree with his assessment. But this year, on the cusp of April, I find my thinking aligned with another poet, Kenneth Koch, wondering impatiently “When will there be a perfectly ordinary spring day?”

Maybe tomorrow, then again, in this city, maybe not until May, or June, or sometime next year…

This is a dish for a fitful early spring day. Asparagus might be the season’s quintessential vegetable. A good bunch can go a long way toward appeasing my impatience for the other parts of spring. Spaetzle, in contrast, are little bits of starchy comfort. These too often overlooked German dumplings consist only of flour, eggs, and water, and are easy to make. Swathed in a beurre blanc sauce, asparagus and spaetzle welcome the green and ward off the chill of a day that straddles spring and winter. This is simple and delicate and makes a lovely dinner with a basic green salad and a glass of wine.

Asparagus and spaetzle with beurre blanc sauce
Source: Adapted from Deborah Madison’s recipe for Asparagus Ragout in Vegetarian Suppers and Judy Rodgers’s recipe for Martha’s spaetzle in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

This is an unconventional riff on a beurre blanc sauce. I’ve exchanged red onions for shallots and reduced the butter in the traditional version. The red onions have a stronger flavor than shallots and add bright pink flecks to the sauce, making the effect rather less subtle than the original. You could certainly use shallots here if you prefer. I’ve jumped the gun a bit with asparagus from California. The local stuff doesn’t seem to be available around me yet, but I couldn’t resist and was rewarded with a bunch that tasted like it should. Out of season asparagus tends to taste flat and have a tough, woody texture, which makes it altogether disappointing. Look for bright green stalks with tightly closed tops for better flavor. The width of the stalks is unimportant to the flavor, but roasting times should be adjusted by a few minutes for particularly thick or thin specimens

For the beurre blanc

2 tablespoons champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons dry vermouth or dry white wine
1 tablespoon red onion, minced finely
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces

For the spaetzle

2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup white whole wheat flour
2 eggs
6 tablespoons water
special equipment: Colander with 1/4 inch holes (or a spaetzle maker)

For the rest

about 3/4 pound asparagus, tough ends removed
small handful of button mushrooms, thinly sliced (optional)
olive oil
salt
pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut asparagus into about 1-inch pieces, toss with a little bit of olive oil and place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for about 10-15 minutes, or until tender.

Meanwhile, make the beurre blanc sauce. In a medium sauce pan, add vinegar, vermouth or wine, and red onion. Bring to a boil, reduced heat to medium-low and simmer until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Remove from heat and whisk in butter, one piece at a time, until all the butter is added and the sauce is smooth and butter-colored. Set aside. (Check the asparagus, remove from oven and set aside.)

Make the spaetzle. Combine flour, eggs, and water in a medium bowl, and blend with a fork until well combined. In a wide saute pan or stock pot, bring water to a boil, and salt generously. Have a slotted spoon and a plate ready. Over the boiling water, place about a third of the batter into a colander and, with a flexible spatula, press the batter through the holes into the water. Be careful to avoid overcrowding the pot–there should be a little bit of room at the surface for the dumplings to move around. The spaetzle should float in about thirty seconds. (If they stick to the bottom of the pot, loosen them gently with a slotted spoon.) After they float, allow them to cook for about 1 minute. Drain them with a slotted spoon and place them in a single layer on a plate. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

In a saute pan over medium heat, add a thin coating of olive oil or butter, add mushrooms if using and spaetzle and saute until spaetzle are slightly browned and crisp. (You could omit this step, if not using mushrooms, and simply toss asparagus and spaetzle with the sauce.) Remove from heat, add asparagus and beurre blanc and stir. Season with salt and pepper.

Yields 2 servings