Sunday, July 31, 2016

Banana Bread

It all started with my friend Lori. We'd had a very busy month and when I finally had a free weekend, I wanted to do some baking. I posted a suggestion on Facebook that I might make cinnamon rolls and my fellow bakers chimed in. I happened to mention that I had a few over-ripe bananas in the fridge and Lori offered her banana chocolate chip cupcake recipe.   

Lori in the middle row, green sweater, me behind her in a blue tank top
Lori and I grew up together in a tiny, middle class community in northern New Jersey. It was an idyllic place to be a kid. The community was built around a small, shallow lake complete with a clubhouse, several small private beaches and lots of hilly streets perfect for bike riding and woods to get lost in. Lori and I were part of huge group of friends and until my family relocated to Texas in 1978, that community and those friends were my entire world. We went to kindergarten together, attended summer camp together, went to the same doctors and dentists, sold girl scout cookies together, attended each other's bar and bat mitzvahs and we stayed close all through grade school, middle school and into high school. I was 16 years old when we moved to southeast Texas and by the time I graduated from high school, I had fallen out of touch with the friends I'd shared so much of my childhood with. 

Twenty-five years later, we reunited and since then, we've kept up with each other through social media. I have watched Lori's boys grow up and she has watched me move around the country. Through social media, we have discovered we share a passion for baking. Though we have not seen each other for about a decade, Lori and I have reconnected through baking. This is a sterling example of how food brings people together to share our common bonds. 

Back to the bananas. After I cleaned the kitchen, I was ready to bake and Lori had shared her cupcake recipe with me on Facebook. 


3 medium ripe bananas
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp cinnamon
1 generous tsp vanilla
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 stick room temperature butter
2 large eggs
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
Mini chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional - not in Lori's recipe, but I thought it sounded good)

According to Lori's recipe, I set the oven to to 325 degrees. The bananas, milk, cinnamon and vanilla get mashed together and set aside. My bananas were far beyond ripe, the skin was black and the fruit was barely holding together. The aroma from the mashed banana mixture was intoxicating. Next, I mixed the dry ingredients together and set them aside. I creamed the butter and sugar together in the mixer, adding the eggs one at a time, then alternated adding the dry ingredients with the mashed bananas. The batter was quite loose and absolutely reeked of bananas. Finally, I added the chocolate chips and chopped walnuts. 

Now, had I followed Lori's recipe, I would have ended up with cupcakes, but I decided to bake this batter in a loaf pan like a traditional banana bread. It took about 90 minutes to bake and when I took it out of the oven, the toothpick I'd used to test the loaf was still slightly moist. The outside was deep brown and I was concerned it would burn if I left it in the oven any longer. The banana bread was absolutely delicious. It was impossibly moist with a tight crumb and the cinnamon, banana and chocolate created an unusually complex flavor. But this batter would have made a fluffy and delicate cupcake. I would have been wise to follow's Lori's recipe.   

Lori and I will keep baking together in different states, sharing recipes and experiences on social media. Who knows, maybe one day we'll actually bake together in the same kitchen. Our friendship certainly goes far beyond our recipes, but I cherish the relationship we have built through food and I love that we are able to inspire each other to try new things. Thanks for the inspiration, Lori, keep it coming!   

Monday, July 25, 2016

Garden Potatoes

This year my husband Jason decided he wanted to grow potatoes in the garden. He'd been harboring this idea for years and when we expanded the garden in the spring, he claimed space for his potato experiment. After doing some research to understand the structure of the potato plant, Jason had a plan to grow them in tall cages that he would fill with dirt as the plants matured, hopefully promoting the growth of potatoes in the cages as the roots developed. He found some multi-colored potato starts and set up two cages, each containing two starts. He planted three more starts without cages in another part of the garden.  As the foliage grew inside the cages, he dumped dirt on top of it, covering it up with the idea of building more roots, thus making more potatoes. The potatoes that were not in cages got a little more dirt mounded on top, but not as much as the caged ones.

According to the research, potatoes take at least 12 weeks to mature. Jason lovingly ensconced his potatoes in extra dirt every couple of weeks and I planted my tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. As the potatoes grew, so did my curiosity. The dilemma with potatoes, or any root veggie for that matter, is that you can't see them growing so you don't know if they are actually producing anything. After about 8 weeks, I couldn't help myself. I dug up the smallest plant that was in the ground and found three walnut sized potatoes under there. Jason was not happy about it, but at least we knew something was happening. 

Finally, Jason decided the time had come to unearth his experiment. He pushed the cages over on their sides and started digging from the bottom. Lo and behold, there were potatoes! They were not big or plentiful, but they were there. Interestingly, the plant that had the highest yielded and the largest potatoes was a purple potato plant that was not in a cage. We determined that the cages were a great experiment, but didn't produce the desired effect. The other interesting aspect to this experiment has to do with pest control. We have a healthy rabbit population in our neighborhood and they devour anything that isn't protected by chicken wire. They munch my flowers regularly and the herbs in pots get destroyed if they are not placed on plant stands. We also saw a groundhog in the backyard this year and I'm certain he joined the rabbits in laying waste to my radishes. But the leaves of the potato are poisonous and they stayed in tact while other plants got became a salad bar for the critters. 

Once all the plants were harvested, we had a couple pounds of red, white and purple potatoes. I made a big bowl of potato salad and served it to Jason's family who were visiting from Texas. We decided that they did taste better and more fresh than store bought potatoes. Plus, the purple ones are uniquely lovely and make an impressive presentation when placed on the table. We'll certainly plant potatoes again and maybe I'll find a recipe that is a little more exotic to showcase their beauty.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Best Waffles Ever

Last summer I caught a segment on Food Network that captured my attention. It was about a company in eastern Pennsylvania that makes Belgian Liege style waffles and they ship them all over the country. I was so intrigued that I went on their website and ordered a box of waffles before the segment was over. Two weeks later, my waffles arrived and I fell in love. 

Waffatopia is the object of my waffle affection. Brian and Andrea Polizzi discovered this style of waffle on a trip to Brussels and decided to replicate it in their home. Their waffles were an instant hit with friends and family, inspiring them to chuck their corporate lives and see how far they could follow their dream. Their production facility is based in Conshohocken, PA and they ship their handmade goodness near and far. 

What makes these waffles so special? Its a unique recipe that Brian and Andrea have perfected and their combination of flavors are spot on. The waffles we are used to eating in America are made with a poured batter and we drown them in syrup. Waffatopia waffles are made with a yeast dough, which creates a chewy, bread-like texture. Their secret weapon is pearl sugar that they import from Belgium. The sugar stays in tact and caramelizes as the dough cooks, giving the waffles a sweet crunch with every bite. You can order flavors like maple bacon, vanilla cinnamon and banana and Nutella, which are all delicious. They also have special seasonal flavors, like strawberry banana, birthday cake and lemon blueberry. They use the best ingredients they can find which results in a superior product. This waffle is street food at its finest, meant to be eaten without syrup. 

The other thing that Brian and Andrea have done right is their branding. Their logo is vibrant and charming and they designed fabulous packaging with wonderful slogans like "Sharing is optional" and "Syrup? We don't need no stinkin' syrup".  When that orange box arrives in the mail, I get a huge grin just from looking at the packaging. Each box of waffles arrives with a small supply of wax paper sleeves that you can use to carry your warm waffle with you. I am hoping they start making t-shirts and baseball caps so I can proudly show off my Waffatopia love.  

I have shipped these waffles to people in three states and all the recipients were thrilled. My sister-in-law in Texas declared them the "best holiday gift ever".  My cousin in Virginia was equally impressed.  I had a box of waffles in the fridge when my brother and his wife came to visit this summer.  They devoured them and took the packaging home so they can order their own. I am a shameless Waffatopian and once you try these waffles, you will be too.  

Monday, July 18, 2016

Homemade Pickles

My husband's grandmother has been making pickles for her entire life. Her pickles have become known as "MomMom Pickles" and they are prized among the family. Her recipe is made with sliced zucchini and has a similar sweet and tart flavor of bread and butter pickles. She is now 94 years old and she stopped making pickles several years ago. Last summer, my husband took up the mantle and replicated MomMom's pickle recipe with tremendous success. This year I thought I'd try my hand at making my own pickles.

Our garden didn't do well this year.  My heirloom tomato plants suffered from late blight and I had to pull them up before they bore any fruit. The rabbits and groundhogs have treated my radishes and parsley as if its their own personal salad bar. The only real success I've had so far is with a single cucumber plant that has taken over a corner of the garden. There were about 10 cucumbers that were all ready to be harvested all at once. I like to think of that as "pickle time".

Given how popular MomMom's pickles are, I decided to try making my own bread and butter pickles. I did a little research and cobbled the recipe together based on the common themes I saw. Some recipes called for pickling spice, cloves or bay leaves, but that didn't seem to be a universal thing. Tumeric, however, was in every recipe I found and it gives the pickles that classic golden color. I stuck with the spices that were in every recipe. I did find a couple of tips that were helpful to keep the pickles crisp and I took some guidance from Jason's grandmother's zucchini recipe. First, the fresher the ingredients, the better the final product. All the recipes I found called for buying the cucumbers at a farmers market the same day you plan to make pickles. No problem there, I just walked out my back door and procured said cukes from my garden. Second, variety does matter. Certain types of cucumbers have less water and seeds in them and therefore make a better pickle. Kirby cucumbers are the most common variety for pickling, but you can really pickle anything. Its best to avoid the really fat cucumbers because they'll have more seeds. Finally, most recipes insist that the sliced cucumbers be kept as cold as possible to maintain their crispness. Some recipes call for letting them sit overnight to dry out, but that seemed excessive to me. Here's how I did it.   


3 lbs fresh sliced cucumbers 
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup Kosher or pickling salt
2 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tsp celery seeds
1 tsp tumeric

First, slice the cucumbers and the onion. You can do this by hand for a thicker slice. You can even use a crinkle cutter if you want. You can make these pickles any shape your heart desires, its a matter of personal preference. I took the easy route by using the food processor and the slices are pretty thin. Once you have everything sliced, put it all in a big colander and sprinkle it liberally with kosher salt. Toss everything together and make sure the salt is mixed in. The salt will draw moisture from the cucumbers, making for a crunchier pickle. Finally, put a handful of ice cubes on top. The ice will melt slowly and keep everything really cold as it drains. Put the colander in the sink and let it sit for 2 hours. The cucumbers will release a lot of liquid during this time. 

After two hours, rinse the cucumbers and onions well under cold water. Get the biggest sheet pan you have, line it with a couple layers of paper towels and spread the rinsed vegetables out in a single layer on the sheet pan. Place another layer of paper towels over the top and press down to make sure the pickles release as much liquid as possible. I actually put another sheet pan on top and weighted it with cans and jars from my pantry, just to draw any remaining liquid out. Some recipes called for letting the cucumbers sit overnight to dry. Mine sat for two hours, which gave me time to get all my canning supplies ready to go. I have a system I use for making jam, which I have done multiple times. I have a double porcelain sink and I use the smaller side for this process. I scrub the sink well and use just a tiny bit of bleach to make sure it is completely sterilized. I wash my glass jars, lids and rings in hot soapy water, rinse them well, then place them in the clean sink and submerge them in boiling water. I also throw in the wide-mouth funnel and the spoon I use for filling and jars so they are also sterile. This way my jars are ready when I am ready and I don't have to use a special pot or take up another burner on my stove. 

After two hours of drying the cucumbers, it was time to make the brine. I combined the vinegar, salt, water, sugar and spices in a large, deep pot and brought it to a simmer over medium heat. Some recipes call for placing the cucumbers into sterilized jars and pouring the brine over the top. Jason's grandmother cooks her vegetables in the simmering brine for two minutes before canning, so that's what I did. It only takes a minute or two. If you boil your pickles for too long they'll fall apart. I moved the whole pot of pickles next to the sink and with a pair of rubber tongs, I lifted my sterile jars out of the water and using the wide-mouth funnel, I filled each jar with pickles, then poured in enough of the brine to fill the jars to the rim. Once they were full, I wiped the rims with a clean paper towel and sealed them up with lids and rings. Now the pickle jars needed to take a hot bath to make sure they were airtight for storage. 

This is where a canning pot would normally come into play. A canning pot is a big contraption with a wire rack in the bottom to keep the jars from coming into direct contact with the heat source. The jars are placed on the rack, the rack goes in the pot, it gets filled with water and the water is brought slowly up to a boil over low to medium heat. The boiling water creates an airtight seal and you know the jars are done when you hear the lids make a popping sound. I have an old canning pot, but it doesn't fit in any of my kitchen cabinets or on my stove, so I do the same thing with my finished jars that I do with the empty ones.  I put a clean towel in the bottom of the porcelain sink, put the jars on the towel and pour boiling water over them until the tops of the jars are submerged. I pour more boiling water over the jars after about 20 minutes. If the lids have not sealed after about 45 minutes, I'll pour more boiling water over them, but in most cases they are sealed after the second round of boiling water. 

The last jar I filled was only half full and I put it in the fridge as a test batch. Two hours later, I popped the lid and tasted a pickle and it was delicious, even though it wasn't ready for prime time. It was sweet and tart, just like a bread & butter pickle should be and it still had a fabulous crunch. I also tried a little a trick - I put a slice of ginger and two small slices of garlic in the bottom of each jar. I can't wait to see if those flavors end up making a difference. These pickles taste best after sitting in the brine for a few weeks. Your pickles should stay crunchy for at least six months or longer in the jar, but I doubt they'll last that long. Next time, I will probably cut my cucumbers a little thicker and I may try using a little more onion. If my cucumber plant continues to produce, this won't be the last batch of pickles I make this summer.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Pretzel Mania

On a perfect sunny day over a holiday weekend, my husband and I pulled into Lititz, Pennsylvania for a visit to a very special and historic place. Lititz, Pennsylvania is the site of the very first commercial pretzel bakery in the US. Yes, its true, we visited a 150 year old pretzel bakery on our summer vacation.

While their actual beginnings are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, it is believed that pretzels first appeared in around 600 AD when Italian monks started handing the twisted baked good out to their students. The shape of the pretzel is steeped in symbolism. The crossed dough is said to resembled the way children were taught to pray, with their arms crossed over their chest. The knot itself is symbolic of the union of the parents and it is where the term "tying the knot" originated. The three holes formed by shaping the pretzel symbolize the holy trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. During the 7th century, the Catholic church tightened its rules on fasting and abstinence during Lent and people began eating a lot more of pretzels. Soon the pretzel spread to other parts of Europe and became a popular food item among many different cultures,  The pretzel is associated with good luck, long life and prosperity and was often given to the poor as a symbol of spiritual sustenance.

When German immigrants arrived in America and settled in Pennsylvania, they came with pretzels in hand and the Keystone state quickly became the epicenter of the American pretzel empire. This is where one Julius Sturgis enters the picture. He was a young man of German heritage living in Lititz, PA and he got a job at a small pretzel bakery in town. He worked ten hours a day in the blasting heat baking pretzels and it was also his job to clean out all the remaining pretzel detritus from the ovens at the end of the day. Well, he was tired after a long day of baking and sometimes he would just forget to clean out the ovens. The next morning, his boss would find old, hard burned pretzels in the ovens and would throw them away. One day Julius tasted one of these hard pretzels and he liked it. Eureka! The hard pretzel was born. He tried to convince his boss that the hard pretzels were delicious, that people would love them and that they'd make a ton of money if they started selling the hard pretzels as well as the soft ones. His boss was having none of that. So Julius saved his money and in 1861 he opened his own pretzel bakery right down the street and started making hard pretzels as well as soft. That Julius was trouble, trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P that stands for pretzel. Guess who is still making pretzels today?

The original Julius Sturgis pretzel bakery is now a museum and we took a tour and got schooled on pretzel making. For about 80 years, all the Sturgis pretzels were made in three ovens in this location in Lititz. The dough recipe calls for spring and winter flour, barley malt, yeast, water, canola oil and a little bit of the sour dough from the previous batch. Originally, the signature course salt was used not only for flavor, but also to keep the dough from sticking to the peel and the bottom of the oven. The ovens were stoked with wood beginning at about 2:00 am and pretzels would be made by hand and baked until about noon. The soft pretzels would come out of the oven and be sold that day, but the hard pretzels would be transferred to the second floor of the brick building, which was so hot that the pretzels would bake a second time just from the residual heat of the ovens downstairs.

In 1935, a machine was invented that could twist about 250 pretzels per minute rather than the 40 or so done by hand. In the 1940's, the Julius Sturgis pretzel company invested in its first mechanical pretzel maker and moved its factory out of Lititz to Reading, PA. By that time, Julius was long gone and his grandson Marriott was running the business along with his uncle Tom Keller. Today, the company sells "Tom Sturgis" pretzels, but its still family owned and they use the same recipe as they did back in 1861 when Julius started the business.  To this day, 80% of all pretzels made in the US are made in Pennsylvania.

We probably ate six soft pretzels at the bakery that day and they were chewy and flavorful. On our way out of the historic building, we were given small bags of Tom Sturgis hard pretzels and that night we popped open a bag. They are unlike any hard pretzel I've ever tasted, light and crispy and not dry or crumbly. They're delicious. So, if you're ever tooling through Pennsylvania and feel like getting off the beaten path, I highly recommend a stop in Lititz for a pretzel and some fine tales of pretzel making history.