Chocolate Olive Oil Zucchini Muffins

Living this suburban, just-outside-the-city-but-still-metro-accessible sort of life is pretty great but summer has a tendency to call me home. Home in the summer is a sigh of relief. It reminds me that there is a place in the world where I don’t have to put on appearances, where simple pleasures always exist. I can close my eyes and everything I hear, smell, and feel floods me with waves of nostalgia. A symphony of cicadas, a dozen or so mosquito bites on the ankles, the humid and hot air mingling with the smell of sunbaked grass and acrid tomato plants. If I could spend the rest of my life standing barefoot under the sun, a glass of iced tea in hand, watching that garden grow, it would certainly be a happy life.

But time is fleeting and just as I start to settle into the simpler ways of life at home, it’s time to head back to suburbia. But at least I’m usually laden with bags of fresh green beans, tomatoes, squash, and zucchini. Always so much zucchini.

And when there’s an excess of zucchini, quick breads are not far away.

I tried out a new recipe from Tara O’Brady’s book Seven Spoons. I haven’t yet had the chance to explore the book in too much depth but from the looks of it, the book is a treasure trove of delightful recipes that I can’t wait to try. But I can say that the chocolate olive oil zucchini muffin recipe is a definite win. These muffins have quite the flavor profile. The chocolate flavor is definitely there, but not in a way that makes you think you are simply eating a chocolate cupcake. It more so brings about this deep and earthy cocoa taste that pairs up nicely with the grassy component of the olive oil and the zucchini. Chocolate chunks and toasted walnuts bulk up the muffins providing a good crunch and chew to juxtapose the ultra moist aspect of the muffin itself.

I made 2-dozen muffins a few days in advance for an upcoming family reunion (they were a hit!) and I found that they froze really well too so you can stash several of them away for a day where a little taste of home is just what you need.

Chocolate Olive Oil Zucchini Muffins
Makes 24-28 small muffins
Recipe from Tara O’Brady’s Seven Spoons

1½ lbs zucchini
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups whole wheat four
½ cup cocoa powder
1½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1½ tsp. salt
1 cup toasted and chopped walnuts
8 oz. chocolate chunks
½ cup olive oil
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
2 tsp. vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place muffin liners in two muffin tins. Using the large holes of a grater, grate the zucchini onto a clean kitchen towel. Once grated, place another towel overtop and press down to squeeze out some of the moisture. Let sit for 15 minutes and then transfer the zucchini to a bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the flours, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, salt, walnuts, and chocolate chunks together. In a different bowl, whisk together the olive oil and the buttermilk. Whisk in the eggs, sugars, and vanilla and finally stir in the zucchini. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients and gently stir until just combined. Do not overmix.

Divide the batter between the muffin tins. I filled each so there was about a half inch of space between the batter and the top of the tins. Place in the oven and bake for 17-19 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the muffin. Let the muffins cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Pome and Circumstance

As circumstance has it, I don’t really cook too much anymore. With a nighttime restaurant job, my college self’s pastime of making overly elaborate meals for nearly every meal is essentially gone. On the bright side, things are a good deal cheaper with a steady diet of yogurt and toast but unfortunately much less inventive.

However the current circumstance and the changes this has brought to my lifestyle has created a change in palate. I used to gravitate toward long lists of ingredients and the challenges that they offered. I’ve now had to make peace with the fact that I can’t quite take on those challenges every day anymore. But it’s been an easy transition. Perhaps my constant proximity to food, and very beautiful and luxurious at that, satiates the need for it. I now need, seek, and crave things that are simple, quick, and filling. Whether I’m eating lunch before work or scouring the fridge after a long night, all I want is a meal that is starchy, crunchy, juicy, and salty all that the same time. In short, bread, cheese, and pome fruits.

Something about the combination of salty fatty cheese (cheddar and goat are my current preference) with chewy and filling bread all offset by a palate cleansing and thirst-quenching bite of an apple or pear really seems to be all I need right now. Even when I’m having it for the fifth day in a row, I still drive home maybe a little too fast in my anticipation for my nightly cheese on toast.

Fortunately for me the fall season is fast approaching and my pome fruit addiction is about to become tastier with the soon-to-come abundance of these gems. A fresh picked apple or pear in incomparable in every aspect imaginable. Apples, in their weight, seem halved and their flesh denser and drier. The skin is thick and floral and they take twice as long to eat as a regular apple, though whether this is from their savored tastiness or substantiality, I do not know. Yet they still have just the right amount of juiciness that they spray a fine mist of sticky nectar with that first crisp bite. With fresh-picked pears, they are heavy in their syrupy juice so that it relentlessly drips down the chin. The texture is minimally gritty and rather thick and creamy like butter. Pure and simple, fresh and raw - that is the way I best like my pome fruits.

To change up the pace with the starch aspect of my new typical meal I made these cheesy savory scones. The recipe is by Nigel Slater from his book Ripe. He suggests them as a perfect accompaniment to a raw pear. He is quite correct with that note as he is on most things fruit and vegetable related. The book in its entirety is exquisite and a must have for anyone fascinated by nature’s sweetest produce and both the sweet and savory applications for them. The recipe, too, is quintessentially British as a savory take on the teatime classic and a base for some of the country’s finest cheeses. They are light and airy as a biscuit yet a little more moist and wet from the melting cheese dispersed throughout. The touch of spelt flour and hazelnuts adds a deep nuttiness and slight sweetness to counterbalance the salty cheese. Eaten warm with a smear of butter, a clean arugula salad, and, of course, a fresh juicy pear, it is a lunch I’d be glad to return to as my circumstances require.

Goat Cheese and Thyme Scones (with pears)
recipe adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
makes 4 scones

1 cup all purpose flour
¾ cup spelt or whole wheat flour
1 Tbs baking powder
3 Tbs cold butter cut into small cubes
3½ oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 oz goat cheese
1 tsp. chopped thyme
¼ cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely ground
½ cup buttermilk
salt and pepper
pears, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a mixing bowl sift together the flours and the baking powder. Scatter the butter cubes over the flour and use your fingers to rub it into the flour until evenly distributed. Alternately, you could do this step in a food processor and transfer to a mixing bowl after. Add the goat and cheddar cheese, the thyme, the ground hazelnuts, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the flour and butter mixture and give a small stir to combine.

Pour the buttermilk over the flour mixture and use a fork to quickly bring the ingredients together into a firm ball of dough. If it looks a little too dry add a little more buttermilk. Dump onto a floured surface and shape into a round disk about 6 inches in diameter. Transfer to a lightly floured or parchment lined baking sheet. Using a knife, score a deep cross into the dough (making sure you don’t go all the way through to the baking sheet) so that you have 4 wedges. Sprinkle a little more cheese and thyme overtop.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until puffed and golden brown. Let cool for about 10 minutes before eating with a lovely autumn pear.

Cocoa Nib Shortbreads

I’ve always heard you’re either a cook or a baker. I’m a baker. Don’t get me wrong; cooking my meals is my favorite part of every day. I feel blessed to have the ability to just instinctively whip things together based on what’s laying around, combine flavors, and to be able to confidently tweak and finagle recipes as I please.  But I find true solace in the set ways and exact finickyness of baking. It’s like a loyal dog. If you have a well-trained and practiced recipe, you can always count on it to turn out exactly right. It will always be there to comfort if you need it. Does that make cooking like cats? They always say you’re either a dog person or a cat person…

Anyway, The only problem is, I don’t have much opportunity to bake too often. You see, as I’ve gotten older, I don’t actually crave sweets too much anymore. It all seems a bit to cloying now and I prefer something light and only slightly sweet like a piece of dark chocolate of a miniature scoop of ice cream each night after dinner.  Yet how does one fulfill their baking needs without suddenly ending up with a house full of desserts that will go stale before a dent is even made in the lot? I do bake a lot of healthy breads for breakfast and often make ice cream knowing it will keep practically indefinitely in the freezer. Also, my current once-weekly pastry internship satisfies my baking needs and has also allowed me to make many deserts I’ve never even tried at tuile string garnishes! And when I do bake at home, I give most of it away. There are few things in this world that please me more than making food for people. But even then I sometimes get the feeling that I’m forcing people, many of whom are trying to avoid all things sugary and indulgent nowadays, into taking something they feel obligated to eat.

With all of this said, I am happy to report the discovery of the perfect recipe for the not-so-sweet toothed yet baking obsessed and single living person. Tough standards, huh? These are cocoa nib shortbreads from Orangette via Alice Medrich and I swear I may never find a better cookie. They come together in about 5 minutes and are wrapped into a log shape in Clingfilm to sit in the fridge or freezer until you decide you want some cookies. You slice off however many you want from the dough log, bake them, enjoy them, and the rest of the dough waits nicely until a cookie craving sneaks up again. After baked they also keep extremely well, as in several weeks well. They even get better with age.

The best part is, they are just perfect in size and subtle in sweetness. They are wafer thin and disintegrate into salty little nibbly crumbs bursting with rich butteriness. The cocoa nibs add a sophisticated crunch and a deep roasted bitterness that I happen to quite like very much. And aren’t they pretty? They remind me almost of a speckled little bird’s egg, nutty brown and not quite round, with a few wobbly organically imperfect edges. They are nice with breakfast, dunked into coffee. I’ll have another alongside a cup of afternoon tea. These are actually great for sharing too if you don’t get too greedy and bake only enough for just you at a time. Just bring the cookie log over to a gathering of family and friends and bake them up right there, creating a warm toffee smell in the air. First off, no one will be able to resist after that aroma but they are so delicate, light and dainty, that it would be hard for even the most health conscious person to go on with life without having at least one. They may seem a little exotic (cocoa nibs?) but I know that even the most picky and cut and dry eaters will enjoy this classy take on the chocolate chip. Like my father, who promptly consumed six in a row the minute I set them on the counter. And he claims to hate chocolate and fancy food things, pshhh.

Cocoa Nib Shortbreads
from Orangette via Alice Medrich
makes 40-50 cookies

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (you could also use a combo of 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1 cup whole what flour)
14 Tbs. unsalted room temperature butter
½ cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup roasted cocoa nibs

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla with the paddle attachment on medium speed for about 2 minutes. You want it to be smooth and lighter but not whipped. Add the cocoa nibs and beat just long enough until they are evenly distributed in the butter. Add the flour and again beat until everything is just mixed.

Dump the dough onto the counter and quickly knead it until it comes together and form it into a rough log shape about 12 inched long. Transfer this to a piece of cling film and tightly wrap it and shape it into a smoother log. Place in the refrigerator to set overnight or at least for a few hours.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 and prepare a baking sheet with parchment or use a baking stone. Unwrap the dough and using a sharp knife, cut off ¼ inch slices and place them on the cookie sheet. Bake in the oven for 13-15 minutes or until the edges are just starting to brown. Let cool on the sheet briefly and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for a few weeks.

Because Everyone Else Has...

I will too.

I’ve been on a search for a really long time. That search for the absolute ultimate brownie. For the one that transcends and stands apart from all other baked goods. It was a laborious search before I settled on one to make. I didn’t just want to pick any ‘ole brownie recipe of the existing millions at random. I knew what I was looking for but was scared of choosing the wrong option and ending up with an entire tray that did not meet my vision. Now granted, a brownie is a brownie no matter how you cut it (chocolate, butter, sugar…all good) yet it is amazing how many varieties do exist. And I had a mission in mind and nothing but one result was going to satisfy me.

I am a very anti-box mix sort of person. I don’t care if its the most expensive one on the shelf but box mix brownies are nothing more to me than a lackluster and poor excuse for dense chocolate cake. They are so deficient of chocolate flavor that the main taste component more so resembles the cardboard box it was packed in. A brownie should not a have a flaky and fluffy crumb to it. That’s what cake is for people. With brownies, I want something creamy, melting, and rich with just the right amount of leaven to make something with a little more springiness and tenderness than fudge. That happy medium between cake, cookies, and candy that stands all on its own.

I finally decided that I found a winner after seeing the recipe for Alice Medrich’s Cocoa Brownies on Smitten Kitchen’s blog. Just by the picture I know it was what I was looking for. They looked dense, rich, and intense, yet still carried a delicacy and lightness. I bookmarked this and later, after just a little more brownie recipe research, realized that everyone and their mother has made this recipe with the same results: they are the best brownies to ever exist. If I could take them and give them a name of my own it would without a doubt be something along the lines of black velvet. Smooth, but with a dark side. Creamy, but daringly bold. They are what I’ve been looking for such a long time.

And let me just say that they are easy easy easy. People go for box mixes to avoid struggle but I swear this is easier. It requires nothing more than a double boiler. Now, don’t let the fancy terminology scare you off; this is just a metal bowl sitting over simmering water. There is no need for a mixer, its only 6 ingredients (seven if you count the pinch of salt), and it dirties nothing more than a bowl and a wooden spoon that you get to lick clean anyway. Do I have your attention now? They get the deepest, most intense flavor from nothing but straight up Dutch-processed cocoa melted into a grainy tar-like paste with butter and sugar. It’s gets mixed with a few eggs, vanilla, and the tiniest smidge of flour and it magically transforms into literal liquid velvet. It bakes off, rising slightly with the subtle gluten network giving it some bounce but for the most part it stays compact, sealing the fudgy richness inside. And when you cut in, the deep black interior is revealed, dark with the secrets of its mind-blowing powers hidden within. You will blow people away with these. They will literally think you are a culinary genius and to be honest, this simple recipe makes for brownies that are far superior to anything I’ve EVER had in a restaurant. Just wait for it, that pinnacle moment when all of your guest reach in for these and before you know it, a crowd of people, lost in chocolate induced coma, are standing around your kitchen, a smile playing on their mouth and teeth as black as the night. It’s a sight to see.

Cocoa Brownies
Recipe originally from Alice Medrich
makes 16 or 25 brownies

These are great on their own but I always have a tendency to want to jazz thing up a little. The first time I made these I topped them with a simple ganache and candy cane pieces. That’s what is pictured above. I did overcook the first round a little because my oven at school is abnormally hot, but I made them a second time yesterday and cooked them to exactly they way they are supposed to be. This time I gave them a coating of soft amaretto ganache and a dusting of cocoa power. And since they were still a little gooey and soft, I kept them in the freezer for about an hour to firm them up, which made for really clean, perfectly squared slices.

10 Tbs. butter
1¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup plus 2 Tbs. Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¼ tsp. salt
2 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla
½ cup all-purpose flour

For the ganache
3 oz. dark chocolate
3 oz heavy cream
possible mix-ins (1 Tbs. amaretto or other liqueur of choice or 3 chopped candy canes or anything else that suits your fancy)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 8X8 inch brownie pan with parchment paper so that it hangs over the edge and lightly coat it with oil. Set aside. Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a metal or glass bowl. Place the over a saucepan filled with about one inch of water (the bowl should not touch the water) set over medium heat so that it is simmering. Stir the mixture occasionally with a rubber spatula until it starts to melt and then stir constantly until all of the butter is melted and the mixture is just warm to touch. Remove from the double boiler and set the bowl aside to cool for a minute.

Add the eggs one at a time and beat each one into the mixture with a wooden spoon. Once fully incorporated, the mixture should go from a grainy paste into a very smooth batter. Mix in the vanilla and then add the flour and fold in until just incorporated. Finally, using the wooden spoon, give the mixture 40 vigorous stirs. Pour into the prepared pan and cook for about 25 minutes until the top is set and springy. A toothpick will not come out clean but don’t worry, they are done. Pop into the freezer for about 30 minutes to an hour to firm up.

Once the brownies have been in the freezer for the hour you can eat them as they are or top them with the ganache. To make the ganache, finely chop the chocolate and place it in a metal of glass bowl. Heat the cream in the microwave until just boiling. Pour it over the chocolate and let it sit for 30 seconds. Then stir it until it is smooth and glossy. You and incorporate any mix-ins or flavorings at this point. Pour it over the brownies and place back into the freezer for about 30 minutes to set. Once the ganache is firm, remove the brownies from the pan by pulling up on the parchment. Cut with a sharp knife into however many pieces you desire and dust with cocoa powder.

Banana Bread

I’ve been thinking a lot about bananas lately.

And by lately I mean since two Saturdays ago when I began one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences in my life. This past week and a half, I volunteered myself as an orientation guide for the incoming freshman of my University. It was not an easy job to obtain; the application process began last February and essays, group, and individual interviews ensued before 900 applicants were whittled down to 250 FROGS (First yeaR Orientation Guides). And so the moment finally arrived. The three days of training and six days of orientation that followed were, though exhausting (we got about four hours of sleep each night), some of the best of my life. The 18 fellow orientation guides that were in my training group are now my best friends and I make excuses to walk by the dormitory of the 28 first years that I was responsible for introducing to this amazing school, just in the hopes of running into them.

And though the support system of enthusiastic and optimistic people there kept me pushing through the hard week, I may not have made it without bananas either. Our days started with a mandatory 7:00 AM breakfast at the dining hall where I, on autopilot, instantly reached for two or three bananas before any coffee or bagels found their way into my hands. One was eaten immediately, slowly providing the energy to carry on with the remaining 16 hours of my work day. The others went into the backpack; they would have their uses later. The days would continue as my schedule told me. I let my group of first years to amazing presentations on alcohol safety and respecting diversity on campus and other wonderful performances and events. I directed students to correct classrooms where meetings were held. I busted out in song, dance, and mega-icebreaker games for about hours on the quad. But that was the easy part. The hardest two days were move-in where we FROGS spent literally eight hours each day hauling the freshmen’s unending supply or dorm supplies from their cars into their rooms. I lifted case after case of water bottles and Gatorade (anyone ever heard of a Brita pitcher) flimsy plastic under-the-bed drawers, neon pink shower caddies, and sacks of smelly shoes. If I saw a mini-fridge, I referred the parents to one of the guys with much stronger arms than I. The day was like and eight hour session of simultaneous stair climber and weight-lifting. But thank goodness a banana was always tucked away in my bag. And though warmer, mushier, and a little blacker than I had last left it, the sweet sticky fruit was an almost instant cure-all for hunger shakes and aching muscles.

When it all ended on Sunday, it was a bittersweet moment. School would begin the next day and though the other FROGS, the freshmen, and I had only just met, I felt like I had known them much longer. And the thought that we would not be meeting for breakfast the next day was disturbing and odd. But I was free to relax, to get my crap in order, and to finally cook for the first time in ten days. I arrived home, and after unloading my backpack realized that between my roommate and me, we had acquired a collection of 6 bananas over the week, all reaching an alarming state of ripeness. And there was not a moment of doubt in my mind. Banana bread. I found a recipe that was easy as anything and within a few minutes, I had a full bread tin of batter slowly cooking away in the oven. The air filled with the super-saturated sweetness of ripe bananas combined with that comforting heartiness of freshly baked bread and warming cinnamon. It came out of the oven at 10:00 but regardless of my sleep deprivation, I withstood waiting yet another 30 minutes for the bread to cool so I could indulge in a small slice. It was incredibly moist and definitely more on the bread/muffin side of baked good because of its subtle and gentle sweetness. The outer edges became slightly crispy while the center transformed into a mass of billowing, tender crumb. The next morning I ate a huge slice, toasted and slathered with peanut butter and banana slices. A heavenly breakfast after 10 straight days of dining hall food.

Now excuse me if I try to make a slightly far-fetched analogy, but in my state of deliriousness that Sunday night and intoxicated by the smell of baking bread, I came to realize something more about bananas. They are such an odd fruit, not juicy and crisp like most others but dense and mealy and sometimes unappetizingly slimy. Within three days they can go from neon green, to vibrant yellow, to murky brown and black. And with a little practice they can then be transformed from an inedible state to something delicious like bread or ice cream. Funnily enough I saw these evolution patterns paralleled in the people I was with during orientation and realized that bananas are a lot like humans.

My group of freshmen are those green bananas. They aren’t totally prepared for everything yet. In terms of maturation, yes, they’re a little green. But give them time and they’ll soften up. They will learn the ins and outs and slowly come to terms with their new position as an adult. They’ll embrace their place as a college student and the unending opportunities that come with that. In time, they’ll be at the ripeness of their life, like many of the sophomore and junior FROGS that accompanied me in this adventure. They’ll be learning, experimenting, soaking in information. And then they start to be like me, a brown-speckled banana. College is coming to an end and it’s almost time to release myself from the safety net of it all. But after this week, I’ve discovered a lot about myself and have grown tremendously and I now feel good about being in the position of an old banana, at the point where it is time to move on, time to no longer be a college student. In a sense, it’s time to become banana bread. In a year, I’ll go from familiarity into something brand new and hopefully, much better and more complex. Hopefully in a year I’ll come out of this metaphorical oven of a school ready to take on the world.

Banana Bread

I was not in a frame of mind to be innovation at the time that I made this bread so I followed the recipe verbatim. You can see it here. It comes from the Flour Bakery Cookbook and like everything else I’ve made from there was delicious. It is not by any means a difficult recipe and most ingredients are already available. Next time I may try pecan or peanuts and who knows, a chocolate chip or two may sneak in there!

 It should keep for three days at room temperature or can be well wrapped and frozen for up to 3 weeks. Like I said it’s also amazing with peanut butter for a protein rich morning meal but also good for just picking at throughout the day.

1 2/3 cup flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
3 1/2 very ripe bananas, mashed (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 Tbs. sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup chopped, toasted walnuts (optional)
1 tsp. cinnamon mixed with 11/2 Tbs. granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a standard loaf pan. In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.

in a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to mix the sugar and eggs on medium speed for 5-7 minutes. Then, on low speed, very slowly drizzle in the oil until well combined. Add the mashed bananas, vanilla, and sour cream and mix until incorporated. 

Fold the dry ingredients into the wet until the dry is just moistened. Do not overmix. Fold in the walnuts, if using. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar overtop the surface of the batter. Pour into the loaf pan and bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes to an hour until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes then remove from the pan and continue to cool until room temperature. Store as directed in paragraph before recipe.