WEEKEND IN THE KITCHEN::Research and Good Food

Saturday was off to a slow start. The sun made an appearance as I sat at the kitchen table with my black baking/cooking journal and my iPad. With pen poised and ready, I Googled "Neapolitan cuisine". Wikipedia is a great resource for providing background information on recipe basics and techniques. I scrolled down to the "Pasta dishes" section and decided on pasta e patate, a variation of the Croatian staple of pasta with beans. I jotted down some ingredients, worked through the techniques of putting it all together, but it wasn't until Sunday that I was able to make it.

The usual Saturday morning scones was pushed off to Sunday morning. So, after a simple breakfast of coffee, bread, butter, sour cherry jam, almond butter, and honey (we all like different toppings on our bread), I started with the Neapolitan pizza dough. Four ingredients consisting of Caputo flour, yeast, salt, and water. No oil, no sugar, nothing but those four ingredients. With the low yeast to flour ratio, the rise was slow and the result was a delicious thin, chewy dough.

This time I decided to make one pizza solely for the kids and another for us two adults instead of the usual splitting the toppings down the middle and waiting on the second pizza to finish baking. Afterwards, I came to the conclusion that I prefer my original method as I do not have to wait for "our" pizza to finish its 6 minutes of baking on the stone (on the convection setting). The toppings included olive oil, Greek feta, and Kalamata olives for the kids and the same for us - with the addition of chopped garlic, fresh thyme, and red peppers - topped with crushed Urfa and Aleppo peppers.

Along with the pizza, I made a vegetable soup with onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, fresh campari tomatoes, celery, carrots, celery root, fresh thyme sprigs, salt, and pepper. The vegetables were passed through a sieve and the flavorful liquid was returned to the stove to be cooked with acini di pepe. My middle daughter calls this "punkte soup" - "punkte" meaning "dot" in German. The girls had requested the soup. The boy wanted no part of it. I'm hoping his taste buds get a bit more adventurous soon. He cannot survive on almond butter, honey, bread, and desserts alone (though he thinks he can).

One of the reasons I'm looking forward to the longer days of sunlight starting next week is to be able to photograph my finished dishes before the sunlight dissipates. Although my husband keeps reminding me that my digital camera is able to shoot far beyond my usual ISO of 400 or lower, I cannot help but remember Bryan Peterson telling us that he rarely shoots over ISO 200 - even at night. That means a tripod with a long exposure. For now, I prefer using the light I have and not spending too much time processing the RAW images.

Sunday morning scones. I had written a recipe for banana oat chocolate scones the previous weekend but never got around to making them. This weekend I decided to change the recipe to a simple oat chocolate scone using chopped Valrhona chocolate.

"These taste good", my husband commented, "...but you already know that." Actually I didn't but was glad when I tasted them again yesterday. I had saved a few for the kids' school lunches and for a midday indulgence with a strong cup of Turkish coffee after I dropped off the younger two at school. Treasured quiet time. I almost believe they tasted better the second day. Almost.

Since my husband had a flight in the early evening, I started on the cake in the hopes of being able to have time to sit at the Sunday dinner table for a slice of cake before he leaves. That was the intention. The reality was that I packed up almost a quarter of the cake for him to take on his trip. Sunday dinner would have to wait until next weekend.

Though I had several options for a cake, I revisited the orange poppyseed kuchen I had made in Berlin, paying attention to the notes I'd written - add more buttermilk, more poppyseeds, and a few other adjustments. Besides baking it in a 12-cup bundt pan as opposed to a 9-inch springform pan (which would have been a better choice), the results were better than expected. I loved the bursts of poppy seeds with every forkful and the bright orange zest speckled throughout.

My summer in Berlin was filled with cake experiments using baker's math and batter cake formulas. Baker's percentage is a great method that's allowed me develop a myriad of cake recipes with ease. Since all of the ingredients are percentages of the weight of flour in a recipe, one can easily scale from a 9" springform pan to a larger or smaller one. The other formulas I used were ones for batter cakes which I'll mention in another post.

With the cake cooling, it was time to make the pasta and potatoes dish. It might seem a strange combination to some but the technique reminded me of a risotto - only with potatoes. The white wine and fresh mini San Marzano tomatoes (grown in Marfa, Texas) combined into a spectacular bowl of Neapolitan delight. The only change for next time is to cook the pasta 5 minutes less. It should not be al dente rather cooked through, but not mushy.

Despite the fact that the weekend was rushed and we didn't get to sit at the Sunday table, we enjoyed good food on a fairly warm pre-Spring weekend.

The kids found the scones delectable, taking note of my having added chocolate for them. Overall, I savored the time I had to research and write recipes this weekend - something I look forward to doing on a peaceful Sunday morning while the kids are still asleep.


Sunday Reverie


KITCHEN NOTES: Recipe Development::Chocolate Banana Poppyseed Cake


The seven bananas sitting on the counter were quickly turning to a solid black save for the spot where the sticky tape held them together. Once again I had been overzealous in my banana purchase, thinking I'd make another banana cake, banana oatmeal scones, and some banana cookies. Somehow in the course of the previous two weeks, the bunch got neglected and should have been tossed. However, I wanted to see if I could make at least one recipe.

I’m not a banana fan to begin with. If they’re bright yellow with no spots, I might eat them a few times during the year. If they’re the slightest bit mushy, I won’t eat them. Neither will my children. However, the guilt of letting the bananas turn past their prime got me to try salvaging them. Sadly, I ended up tossing the remaining three bananas.

Looking through the various cake recipes I wrote during my summer in Berlin last year, I decided to combine aspects of each into a new recipe. Thus was born this combination of flavors using "drunken" bananas, chocolate in the form of a powder, and poppy seeds. I wasn't sure how it would taste, but the result was surprisingly better than expected, although one could definitely note the strong banana taste.

There were mixed reviews from each family member in regards to this cake experiment. Cinnamon immediately stated that it tasted like brownies. Saffron said it tasted like bananas, chocolate, and poppy seeds - exactly what it was. My Sagey had a few bites until he no longer wanted it and pushed the plate away while my husband used the German words "gewürze kuchen" (spice cake) to describe the taste. Hearing all of this feedback, I was already changing the recipe in my head.

This was Sunday cake for this past Sunday - a tradition that the children have lately grown to expect, along with Sunday dinner eaten at the "fancy" table. It was important to get a cake made this past Sunday seeing how I was unable to make one last weekend. An unfortunate throat ache, which sent me to unwillingly see doctors and more unwillingly take medication, robbed me of a couple weeks of time. When you have children who bring home illnesses from preschool, you're bound to get your turn in the sickness merry-go-round. With three children, you can expect months of illnesses throughout wintertime. Truth be told, this is the main reason for the lack of posts since late last autumn. Now with spring lurking around the corner and bringing with it some much needed warmth, making it possible to eat our meals outside again, I look forward to a healthier and more productive existence.


Chocolate Banana Poppyseed Cake

makes one 9" cake



200 grams all-purpose flour

50 grams natural cocoa powder

1 ¼ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp baking soda

¼ tsp sea salt (I used Pink Himalayan)

50 grams poppy seeds

100 grams unsalted butter, melted and cooled

200 grams granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

320 grams mashed bananas (ended up being from 4 small, overripe bananas)

100 ml buttermilk



Heat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9” springform pan.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk well to combine and set aside.

Add poppy seeds to the melted butter and leave to cool slightly. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk in the sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Add vanilla extract and bananas and mix until fully incorporated.

Starting and ending with the flour mixture, carefully whisk in the buttermilk (in two additions) and flour mixture (in three additions). Make sure not to over mix. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until a wooden toothpick or skewer inserted in the middle comes out almost clean (a few crumbs attached is fine).



THE NOTES (as jotted down in my journal):

What started out as a simple chocolate cake turned into a recipe combining elements from four of my previously developed cake recipes: chocolate hazelnut cake, chocolate cinnamon plum cake, lemon poppy seed cake, and banana cake.

At first I thought the flavors might be a bit too complicated, but despite the "drunken" bananas the flavors worked surprisingly well together. The cake was moist and the crunch resulting from the addition of the poppy seeds added another element of texture.

Changes I would try for next time:

Remember to treat the cocoa powder as part of the flour percentage in calculating baker's percentages. I forgot and thus need to compensate for the extra grams the cocoa powder contributed although the cake rose nicely and was relatively moist.

* Increase amount of butter. Due to the reduced fat content of the natural cocoa powder, more fat needs to be added to compensate for this fact.

* Add an egg yolk. Egg whites dry out a cake while egg yolks contribute to its tenderness. Even though the cake was not dry, I would like to see what happens when I add the extra yolk.

* Add more sugar. Cocoa powder has no added sugar. Increasing the amount by another 50 or 75 grams would counter this. Since these bananas were super sweet to begin with, the reduced amount of sugar was not as noticeable.

* Increase poppy seeds to 60 grams. More crunch is always good for added texture.

* Use a combination of all-purpose flour and cake flour. I'll start with half of each and see what happens.

* Increase baking soda. To counteract the acidity in the cocoa powder, more baking soda might be needed. Might not be necessary if reducing the amount of cocoa powder.

* Use bittersweet bar chocolate (such as Valrhona or Callebaut - about 65%) in addition to the cocoa. Melt the chopped bar chocolate with the butter. In this case, you might not want to increase the sugar amount by too much.

* Reduce cocoa powder. Try 35 grams or 40 grams.

* For another version...omit the bananas and try a simple chocolate poppyseed cake.



THE WEEKEND KITCHEN::The Sweet and The Savory

This weekend brought about vanilla bean scones baked with both spiced vanilla bean sugar and vanilla bean paste. Flecks of vanilla beans dotted the scones, resembling one intense, but tasty, "connect the dots" artpiece.

It also brought about a rustic cake - a remake from the first cake recipe I developed in Berlin this past summer. As per my notes in my journal, I reduced the amount of flour, eggs, and butter. I also used lime zest and juice instead of the lemon zest and juice. The result? A delicious Rustic Yogurt Lime Cake.

The "Rustic" part is due to the fact that I had no mixers available to me in our rental apartment - either stand or hand. I even had to go out and buy a whisk and wooden spoons. Despite those limitations and more, I managed to develop quite a few recipes which I am now finally revisiting and retesting.

After the cake, dinner was next to be made. I went for a European dish known as djuveč in Croatian. Of course, my version is exactly of many versions. I cook the rice on the stovetop while some versions bake it. I add beer which gives the whole dish a nice hoppy flavour. Green bell peppers are my choice as it provides a contrast to the red tomatoes. I also like to top this rice dish with Greek feta and warm up some flour tortillas or naan bread.

Lastly, came the čevapčiće. It was already dark when we got around to grilling these last night, but I managed to take a photo as the seasoned sausage-like ground meat was on the grill.

My favorite from this weekend? The cake...




Dalmatian Cuisine::Blitva: When Dinner Becomes Breakfast

Growing up, I was exposed to a cuisine different from my schoolmates. If you came over to our home, you would not find the typical American dinner on our table. You'd be eating sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls), punjene paprike (stuffed peppers), burek that my dad would make, and a variety of other Croatian dishes.

Soups were big too - lentil soup, pea soup, and especially pašta fažol (pasta with pinto beans), or polenta with fažol - which I preferred over the pasta as the pasta would almost always end up being mushy.

Potato salad, at least the kind you might be familiar with, was also not on our menu. Nor was macaroni and cheese. As a side dish, you'd be eating blitva. "What is blitva?", you ask? Let me tell you.

It's actually Swiss chard leaves...

...that are chopped (at least that's how I do it)...

...and then added to a big pot of salted, boiling water with diced potatoes (I prefer Yukon Gold - the red potatoes are good too) that are close to being cooked. You first add the potatoes to a large pot and cover them with about 3 inches or so of cold water. Salt the water and bring to a boil before adding the Swiss chard leaves.

The key to this dish is the simple seasoning - freshly chopped garlic, olive oil, and salt.

After about 10 or so minutes after you've added the Swiss chard leaves, the potatoes should be soft (they've already been cooking for a while) and the leaves should be ready. Turn off the heat, remove the pot to another burner and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the Swiss chard and potatoes to a serving dish. Save the cooking water as you will be adding some of it to the finished dish.

Mash the mixture a bit with a wooden spoon to break up the potatoes and add the chopped garlic, olive oil, and salt.

Add some of the cooking water (I added at least 150 ml, if not more, for a more soupy texture), depending how you prefer the consistency, and serve warm.

This was my dinner last night. I'm sure there are a few variations to this dish in the Croatian community, but it's how I make it. Being a traditional Croatian dish, it can be found in almost every restaurant and on almost every dinner table along the Dalmatian coast in southern Croatia.

Since my husband was out of town, I had leftovers for breakfast this morning (main photo). I found that the flavors had a chance to develop more fully after sitting in the refrigerator overnight. I simply warmed up the leftover blitva and ate it with a fried egg and a piece of dark rye bread. A delicious and healthy breakfast that I hope my children will one day embrace. Needless to say, they did not want to even try this dish last night. I'll keep trying.


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