Nuts for Nutella Banana Bread

Nutella Banana Bread, fresh from the oven

Nothing says “comfort food” more than a freshly baked loaf of banana bread!

It seems we always have a freezer full of brown-black bananas at our house. Which makes my heart sing because banana bread happens to be my absolute favorite, go-to, comfort food. I used to make banana bread weekly, back in my tree house days (the nickname two of my girlfriends gave to my adorable apartment. I think, largely due to the elaborate back deck within a private green space. My corner of solitude in this crazy bustling city.) Now that I’m married, and running my catering business, my favorite quick bread recipe has become more of a special treat than a weekly occurrence. Fortunately, my husband is as huge as I, so when it does show up on our kitchen counter, he is giddy with delight.

If you live in Chicago, or have been paying even an ounce of attention to the news, you know we’ve had one nasty winter thus far. Cold doesn’t even come close to describing it. Needless to say, we’ve been hibernating and craving comfort food chez moi. So my go-to banana bread has been popping up more regularly again.

This recipe has been with me since 2002 – the same year I moved to Chicago. I always liked banana bread, but I had been searching for THE banana bread recipe. Once I made this Tyler Florence recipe, I knew I had found the one…and while I have adapted the recipe over the years to make it my own (adding this spice or that; subbing whole wheat flour for some of the AP; trying different mix-ins and toppings), I have never strayed from Tyler Florence’s base banana bread recipe. It’s solid. Try it yourself and you’ll be converted too. I guarantee!

During the most recent polar vortex that forced us to take cover inside, I decided to whip up a batch of banana bread. My husband requested chocolate chips (his favorite mix-in), and I agreed, but I had another idea to take it to an even more decadent level.

In December, we were the recipients of a ginormous jar of Nutella. (My husband’s aunt is a Costco enthusiast. Of course, when you buy Nutella at Costco, it comes in a 2-pack…because one ginormous jar just won’t do! Lucky for us…we got jar number 2!) The Nutella had been stowed away on the highest shelf in our cabinet – intentional? You better believe it! And now it was calling my name…shouting, even.

Nutella for the Nutella Banana Bread

“Hey Jillian! You know what would be DELICIOUS in your banana bread? ME!”                          (That’s my mixer in the background, for perspective!)

“Sure, I’ll add the milk chocolate chips, but how do you feel about Nutella as well. Nutella Banana Bread?”

His smile said it all. So, I mixed my banana bread up as usual, adding in a half cup of milk chocolate chips for the husband, then spooned half the batter into my prepared pan. Armed with a knife and the jar of Nutella, I added generous knife-fuls of the gooey spread onto the batter (probably easily 1/4-1/3 cup), topped it with the remaining batter, then dipped my knife into the batter and swirled away. Ta-da! Nutella Banana Bread!

But that just wouldn’t do. At the last second, I sprinkled a tablespoon or so of sliced almonds on top, along with a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, then into the oven it went.

My husband and I busied ourselves with cleaning the house – he in the kitchen; me in the bathroom – while the bread filled the house with the most incredible enticing aroma. 65 minutes later, we had two spic-and-span rooms, and one sweet reward for our efforts! But we had to let it cool…oh waiting! It’s always the hardest part, regardless of your age.

Nutella Banana Bread, see inside!

Look at those gorgeous Nutella swirls!

Slicing into the bread, the gorgeous swirls of Nutella made us ooh and ahh. The flavor was even better. Nutella Banana Bread…this is an adaptation that will definitely be repeated!

Slice of Nutella Banana Bread

One for me and one for you!

 

Chocolate Fudge Cake

As it turns out, the key to my father-in-law’s heart was chocolate cake. But not just any chocolate cake – THE chocolate fudge cake from his favorite childhood bakery.

Green’s was the place to go on Chicago’s south side. Family-run and operated, they churned out all manner of sweetness to delight the neighborhood until closing in 1974. My F-I-L has been dreaming of their chocolate fudge cake ever since.

Whenever we’re together, I receive a near dissertation on the cake’s merits. He loses himself in the telling, eyes focused on a distant memory, tone softening, losing its trademark smart aleck edge. He is all sincerity as he describes the “dense layers of cake; not too dark in color, more like milk chocolate.”

And the chocolate frosting: “Thick as fudge! Not like that fluffy canned b.s. they try to pass off as frosting. This is the real deal – and it’s the same color as the cake – THE SAME COLOR.

 

Mmm. Chocolate Fudge Cake!

Mmm. Chocolate Fudge Cake!

 

My husband’s aunt was also under THE cake’s spell. She vividly recalls visiting her older sister and her husband (my in-laws) as an 11-year old, and eating THE chocolate fudge cake for breakfast, “Cold from the refrigerator, with a tall glass of milk. Mmmmmmmm!

They wanted chocolate fudge cake? I’d give them chocolate fudge cake.

Listening avidly, and jotting down every fevered detail, I promised to deliver the first cake in two weeks when everyone would be together again. The two fanatics were giddy with anticipation – giggling even.

You know, you don’t have to do this,” my husband whispered. Oh, but didn’t I?

So…I’m a bit of a research fiend. The thought of tracking down an Heirloom Chocolate Cake Recipe tickled me. My husband found this hilarious: “I’ve heard of heirloom tomatoes, but heirloom cakes?” Oh, they exist…and it was my mission to test the best of the bunch.

I’d start with “Dense Chocolate Cake with Fudge Frosting”. The blogger’s post was sprinkled with family photographs – generations of smiling, content chocolate cake eaters, plus a picture of the original recipe in her great grandmother’s timeless cursive. Promising. But the tests would tell.

Before I continue, I have always said everyone could use an Austrian great grandmother. Mine taught me two important things:

  1. Food is love (and we love to feed people)
  2. If it’s “no good”, throw it away

Test # 1: EPIC FAIL. Oh my awfulness. This cake was garbage, displeasing to the eye and the palate. Dry, flavorless, and more pink than brown. I took one bite and immediately chucked it. Next!

Recipe #2 was not exactly an heirloom, but the ingredients thrilled me. Calling for cocoa powder and boiling water – a dream combo known to produce rich chocolate flavor and color, with a dense texture, bordering on brownie-like fudginess. Even I, a non-chocolate eater, was eager to taste this cake. (What? A pastry chef who doesn’t like chocolate? Yeah, yeah. I know.)

Test #2: GETTING WARM. Although darker in color than I suspected my father-in-law would like, the texture was ideal – dense, yet moist. Satisfied so far, I whipped up my chocolate fudge frosting – a killer combo of melted semi-sweet chocolate, milk, butter and confectioner’s sugar that whips up billowy and lush, and frosts to a thick, rich decadence – assembled the cake and we hit the road…

 

Test Cake #2. A little darker in color than my father-in-law would want, but so delicious! Would it sneak by?

Test Cake #2. A little darker in color than I suspect my father-in-law would want, but so delicious! Would it win his approval?

Would my father-in-law and his sister-in-law approve? My husband’s aunt did a happy dance. She loved everything about this cake. My F-I-L, on the other hand, was a bit more picky particular.

The texture is perfect”, he said between bites, “The frosting is exactly right. But the cake is too dark. It should be the same color as the frosting.

Ah. That again.

He continued, “Just take out some of the chocolate and bake it again.

HA! I love it when non-bakers throw out suggestions like that. With cooking, you can totally Swedish Chef it up; with baking…not so much. Baking is a science, and a very precise one at that. You have to balance the fats, sugars, and starches just-so for a baked good to turn out right. Remove “a little” cocoa, and you have to add back some extra fat some other way. Now, I’m all for trial and error, but how many cakes would I have to throw away?

 

A slice of Cake #2. My husband's aunt loved it. But there was still no pleasing the F-I-L. I had my work cut out for me!

A slice of Cake #2. My husband’s aunt loved it. But there was still no pleasing the F-I-L. I had my work cut out for me!

No more, as luck would turn out. My mom called to ask me a question about a frosting she was making for a cake…a 1944 Wellesley College recipe for “fudgy chocolate cake“! Providence!

Tell me more about this cake”, I implored. “What color is it?

Her answer pleased me greatly: “Very light brown – almost milk chocolate in color.

I asked for the recipe and got to work immediately. We would see my F-I-L again on Christmas Eve – what better present than THE chocolate fudge cake?

Test #3: PURE MAGIC. Milk chocolate color? Check. Dense crumb? Check. Mild chocolate flavor? Check. This might be the one! I whipped up my frosting (the original, F-I-L-tested, F-I-L-approved recipe) and assembled the cake, eager as a kid for Christmas to come.

When I walked through the door with our cake carrier, my father-in-law’s eyes lit up.

Is that what I think it is?”, he asked, practically skipping to accept his prize. He carried that cake with the extreme care one shows a newborn baby. It warmed my heart.

He could barely get through dinner fast enough, he was so excited. And then FINALLY…

The color’s perfect!” He proclaimed, slicing himself a generous wedge.

 

Third time's the charm!

Third time’s the charm!

No one could take their eyes off him as he took that first bite. He closed his eyes and chewed slowly. With a satisfied sigh, his posture softened and he sunk back into his seat. Setting down his fork, he finally opened his eyes and looked at me, “You did it, kid. This is the cake. You did it!” And then he Fantastic Mr. Fox‘d it up. :)

I always knew food memories were strong. But this was the first time I’d witnessed a food’s transformative power. With one bite of that chocolate fudge cake, my F-I-L was a little kid again. Life was easy. Life was delicious.

Pass a fork.

We’re jammin’

At the onset of summer, I was distraught by the news that stone fruit would be in short supply – as in, forget about it. No juicy peaches? No crisp nectarines? No sweet plums? Fortunately, I have managed to get my hands on a few, even if only for snacking. And what few I have tried have delivered.

And the berries! Oh the berries! Maybe an unusually hot and humid summer is just what the vines ordered? Every strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and blackberry has been particularly perfect. So perfect, in fact, that I was inspired to get canning. Because come winter, I will be longing for the bright fresh flavors of summer!

Strawberries from Seedling and raspberries and blueberries from Mick Klug in hand, I began dreaming of funky new jams to play off the strengths of each fruit. If I am going to make jam, after all, I am really going to make jam. And not just any jam, something truly special.

Strawberry was a no brainer. I have always loved strawberries and balsamic vinegar together. They are one of my favorite vanilla ice cream toppings. I had an absolutely gorgeous bottle of 25-year aged balsamic in my pantry, and a garden full of beautiful fragrant basil. So, Strawberry Balsamic Basil it was. I could already see this jam pairing wonderfully with cheese on a cheese plate…and maybe even the foie that my boyfriend and I brought back from France…

In theory, this jam was already a gold medalist. In execution, however, it came up a bit short. The berries were so wickedly sweet, they completely overpowered the basil and vinegar! I will make this jam again, but next time I will infuse the sugar with the bruised basil overnight. It worked wonders for one of the other jams (to be mentioned shortly), and I think I really missed an opportunity here. I also feel it would be better to finish the jam with the balsamic instead of cooking it with the berry, basil and sugar mixture. Notes for next time…

Now for blueberries. Most berry recipes call for lemons, but I personally prefer the taste of lime with blueberries. Always have, and perhaps always will. I wanted this jam to be bright and zesty. Not just lime zesty, but peppery…so I turned to my dear friend ginger. Ginger and blueberries marry so well! And this Blueberry Ginger Lime jam expertly highlights that fact.

While tasting this jam during the cooking process, the lime flavor was intense, the ginger muted. So I added a bit more fresh ginger. Perhaps I should have waited until the jam cooled down…now it’s more like a ginger jam with blueberries! Ha ha! But soooooooooo delicious! Again, I think I would zest the lime into the sugar and let that rest together overnight before cooking. (I love infused sugars. Can you tell?) And I would trust my earlier instincts about the amount of ginger to add. The flavor definitely intensified as it sat.

Saving the best for last, lovely lovely raspberries. Such a gorgeous fruit, with the most pleasing texture and tart-yet-sweet bite. I knew right away that the vibrant lemon balm growing with wild abandon in my garden belonged to these raspberries – and how!! Raspberry Lemon Balm jam is such a palette pleaser, I don’t know why I haven’t encountered it before.

It was by far the easiest jam of the group. Just tree ingredients – raspberries, sugar and lemon balm. I muddled the lemon balm with the sugar and allowed it to sit overnight, covered. The next day, that sugar was so incredibly fragrant! (Note to self: muddle more lemon balm with sugar and use to sweeten iced tea!) It’s a vivid red color, rich, warm and enticing. The consistency is absolutely perfect for spreading. And the flavor…one bite and my boyfriend and I both agreed it was the winner of the bunch. The sweetness of the raspberries paired with the bright zing of the lemon balm captures the best of summer flavors. I look forward to opening this jam in the gray, cold winter months!

pretty little jams jars, all in a row

DIY Sweetened Condensed Milk

when i am catering a special occasion, i am on top of my inventory and have every necessary ingredient measured and accounted for to the gram. when making something on the fly at home…not always so much :)

so it was when key lime pie sparked my food fancy the other day. oddly enough, it was not key lime juice that gave me pause – i had a bottle in the back of the fridge – but sweetened condensed milk. i could have sworn i had a can somewhere in my pantry, but my search proved futile. not wishing to trek to the grocery store, i googled “sweetened condensed milk substitutions”. it seems i am not alone, as my search results turned up page after page of homemade recipes for the gooey concoction. huzzah!

after perusing several recipes, i elected to try the version below which i found on cooks.com. it was the simplest method, calling for ingredients i always have on hand, and requiring minimal equipment. this accident was proving fortuitous! but…would it work? being the ever-curious chemist in the kitchen, i was eager to experiment.

so i cracked my eggs and whisked them. then added my brown sugar, vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt and whisked until smooth. the resulting mixture was darker in color (likely due to the dark brown sugar), and a bit thinner than that sticky canned stuff. but, i would leave it to science.

i incorporated the mixture into my pie filling, poured it into my par-baked crust, popped the pie into the oven to bake and forced myself to leave the kitchen, the temptation to turn on the oven light and plop down on the floor and watch too great!

25 minutes later…the pie showed real promise. slightly souffled around the edges, while still slightly jiggly in the center. i removed it and allowed it to cool. it set up like a dream, and sliced beautifully. my only regret is that i did not take any pictures to document the event!

next time a recipe calls for sweetened condensed milk, why not skip the sticky canned stuff and give this recipe a try? i would love to hear (and see!) the results.

DIY Sweetened Condensed Milk

2 eggs
1 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
Mix all ingredients together until smooth, and use in place of sweetened condensed milk where called for in recipes.

 

 

 

 

happy leap day!

an extra day this year calls for an extra special treat. so i thought i would share this whimsical little guy with you:

an adorable frog cupcake, in honor of leap day. don't worry. no frogs were harmed in the making of this treat!

since no show and tell would be complete without a tutorial, here are step-by-step instructions on how to recreate these little guys at home. it’s an easy and fun way to bond with your kiddos – or just bring out the kid in you!

first, you will need to select a flavor for your cakes. i happened to make a batch of chocolate and another of vanilla, from scratch of course. as it is a weeknight, if you are short on time and have to use a mix, i will pretend i didn’t hear that :)

while the cakes are in the oven, you can make your icing. normally, i opt for an italian meringue buttercream – it has the best flavor and texture. but when time is of the essence, you can’t go wrong with this ridiculously easy and delicious vanilla bean buttercream from America’s Test Kitchen:

Easy Vanilla Bean Buttercream

Yield: 1½ cups (enough for 12 cupcakes)

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise*
1¼ cups confectioners’ sugar (5 ounces)
Pinch salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon heavy cream

1. In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Using a paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds.

2. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 20 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice.

*Don’t have a vanilla bean on hand? Omit the vanilla bean, and increase the amount of vanilla extract to 1½ teaspoons.

to make your icing a glorious froggy shade, add food coloring after the vanilla and heavy cream have been incorporated. i like these gel icing colors from Wilton. a little goes a long way. i buy the primary colors (red, yellow and blue), and combine them to create my own shades of greens, oranges, purples, etc.

so the cupcakes are baked and cooling, and your easy buttercream is made, dyed and ready to be applied. now all you need to make are the eyes.

to make froggy eyes, all you need are 1 bag of Wilton Candy Melts® and 1 bag of chocolate chips. line up the candy melts on your counter or table in sets of two. dab a small amount of your icing in the center of each candy melt, then affix a chocolate chip to the icing. by the time you are done frosting each cupcake, your froggy eyes will be dry and ready to be applied! and that’s as easy as sticking them into the frosting, side-by-side.

ta da!

i hope you enjoyed this easy tutorial. “hoppy” leap day everybody!