Caribbean Banana Bread

Have you ever been asked about your stance on banana bread? The options are pretty much always plain, nuts, or chocolate.

Why is this? Why limit yourself to these simple, obvious ingredients?

Why not add whatever you want?

Don’t get me wrong: classic banana bread is wonderful. But sometimes you want to shake things up, sometimes you want to try something new, sometimes you realize your shredded coconut is – shoot! – past its expiration date and you could either throw it out or test your immune system’s ability to defend itself against expired coconut (what even happens when coconut “expires”? It just seemed dry to me)…

banana bread

This recipe starts with a good staple version from The Kitchn, and then amps it up. In the easiest way possible. Because I was bored. And hungry. And maybe a teensy bit lazy (what, can’t a girl crave some banana bread with minimal work involved?). A little rummaging in my cabinet lead to a Caribbean-inspired bread that really just tastes like dessert. And happiness. Why wouldn’t you want to add to banana bread?

You can go crazy with this recipe. Banana bread is hard to mess up. Once you get the basics (flour, eggs, sugar, bananas, etc.) then you can play with it (walnuts, pecans, toasted shredded coconut, chocolate chips, toffee bits, raisinettes, butterscotch chips, the possibilities are endless!). I added ~3 extra cups of ingredients to this recipe and it was perfectly fine. So get creative, work with what you have, and report back to me on how it goes!

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CARIBBEAN BANANA BREAD

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup sugar (brown or white; I used half and half)

2 large eggs

2-3 bananas, super ripe

¼ cup milk

1 tsp. vanilla

2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

½ cup chocolate toffee bits

1 ½ cups chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted

¾ cup shredded coconut, toasted

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Instructions adapted from The Kitchn.

1. Heat the oven, prep the pan, and toast the coconut and nuts: Preheat the oven to 350°F with a oven rack in the bottom third of the oven. Grease the loaf pan with butter or baking spray. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil, spread the shredded coconut and nuts evenly over the top, and toast in the oven while it preheats (~10 minutes, but watch them closely and pull out once the coconut turns golden). 

2. Melt the butter: Melt in the microwave. Or, if you have room temperature butter, you can use that for a fluffier cake.

3. Combine the butter and sugars: Whisk together the melted butter and sugars in a large bowl until combined. (Or cream in a mixer until fluffy.)

4. Add the eggs: Crack the eggs into the bowl and whisk until completely combined. The mixture should be smooth.

5. Add the milk and vanilla: Whisk into the batter until combined.

6. Mash in the bananas: For chunky banana bread, peel the bananas and add them directly to the bowl. Using a dinner fork, mash them into the batter. If you want a smooth bread, mash the bananas separately until no more lumps remain, and then whisk them into the batter.

7. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt: In a smaller bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Use a spatula to stir the dry ingredients into the wet batter until they are just barely combined and no more dry flour is visible.

8. Fold in the nuts, coconut, chocolate toffee bits, etc, if using: Scatter everything over the batter and gently fold them in.

9. Pour the batter into the pan: Use the spatula to scrape off all the batter from the bowl. Smooth the top of the bread batter.

10. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes: Place the pan in the oven. Bake until the top of the cake is caramelized dark brown and a tooth pick or cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean. Baking time will vary depending on the age of your bananas, how many things you add, etc. — start checking around 50 minutes and then every five minutes after.

11. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes: Set the loaf, still in the pan, on a cooling rack. Let it cool for 10 minutes so it solidifies and gets easier to remove from the pan.

12. Remove from the pan and cool for another 10 minutes: Place your (clean!) hand gently on top of the loaf and flip it over into your hand. Set it back down on the cooling rack to cool for another 10 minutes before slicing. Leftover bread can be kept, covered, at room temperature for several days or wrapped in foil and frozen for up to 3 months.

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Easy, delicious, and unique. Use any ingredients you have on hand – the only things that really matter are the ripe bananas. Recommandation d’experts: spread some butter on a freshly cut piece of this bread for a perfect, decadent treat. Besides, what are a few more calories anyways?!

caribbean banana bread

German Chocolate Cake

A conversation from a month or two ago when Will, the new postdoc, arrived. 

Moi (all chipper smiles): Will! Welcome to the department! It’s so nice to meet you! Just out of curiosity, when is your birthday? And what kind of cake would you want?

Will (confused): Um, nice to meet you, too? (This girl is crazy.) It’s June 7th. And, uh, I don’t like cake…

Moi (smile gone): WHAT.

Will (hesistant): It’s never been my thing.

Moi (serious and slightly upset): But… that’s not an option.

Will (apologetic): Actually, I guess I like German chocolate cake. Does that work?

Moi (all smiles again): Oh! I’ve never made one of those! This will be fun!!

german choc cake

In retrospect, I suppose insulting someone’s (bizarre and inexcusable) aversion to cake isn’t quite the best way to introduce them to the department. But luckily we found a happy agreement: I got to try my hand at German chocolate cake and Will got a birthday cake that he actually enjoyed. Perfect!

german choc cake 2

By the way, lest you think I’m some insane (yes) jerk (hopefully not), Will and I are friends now. So no hard feelings about our contrasting views on the merits of cake. Because unless you’re allergic to pecans or coconut or chocolate or happiness, how could a view like this fail to bring people together:

german choc cake slice

If you like German chocolate cake (or need to make one because a cake-hater has requested it), this should be the first recipe you grab. It’s the perfect fluffy, not-too-chocolatey cake with a fantastically moist coconut-pecan filling, finished off with a chocolate icing so impressively rich and delicious I used it on the black & white cake just a few days later (posted out of order, apologies). I’m not qualified to make such bold claims as “this is the best German chocolate cake ever,” seeing as it’s the first one I’ve ever made and, since it’s not usually the type of cake I reach for first, I don’t have a lot to compare it to. But I will say that this cake has hoards of impressive, positive affirmations on Annie’s blog – AND it got a thumbs-up from Will. Draw your own conclusions.

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GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE

From Annie’s Eats, which she adapted from David Lebovitz 

2 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 tbsp. water
4 large eggs, separated into egg whites and yolks
16 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1½ cups sugar, divided
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract

RUM SYRUP
1 cup water
¾ cup sugar
2 tbsp. dark rum

COCONUT PECAN FILLING
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
6 tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces
½ tsp.  salt
1 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
1 1/3 cups sweetened coconut, toasted

CHOCOLATE ICING
10 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tbsp. light corn syrup
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream

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Make the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans: grease the sides and bottom of the pans, line with a circle of parchment paper, and grease the top of the paper. Flour the bottom and sides of the pans. Set aside.

2. Using a double boiler (or the microwave in 15-second bursts), melt the bittersweet and unsweetened chocolate with the water, stirring until smooth. Set aside until the mixture cools to room temperature.

3. In the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high speed until they form soft droopy peaks. Slowly add ¼ cup of the sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Transfer the egg whites to a separate bowl and return the mixer bowl to the mixer base.

4. In the bowl the electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter with 1¼ cups of the sugar. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the melted chocolate. Mix in the egg yolks one at a time, scraping down the bowl as needed.

5. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture on low speed just until incorporated. Mix in the buttermilk and vanilla extract until combined. Mix in the remaining dry ingredients just until incorporated. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold about a third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it. Then fold in the remaining egg whites just until incorporated.

6. Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans and bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the cake pans for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Make the rum syrup:

While the cakes are cooling, combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and heat until the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Off the heat, stir in the rum.

Make the coconut pecan filling:

1. Combine the cream, sugar and egg yolks in a medium saucepan. Put the butter, pecans and coconut in a mixing bowl; set aside.

2. Heat the cream mixture and cook, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom until the mixture begins to thicken and coats the back of a spoon (170-175° F.)

3. Pour the hot custard immediately into the pecan coconut mixture and stir until the butter is melted. Cool completely to room temperature. The mixture will thicken as it cools. If it doesn’t thicken up, add additional coconut until you are satisfied with the consistency.

Make the chocolate icing:

1. Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl with the corn syrup and butter; set aside.

2. Heat the cream on the stove just until it begins to boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate. Let stand for 1 minute, then stir until smooth.

3. Chill thoroughly in the refrigerator or freezer until firm enough for decorating (at least 2 hours, can take more).

Assemble the cake:

1. Carefully cut the two cake layers in half horizontally to yield four layers.

2. Set the first layer on a cake circle, cut side up. Brush well with the rum syrup (seriously! Be generous – this makes it moist and delicious). Spread ¾ cup of the coconut filling over the cake layer, making sure to reach the edges.

3. Set another cake layer on top of the filling. Repeat, using the syrup to brush each cake layer, then spreading ¾ cup of the coconut filling over each layer, including the top.

4. Ice the sides of the cake with the chilled chocolate icing. Pipe a decorative border around the top layer, encircling the coconut topping.

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And there you have it: delicious, moist, flavorful German chocolate cake. Just for the heck of it, let’s really get in here. Doesn’t this make you want to lick the screen?!

german close up

(No? Just me? I’m the only one currently cleaning their monitor with their tongue? Oh… c’est embarrassant…)

Dark Chocolate Banana Oatmeal Muffin Tops (with Walnuts and Butterscotch)

chocolate banana muffin tops

I have used up the last of my ripe bananas, thank goodness. I have so many other ideas hanging out in my brain, clamoring for attention and getting jealous that I’ve been spending so much time with bananas lately. Nonetheless, I’m excited about this recipe because it gave me the perfect opportunity to use the World Market dark chocolate spread my mom gave me for Christmas. While the spread is good on toast and whatnot, I couldn’t wait to find a way to bake with it. And the opportunity finally presented itself with this recipe idea! Of course, you could use any chocolate spread – including Nutella, like the recipe over at Chef in Training that inspired this post – but I like the dark chocolate because it’s not too sweet, so it doesn’t overpower the other flavors in the muffin tops.

Alright. About that. I need to come clean: I adapted the above recipe so much that it’s basically my own recipe at this point, which means I have to take full blame for these should-have-been-cookies. They have a very soft, dense-cake texture. The walnuts give a bit of a crunch, the oats add some chewiness, and the butterscotch and chocolate swirls bring in some much-appreciated sweetness. But ultimately, these don’t really taste like cookies. They’re just too soft/squishy/cake-y. Clearly, I haven’t quite mastered the art of recipe development yet! However, someone in my building took a bite and brilliantly suggested, “Call them muffin tops!” Genius, I tell you. If you eat these as cookies, you’ll wonder at the slightly strange texture. If you eat these as muffin tops, your brain won’t be confused and you’ll like every bit. So, enjoy these muffin tops! This recipe makes about 4 dozen muffin tops; I had to make a big recipe, because I needed to use up 3 ripe bananas.

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DARK CHOCOLATE BANANA OATMEAL MUFFIN TOPS (WITH WALNUTS AND BUTTERSCOTCH)

2 ½ cups flour

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp. baking soda

1 ¼ tsp. salt

1 cup shortening

2 eggs

½ tsp. vanilla extract

3 ripe bananas, mashed

1 ¾ cup quick-cooking oats

¾ cup chopped walnuts

1 cup butterscotch chips

½ cup dark chocolate spread (World Market has a great one!)

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1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Prepare a cookie sheet by lining with parchment paper (what I did) or greasing with baking spray.

2. In a bowl, whisk/stir together the flour, sugars, baking powder, and baking soda, and salt. “Cut in” the shortening (see photos below; I used two knifes and keep cutting the shortening, coating it with the mixture, cutting again, coating, etc. until you have a bunch of pea-sized clumps and there’s no “dry” powder left).

3. Using an electric hand mixer, add the eggs, vanilla, and bananas and beat until well mixed.

4. Stir in the oats, walnuts, and butterscotch chips.

5. Pour the chocolate over the dough and gently swirl it into the dough (mix carefully by folding the dough and chocolate together, or use a knife to make grooves for the chocolate – the key is to not mix it together all the way, so you still have some ribbons of color that make it look pretty).

6. Use a tablespoon to drop heaping scoops of batter on prepared cookie sheets. Leave at least 1.5-inches between drops.

7. Bake for ~12 minutes, until the muffin tops are set and spring back from your touch. Immediately remove from tray when done cooking and transfer to cooling racks.

8. Pour yourself a glass of milk and sample one fresh from the oven. You deserve it!

Just starting to "cut" in the shortening, using two knifes and making "x" cuts into the shortening.

Just starting to “cut” in the shortening, using two knifes to make “x” cuts into the shortening.

Further along in the process. Be sure you're coating the cut pieces with the powder mix as you cut - this will keep the shortening from sticking to itself in the center.

Further along in the process. Be sure you’re coating the cut pieces with the powder mix as you cut – this will keep the shortening from sticking to itself in the center.

At about this point, when it's pretty well mixed and the largest clumps are about the size of peas, I stop using the knives and switch to mixing it in by hand. You want to crumble the dough together, not smoosh it like bread dough. Think of it like you're picking up sand and feeling the grains between your fingers and thumbs. Do that motion with the mixture to get the shortening to mix in nicely with the powder.

At about this point, when it’s pretty well mixed and the largest clumps are about the size of peas, I stop using the knives and switch to mixing it in by hand. You want to crumble the dough together, not smoosh it like bread dough. Think of it like you’re picking up sand and feeling the grains between your fingers and thumbs. Do that motion with the mixture to get the shortening to mix in nicely with the powder.

What the final shortening + dry ingredients should look like when you're done cutting and mixing it by hand. There should be no obviously large sections of dry powder; you want it to look almost like damp sand.

What the final shortening + dry ingredients should look like when you’re done cutting and mixing it by hand. There should be no obviously large sections of dry powder; you want it to look almost like damp, coarse sand.

Gently swirl in the chocolate. Do not mix past this point! In fact, I almost think I mixed it in too much. These cookies are pretty because they are multi-toned, so don't get too zealous with the mixing here!

Gently swirl in the chocolate. Do not mix past this point! In fact, I almost think I mixed it in too much. These muffin tops are pretty because they are multi-toned, so don’t get too zealous with the mixing here!

Using heaping tablespoon scoops to plop cookie down onto the tray, leaving space for the cookies to spread a bit. Almost there...

Using heaping tablespoon scoops to plop the batter down onto the tray, leaving space for the muffin tops to spread a bit.

chocolate banana on plate

Cookies… er, muffin tops for everyone!!

Good-Luck-on-Quals Brownies (or, Seven-Layer Bar Cookies Baked into Fudgy Brownies)

Do you think they got the "good luck" message?
Eleven students in my department recently took their qualifying exams (“quals”). Quals consist of five very open-ended, difficult questions written by five different professors. You have three days and three hours to complete the take-home exam, using any books, notes, the Internet, etc. that you want – you just can’t discuss the questions with anyone. Remember open-note exams in college? And how they were often more difficult than close-note exams? Well this is like that… but a million times harder. You have to pass quals to become an official PhD candidate, and you only get two chances. Yikes!

I’ll be taking this monstrous exam in a year, but this time around, I got to be on the “good luck” committee! Which doesn’t exist. I invented it. But it ought to exist. Because who doesn’t want a good luck brownie when they’re going into a three-day exam?!

While all the quals kids suffered, you can 1) be thankful that you are not in their shoes, and 2) consider making this recipe of fudgy, sugary ridiculousness. These brownies were inspired by a recipe from the book “Bake it in a Cupcake” by Megan Seling, which my best friend gave me for my birthday. This cookbook contains a bunch of fantastic desserts baked into various flavored cupcakes for double the awesomeness. I adapted the Seven-Layer Bar Brownie Cupcakes and made a tray of brownies instead. I increased many of the ingredients, added toffee bits to the brownies, and went bonkers over the crazy increase in baking time. These brownies are almost like fudge on the inside, they’re so gooey and sugary.

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SEVEN LAYER BAR COOKIES

6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) butter, melted
1 1/5 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup toffee bits
1 ¼ cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 ¼ cup chopped pecans
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

BROWNIES

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken or chopped into small pieces
1 1/8 cup (2 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter
3 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
¾ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 ½ cup all-purpose flour

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1. Make the seven-layer bars first. Preheat oven to 350F, spray a 9”x13” baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Stir the melted butter & graham cracker crumbs together until all crumbs are moist; press them into the bottom of the pan. Evenly layer the rest of the ingredients, in the order listed, over top of the crust. Pour the condensed milk over the top and bake for some crazy amount of time. The book says 25 minutes; mine took 35+. You want the edges to be bubbling and the coconut starting to turn golden brown, but the inside of my bars was still a bit gooey at this point so I ended up cooking an extra 10+ minutes. Cool completely before cutting (but be sure to sample the corner while it’s warm, accompanied by a glass of milk!).

2. Make the brownie batter once the seven-layer bars are cool. Place the chocolate and butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 90 seconds, stopping halfway through to stir the butter and chocolate together. Continue stirring until everything melted together – you can microwave a tiny bit more as necessary, but be really careful you don’t burn the chocolate. It’s much better to stir and wait for the chocolate to melt slowly. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the granulated sugar until it’s well-mixed. Stir in the eggs, one at a time until the mixture is smooth. Add the salt and vanilla and stir for 30 seconds, until they’re both well-mixed. Mix in the flour until just combined – don’t overstir!

3. Finally, assemble the brownies. Cut up the seven-layer bars into 1.5-2 inch squares (it doesn’t matter how neat these squares are) and move to a different plate/container. Wash the 9-inch by 13-inch pan, dry, and spray again with nonstick cooking spray. Pour about half the brownie batter into the tray, gently place squares of the seven-layer bars on top so they’re almost touching each other, and pour the rest of the brownie batter on top. Bake for goodness knows how long. I think I ended up baking for 50+ minutes. Keep testing the brownies with a toothpick. The edges and top will be very crusty, but the inside stays oh-so-gooey, so pull them out when there’s just a tiny bit of dough sticking to the toothpick. Allow them to cool before cutting (you can refrigerate them after 15 minutes if you want to speed this step up).

If everyone fails quals because they OD on sugar, this recipe never happened