Tuesday, January 21, 2014

how i spent my snow day: or this is as spontaneous as i get.

I don't consider myself much of a baker.  I find that baking tends to be restrictive creatively.  For instance, if you forget to salt a filet of salmon before you bake it, you can always salt it when it comes out, or even right at the table after you've already had a bite.  If you forget to put salt in your country loaf dough, well, too bad, there's no fixing that one.  There's more careful planning and less spontaneity in baking - which is kind of ironic, since outside the kitchen I am the over-planner-to-a-fault and tend to stay as far away from spontaneity as possible.  However, there are some days that just beg for baking.  On days when I'm overwhelmingly anxious and I've gone through all the tools in my anti-anxiety toolbox but nothing is working, I bake muffins.  There's something about following a recipe entirely, not using your brain, focusing all your thoughts on making sure everything's right, and then in the end, being rewarded with a beautifully golden-brown creation.  Instead of having my anxiety take over, I use it to produce something lovely.  No matter how out of control your life feels, you can put flour and sugar and eggs and oil and baking powder and a little salt in a bowl, mix it up, bake it, and they'll rise and magically become muffins.  Its a wonderful thing.

The other times when baking takes my fancy are snow days - what better time to bake than when it's cold outside and you're stuck inside and there are big fat fluffy flakes floating past the kitchen window?  While high-anxiety breeds muffins, snow days breed scones and quick breads.  Don't ask me why, I don't make the rules, it's just how it works, okay?  Today was one such snow day.  Since Ol' Man Winter had confined me to the house, I did a quick inventory of the cupboards, seeing what ingredients I had to work with.  Since my anxiety has been pretty much in check this week and I had the whole day's time, I was up for a bit of baking-experimentation.  There were a couple of ripe bananas sitting out on the counter, I decided to start with a basic banana bread and then work off of that.  I love putting dried fruit in baked goods - it's so lovely when you get that bite with a little bit of sweetness and change in texture, but for me, there's never enough of it.  We always have a smorgasbord of dried fruits in the house, so that wasn't going to be an issue.  But what's fun or interesting about banana bread with dried fruits in it?  I did one more quick scan of the kitchen, including the fridge this time.  Which is where I found the carrots, buried underneath a carton of mushrooms and bag of lemons.  Carrot-banana bread with an obnoxious amount of dried fruits? Done.

I looked for a carrot-banana bread recipe (I may have been in an experimental mood, but I wasn't insane), but couldn't find one - well, at least one that wasn't a cake.  I decided to use a zucchini-banana bread recipe, tweak it to my liking, and then pray it'd come out as good as it was in my head.  And, not to brag or anything, but it was even better.  It wasn't a particularly sweet bread, but the dried fruit was a great balance, giving it just the right amount of sugar. At the last minute before baking, I decided to crush some raw almonds, mix them with a little cinnamon and brown sugar, and sprinkle them on top.  Let me tell you, best spontaneous baking decision I've ever made - it made the top super crunchy, which was a nice pairing with the soft, fluffy base.  I think this may just become my new go-to snow day baking recipe.

Carrot-Banana Bread
makes 2 loaves

3 cups AP flour
1½ tsp baking powder
1½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp salt
4 eggs
just shy 2 cups sugar
1 tbs honey
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1½ cups carrots, shredded
2 cups dried fruit, chopped (I used a mix of golden raisins, cranberries, figs, dates, and apricots)
¼ cups raw almonds, chopped
2 tbs brown sugar

+ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease two loaf pans.
+ In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.
+ In another bowl, whisk the eggs until broken.  Add the sugar and honey and whisk until smooth and creamy.  Add the bananas and stir until combined.
+ Combine half the dry ingredients with the wet.  Stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until just combined.  Add the rest of the dry and mix, but stop while there's still flour and its a little clumpy.  Add the carrot and dried fruit, then fold until just combined.
+ Divide the batter evenly between the two pans.  Bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick can be removed cleanly from the middle of the breads. (Note: I baked the loaves on the same rack, one in the back and one up front, then halfway through the baking, spun the pans and switched their positions to ensure even baking.)
+ Allow the breads to cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely...well, not completely.  Let it cool for like five minutes, then cut that baby open while its still steaming, smear a little bit of butter on top, let it melt into the soft, fluffy insides and then enjoy this delicious snow day loveliness with big cup of coffee.

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