Thursday, July 9, 2020

Mrs. Kahn's Banana Sour Cream Cake

We at A Book of Cookrye have been forced to alter our grocery habits. Because we live within walking distance of a grocery store (even if it's so hot that we must drive there so we can be air-conditioned for the entire six-block journey), we tend to just pop in for groceries every other night or so when we realize we don't quite have all the things needed for that night's culinary plans. Obviously, with a plague on, that is no longer well-advised. We are discovering that we are in fact very bad at the sort of domesticity where you plan your meals for two weeks and get groceries for them all in one expensive expedition. And so, among other things, we had a lot of bananas nearing the end of their edible lives.

This recipe comes to us from Mid-Century Menu, and ultimately from someone who had precisely the same problem we do now! I love how they even say she was "determined that the garbage disposal wouldn't claim them." I totally support this attitude, Ruth Kahn. Now, on Mid-Century Menu, she noted that the cake needed just a little bit of salt to bring out the flavor. She also noted that she's made this recipe multiple times.

Mrs. Kahn's Banana Sour Cream Cake
      Mix and set aside:
2 tbsp butter, melted
½ c sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
½ c chopped nuts*
1 or 2 bananas, sliced (add the bananas after everything else is mixed.)
3 bananas
½ c sour cream
1½ tsp salt
½ c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
2 c all-purpose flour

Heat oven to 350°. Grease an 8" or 9" square pan.
For the cake, blenderize the bananas, sour cream, and salt. Set aside.
Cream the butter, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Alternately add the flour and the blender mixture, starting and ending with flour.
Pour about half the batter, perhaps a little more, into the pan. Sprinkle with half the banana slice-sugar-cinnamon mixture. Repeat these layers. If extra cinnamon-sugar remains in the bowl, scatter it in large drops across the cake.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean.

*I left these out, but if you like nuts in cakes you will likely do otherwise.

Source: Ruth (Mrs. David) Kahn, 1973 Detroit-area newspaper clipping via Mid-Century Menu

Let's look at this line from the note above the recipe:

Our Pieathlon friend Poppy Crocker has often noted that here in America, there is a blurry or even nonexistent divide between salads and desserts. Often the same recipe will say to serve on a lettuce leaf for salad or without for dessert. Or perhaps it will say "reduce sugar from 2 cups to 1½ to serve as a salad." Here in America there is a similar, if not even more obvious, merging of breakfast and dessert. We never considered this until some of our friends from other countries reported their surprise at seeing cakes and cookies renamed buns and scones and then served for breakfast. And that's before we get into muffins (which these days are cake- we've even had iced muffins for a long time now) and everyone's favorite cinnamon rolls which drip and ooze with cream cheese icing.
And so, let us start this off the way we have started so many things of late: with butter!

I have to give Ruth Kahn credit: she does not skimp on spices. That is a massive pile of cinnamon in this bowl, and we did not err on the side of generous when measuring it.

It looks a bit unnervingly greasy due to the fact that we melted the butter (which I guess will make it easier to sprinkle and scatter over the cake batter later on), but there is so much cinnamon it looks like brown sugar with extra molasses. It was almost (but not quite) hot from the extreme concentration of that brown powder, which meant it would still be wonderfully spicy when dispersed throughout the cake.

And now we get to the first of the bananas! I practically never slice bananas for anything, so this step felt oddly like preparing food for small children.

Looks like a delicious fruit compote, doesn't it?

Now, Mrs. Kahn devised this recipe to turn wasted fruit into delicious cake, and we are going to follow in her spirit.
We have previously mentioned that if you keep your fruit in the main part of your refrigerator rather than the fruit drawer, it will dry out rather than go moldy. And here is the proof: these strawberries have not even the slightest coat of fuzz on them! There were a few more in the container when we found it, but we ate them. We intended to eat only one to make sure they tasted good, but  they were so nice we wanted a few more. You may think they would acquire the taste of an old refrigerator, but instead they tasted just like those expensive dried strawberries you see with artistic labeling on them.

We decided to cut the strawberries up very small so we could be sure they would soften up while baking.
We also had these blueberries that were just starting to desiccate. They didn't yet look like raisins, but they had gone from delightfully firm and juicy to a bit mushy on the inside.

And here's all the lovely fruit, marinating in sugar and enough cinnamon to make the whole kitchen smell like spice cake before we even turned on the oven. We figured that once it was baked, it would be impossible to tell that the fruit was ever so subprime. 

I think a lot of people now forget that baked fruit recipes were a very common way to make sure you use up the squishier things you never got around to eating. Instead, we purchase the most perfect-looking, exquisitely-ripe  peaches and apples so we can bake them into pies.

If you thought we had dealt with all the bananas in the recipe, you are mistaken. You know how we said we had a lot of bananas? Well, we not only had a lot of them sitting on the counter getting browner every day, but we also had even more in the freezer that we quickly stashed away recently before they finally got to rotten to repurpose. As they thawed, they exuded this weird transparent syrupy substance.

As you can see, it's sort of pink and about the same consistency as pancake syrup. We first didn't know whether to drain it away or keep it. But we figured that it was in the bananas when we froze them and would never have separated out had the bananas not entered the freezer. Therefore, whatever this banana syrup is would have gone into our cake had we just plucked the bananas off the counter rather than storing them in what used to be the icemaker tray before the icemaker broke. And so, it went into the blender along with the shrunken remains of the bananas from whence it came.

Unsealing the sour cream gave us pause. There was enough pressure to turn the seal into a hard dome. We were afraid it would pop open like a can of biscuits. 

We didn't think this was a lot of banana, but it fills up the (admittedly small) blender. I've seen a lot of people say they like the taste of banana bread but not the lumpiness. If this includes you, then Mrs. Ruth Kahn is your banana bread kindred spirit. By the time the blender is done with these, the banana bread will be as light and lump-free as when we did the same thing with plantains.

Looks like a milkshake, doesn't it? That stubborn white smear of sour cream that refused to blenderize with everything else just makes it look like one of the things you get from a coffee shop that involves a blender, ice, and a squirt of whipped cream on top.

Actually, the banana-sour cream blenderization tasted better than we thought. It was slightly sweet and just a little tangy, very much like when one blenderizes fruit and unsweetened yogurt. We could have put some ice cubes in there and very much liked it.
And so, having done the advanced prepwork, we can finally get to the mixing of cake!
We're off to a great start.

We've been gradually breaking every wood spoon in this kitchen. No matter how many times we are assured that the spoons were like 20 years old and ready to depart this earth, we still feel bad every time we have to look over to our friends and hold up a severed piece of spoon in each hand. There was a cute vase of them next to the stove where they were arranged like flowers. Now only one or two survivors remain, and I fear they may be short-lived.

We were a bit unnerved at how grayish the bananas had become while in the blender, and had to taste them to make sure they still tasted like bananas.  Perhaps the acidity of the sour cream caused a reaction with them that changed the color. Or maybe they're just very whipped up.

If we ignore the banana-sugar-cinnamon stuff  we did, this is a pretty basic recipe for banana bread. With that said, it's a very good one. Or at least, the batter was really good.

I don't know what it is, but when cake batter looks like a swirl of ice cream when it goes in the pan, the cake is almost always better than when your cake batter is thin and runny. Also, this tasted fantastic- the sour cream didn't add as loud a flavor difference as I expected, but the batter tasted just a smidge richer for having it.

And here we get to the real banana-saving part of this recipe: having added as many blenderized bananas as we can before the cake won't bake right, we just drop the rest of them into the cake. We're of course also adding the blueberries which we wanted to save from the trash as much as the bananas.

I'm guessing Mrs. Ruth Kahn does this two-layered sprinkling of fruit because it sinks a bit while baking. Had we just stirred it in, it would probably all go to the bottom of the pan. And then the extra layer on top of this is in case the stuff in the middle does completely sink- that way, there will be at least some delicous things dispersed throughout the cake instead of sticking to the bottom of the pan.

We had a hard time spreading the second layer of batter on top. But we figured if we got it sort of close to even, everything would level out while baking. Seeing all these splats of stuff really does make this look less like baking and more like an elementary-school art project, doesn't it?

And here it is, ready to eat! I'm not sure that I like those baked banana slices on top. They don't look very... nice. Instead they just look shrivelled and squished. But we plucked one off the top and they tasted so nice that I didn't care anymore. (Is it a surprise that the banana slices were good after marinating in sugar and baking in cake batter?)

This cake turned out a lot lighter than we usually get with banana bread. I think it's blenderizing the bananas that does it- we had the same fluffiness when we blenderized the plantains and made bread out of them. The banana slices turned marvelously creamy while baking. The sour cream became imperceptible while it baked, but we're going to guess that the baking soda fizzed with it and made the cake rise even higher.
If you are staring at a lot of bananas and realizing you'll never eat them fast enough (or if the dark and spotty ones are extremely discounted at the grocery store), try this and you'll be glad you did. If we were making any improvements, we might replace about a half cup of the flour with whole-wheat to add a subtle nuttiness to everything.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Hump-Day Quickie: Ice Cream Bread: or, Better living through petrochemicals

We at A Book of Cookrye have reached a surprising stage in life: the point when you can just leave ice cream in the freezer and no one will steal it. Sure, some of it may be eaten, but if we leave a nearly-full carton in the freezer at night, we will not find it empty and in the trash can within a day. Now that we no longer have to eat a massive bowl of it the night it enters the house because there will be no more once other people see it, we have realized that actually, we often don't a lot of it any time. Lately, we just take a single spoonful out of the carton and put the rest back in the freezer without even double dipping. This means that after a while, the ice cream starts turning into ice crystals and just isn't as nice anymore.
Imagine a whole carton turned into frost like this.

When you've had the same ice cream flavor in your freezer for like two months, it gets a bit old. Like all people, we would like to have a bit of variety in our freezer. Next time we'll just get a little-bitty pint instead. But what do we do to prevent wasting this ice cream that's been defrosted and refrozen so many times it's turning from ice cream to ice frit?

Ice Cream Bread
About 2 cups ice cream (flavor of your choice)
1 box cake mix (also flavor of your choice)

Heat oven to 350°. Grease a loaf pan.
Melt the ice cream and stir in the cake mix.
Pour into the pan and bake about 30 minutes, or until done.

Source: Caker Cooking

You might think we should just throw it out. After all, ice cream is not vegetables or meat or anything that's actually good for you. We're not missing out on any vitamins or something by not eating the rest of this ice cream. But we have often declared how we feel about wasting food:

Rather than throwing the ice cream away, we will transform it into something ric and strange. This recipe comes to us from Caker Cooking, a loving tribute to the many recipes found in community cookbooks that start with "Open one can of soup" and end with "top with crushed potato chips and bake until bubbly." In the first-ever Pieathlon, he made the recipe I sent in. He got this recipe from the comments section of a different ice cream bread recipe he posted.
At first, we thought we might measure about a pint ice cream (viz. the amount the recipe tells us to use) in a mixing bowl and melt it, then we eyeballed the container and figured that about a pint of ice cream remained in it. Furthermore, the rest of the carton would make a decent single-use mixing bowl anyway. And so, the ice cream went into the microwave and emerged permanently changed.

I had a brief moment of airheadedness (or at least a brief moment when my airheadedness became obvious) when I tried a spoonful of the melted strawberry stuff in the carton and said "You know, if we put this in the ice cream freezer it'd make really good ice cream!" Then I tried to pretend I hadn't said that out loud and got out the synthetic cake powder.

The last time we had a close encounter with cake mix, we found that the cake tasted oddly artificial and kind of bad. Or, as our friend we shared the cake with said, "This tastes like shit." We postulated that perhaps I should have used something better than the store-brand cake mix that was a dollar per box. That is probably an incorrect theory, because this is an actual name-brand cake mix and it still has the exact same weird chemical smell when you rip the plastic bag open.
Also, this "batter" was really tough to stir. It bent the spoon back a lot before we gave up and used a bigger one.

Unfortunately, when one determinedly avoids wasting food, one sometimes causes a small waste to become a big one. For example, you may find that your bread is going stale, so you turn it into bread pudding. You then find that the bread pudding tastes terrible and end up throwing it away, meaning that instead of wasting only bread, you've also wasted sugar and fresh eggs. In a similar way, we started off with some ice cream no one was eating. As we stared at the artificially-flavored pink mess we'd mixed together,  we thought we'd turned this into a cake that would go directly from oven to trash, thereby wasting not only the ice cream but also the cake mix we threw in after it.

The batter, if so it may be called, hung and dripped off of the spoon in unnervingly elastic threads. We had to use so much force in mixing it that it seemed the ice cream carton would rip apart before we got all of the cake powder to quit hanging around in clumps and actually mix. 

Do you remember the beef pink slime scandal that went around a while ago? A few people tried to kick off a nationwide outrage that various fast-food places were using meat that looked like this in the factory:
Yes, that is beef.

Anyway, the general reaction from people was apathy and "What did you expect from a one-dollar cheeseburger?"
We mention the pink slime kerfuffle because as soon as we randomly thought about it, today's batter looked particularly unfortunate. Perhaps we should have used a different color of ice cream.
It's not that the batter's pink. The problem is that the batter is a pink that you do not see in nature.

Anyone who's read our previous kitchen misadventures will know we are no strangers to kitchen weirdness. Nor have we ever avoided some very strange substitutions. But this recipe just seemed... odd. It's like, we're not making food, we're slapping together two edible byproducts of the petroleum industry to create a synthetic food-style product.

Furthermore, we were wondering if this would even work. The cake mix tells us to add four eggs (which is quite an extravagance of eggs when you're trying to avoid getting groceries), and here we haven't added any. We checked the ingredient list of the ice cream, and it doesn't have any eggs either. Then again, it's not like we need eggs to keep any oil from separating out because we haven't added any of that either.

Often with cakes and brownies, it doesn't matter if you've done a lousy job of spreading it in the pan because it will go runny and level itself out. Hence the lousy spreading job- we figured it would all even out in the oven. We were wrong.

Now, we had considered icing this until we tasted the batter. Cake mix is already very sweetened, and so is ice cream. So basically we had a bowl of candy. You may be expecting me to therefore say it was overwhelmingly sweet, but if you've ever had seconds and thirds of the fudge platter at Christmas you could eat this and easily love it.

Now, if you think it's bad that our ice cream bread sagged in the middle, when Brian of Caker Cooking tried it, his did too. So if we personally failed at this, we're not the only ones.
This tastes so synthetic that everyone just kept eating it to confirm that it tasted as weird as we thought it did. The texture was oddly similar to angel food cake- it had that light almost-sponginess. It tasted like one of those drive-thru strawberry shakes that we all know contain absolutely no fruit and only trace amounts of dairy. I like those a lot, so I ate more slices of this than I should admit.
I didn't expect this to work, but it does. It's an unexpectedly successful combination of artificial flavors and imitation ingredients that makes a better cake than if you followed the directions on the box. Absolutely everything about this tastes and feels fake, but somehow the fakeness of the ice cream and the fakeness of the cake mix make up for each other's weaknesses and make a masterful tribute to the long industrial drive to take food production out of the kitchen and into the chemistry lab.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Peanut Butter Drops: or, Peanut butter cookies from before they all looked the same

We at A Book of Cookrye are fascinated by recipes that took a while to become... er... standardized. Take, for example, peanut butter cookies. If you do a quick image search, you find that everyone's peanut butter cookies have a certain... uniformity.

There's a lot of variation to, say, chocolate chip cookies, and even something like brownies will show up regularly with cheesecake-batter swirls or other fun alterations. But, in addition to everybody's near-identical peanut butter cookies, you also notice a peculiar uniformity in photography style. Food photography used to vary widely-- from dramatic theatrical-looking lighting on a black backdrop, to softly-lit still-lifes with lots of figurines and other strange props surrounding the food being demonstrated, to overdressed and elaborate tablescapes. These days, it seems that everyone's food photos are converging into a very uniform look- they are all shot in very soft daylight on a neutral-colored and blurry background, and often with only an extremely small portion of the food in focus while the rest of the photograph becomes an artistic blur.
This brings us to today's recipe! Our new favorite beat-up cookbook has three recipes for peanut butter cookies: one that looks like all the cookies shown above, a recipe for orange-peanut butter cookies, and then one we will make today. We found it really interesting that none of the recipes looked the same. It is fairly common in these community cookbooks to see a whole page of hamburger casseroles that look nearly the same because no one on the cookbook committee wanted to leave anybody out. Is there a reason that none of the other,  shall we say,  non-standard cookie recipes get handed around anymore?
Anniversary Slovak-American Cookbook, 1952

Peanut Butter Drop Cookies
2 c flour
¾ tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
¾ c shortening*
½ c peanut butter
1 c brown sugar
2 eggs
¼ c milk
1 tsp vanilla
¾ c raisins, chopped

Heat oven to 375°. Grease a sheet pan.
Cream shortening, sugar, peanut butter, salt, and baking powder until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Add the vanilla with one of the eggs. Add the flour alternately with the milk, beating until smooth. Fold in the raisins.
Drop from a teaspoon onto the baking sheet. Flatten with a fork. Bake 7-10 minutes, or until done.

*I used butter and it was fine.

Source: recipe by Mary Salat (of Chicago, Illinois), Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, First Catholic Slovak Ladies' Union, 1952

First of all, we've never seen peanut butter cookies that you just plop onto the pan instead of carefully shaping one dough-ball at a time. Second, aside from a few people who stir in peanuts (or, if you're really daring, chocolate chips!), no one adds anything to peanut butter cookies. Today's recipe has a very polarizing ingredient:
Did you really think I would put raisins on a cutting board and attempt to chop them with a knife?

Yes indeed, today we are improving our peanut butter cookies with raisins! I will never get over how passionately people hate raisins in baked goods. With other things, people may say "I don't really like coconut in cakes" or "Eh, poppy seeds are okay on a bagel I guess" or (and I include myself in this one) "I honestly don't like nuts in brownies." But raisins in cookies are like pineapples on pizza. No one merely dislikes them, but they absolutely despise them and will shout about it.
But let's set those aside for a moment and move on to things everyone likes in cookies: butter and sugar!

Now, we at A Book of Cookrye are no strangers to halving or quartering recipes. When you like trying the weird and forgotten recipes that time has tried to hide from us, you soon learn to cut them down to as small a quantity as possible because you never know when you'll be blenderizing peanut butter into vegetable soup because Disney told you to.
With the perils of trying strange recipes in mind, meet our new friend in cooking: the one-eighth measuring cup. We never thought we'd use it when we first rummaged through the drawers a few recipes ago. But when you cut recipes down a lot, you will use one of these more than you ever thought you would.

At this point, our cookies looked like cake batter. Of course, drop cookies are always a bit runny (otherwise they wouldn't spread into delicious cookies but would instead bake into hardened dough clods),  but this is the first time we've seen it with peanut butter cookie dough. When we tried it, it was odd to taste peanut butter cookie dough in the form of cake batter. It's like when we were treated to a wedding-cake flavored snow cone: it's like the flavor was transplanted into somewhere it didn't belong.

Here we veered off recipe a tiny bit. See that brown flour? That means these cookies are good for you. If we're allowed to say sweet potato fries are so much healthier than French fries, then using brown flour instead of white makes these cookies a nutritional bounty. Or at least, they are as good for you as granola and muffins. (In all seriousness, I stopped bothering with granola after reading the labels. It's basically oatmeal cookies without the flour and eggs. I'd rather have a real dessert.)

I don't know what I expected, but it looked like slightly runny peanut butter cookie dough. Which I guess is what we're going for...? I've never made any peanut butter cookies besides the ones you roll into little balls and press with a fork to get those cute lines on top. This doesn't look like batter, but it doesn't look like dough either. It looks like one of those recipes where you're supposed to shape it in your hands, but you messed up somewhere and now it's just a little bit too gloppy to do anything with.

Speaking of things looking messed up, it is now time to bring forth the raisins that have been waiting patiently ever since we snipped them. Chopping raisins is one of the things that really dates this recipe- no one does that anymore.
Before you argue that I should never sully the beautiful cookies with the icky raisins, consider that peanut butter and jelly go together like... well... peanut butter and jelly. And grape jelly graces more sandwiches than any other kind. As we all know, raisins are dried grapes. Now, the two main ingredients of grape jelly are grape juice and sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup). So, we've got a crapton of sugar in the cookie dough , and we have grapes (even if they've gone a bit pruny). Combine this with the wheat flour, and you basically have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with all the ingredients rearranged (and also some butter that got in there for bonus butteriness). Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are delicious, so this cannot possibly go wrong.

Also, if you're still traumatized from that one time when you were a wee tot and you thought the cookies had delicious chocolate chips until you bit one and found icky slimy raisins (a surprisingly universal experience), maybe you'll feel better after seeing that I cut these so fine you can barely see them once we've stirred things a bit.

I mean, even if this recipe's a bit weird, at least it looks like it's going according to plan. By which I mean drop cookies typically look like this unless you have one of those cute little cookie scoops. The only thing off about them (unless the raisins irk you) is the peanut butter-like shade of brown. That is not a color I am used to seeing in drop cookies.
This picture unnerves me more than it should.

Now, the recipe tells us to press them with a fork, which seemed utterly pointless when these were sticky blobs. But we tried anyway so that we could blame Mary Salat of Chicago if anything went wrong, saying "I followed all your directions and this happened!"
You can see a few grooves incised into the little plops of dough, but not the adorable crisp lines we're all accustomed to today. Maybe we're pressing the dough with a fork because everyone knows that Peanut Butter Cookies Have Those Fork Lines Pressed On Them. It's not a snickerdoodle unless you rolled it in cinnamon, and it's not a peanut butter cookie unless you've pressed that adorable grid on top. You might think the dough needed just a little starting push to help it spread out and that it wouldn't stick to a fork the way it would have glued itself to, say, the bottom of a cup. But we really didn't get these any flatter than they were before.

Either our oven runs hot or Mrs. Mary Salat's oven ran cold. We set the timer for ten minutes just like the recipe says, and in eight minutes the delicious smell of baking that suffused the kitchen developed a distinct burnt tinge. We checked in on the oven and found that all of the cookies had that little nearly-black ring of burnt around the edges.

Maybe you don't think it looks too bad in the above photo. Maybe you think "Oh, they're just a bit toasty on the outside!" Well, here's a merciless closeup of how I have still never learned to occasionally peep through the oven window when baking.

We couldn't waste an entire batch of cookies, so we hastily trimmed off the worst and hoped for the best. While the cookies were still hot, it was as easy as cutting up brownies. But as the cookies cooled, they got a lot more brittle. We feared that even the not-burnt regions had gotten baked until too hard.

 As you can see, these cookies were nearly very cute. If we hadn't burned them, they would have been adorable little brown peanut butter confections that were shaped exactly like muffin tops. Instead they looked like someone who barely knew which end of the knife goes in your hand and which goes in your food tried to cut them up.

These cookies are interesting. Usually peanut butter cookies are really dense, but these were more light. Chopping the raisins made them kind of disappear and leave the taste behind. You couldn't detect them, but the taste was all over. Imagine if you could buy raisin extract the same way you buy vanilla. People were divided over whether the raisins were any good or not.
Also, these cookies do not go stale. They ripen. After a day or so, they got denser and were very like the peanut butter cookies we're all accustomed to. Except with raisin flavor throughout.I know a lot of you lovely people dislike raisins, but if you leave them out you'll have lovely peanut butter cookies that have just a bit lighter texture than we're used to nowadays. These actually were like a peanut butter version of the depression-era cookies we've made a time or two. My only warning is that since these are just a bit lighter, it's easy to forget how many you've eaten.