quick bread

In Search of Poppy Seed Muffins.

Sometimes I get intense cravings for poppy seeds.  Maybe it's the Eastern European heritage, maybe it's the nutty, oily crunch only they can give a baked good.  Maybe it's because I enjoy them most as a vehicle for almond extract, since the poppy seed seems more than well suited to that bitter almond flavor.  In my flavor showdown between vanilla. lemon, and almond,  almond wins out every single time.

poppy seed bread.

It seems there are a shortage of good muffins in the world.  I think I surprised a muffin-loving friend recently when I admitted that I prefer loaf-pan quick breads to muffins.  Muffins just seem to stale quickly, and with a loaf of bread, I can slice off what I like.  Nevermind that it's tougher to transport a slice of quick bread than a muffin... 

Then there are the muffin tin liners: to use or not to use? 

But every so often, I really want a muffin.  And, I really want a poppy seed muffin.  And then I remember that I've never really found the perfect muffin to satisfy what in my mind a poppy seed muffin should be.  Poppy seed muffins seem to come in either lemon or almond flavors.  Lemon leaves me wanting as much as I like it, and almond muffins never seem to contain the bracing amount of almond extract that I so badly desire.  Most poppy seed muffins are dense and overly oily - probably because most are oil based and contain a LOT of it.  Most are crazy sweet too, containing as much sugar as flour in some instances.   A recent Internet perusal of poppy seed muffins/loaf breads met with the same results I've been accustomed to, but fortunately I was able to turn to a recent cookbook crush to meet my needs.

poppy seed bread.

I think I identify most with cookbook obsessed home cooks.  We are the lot that hears mention of a new book (or are even the ones that scan publisher websites for upcoming releases), get our hands on a copy, and then set to work making what marvels lurk inside.  I have so many titles that seem like living, breathing friends, the authors voices coaching me through the language of their worlds.  I have learned so much from so many titles, and been endlessly inspired. 

Those who are with me also fully understand the "cookbook crush", and I'll bet that a whole genre of my peers can site readily those tomes that grabbed them tenderly (or vigorously) and caused them to think of nothing other than what was on the page and on the plate for days on end.  I go through many of these each year, and increasingly there are just so many great books coming out that I never need to wonder what to make next at my house.

I began reading Cheryl Sternman Rule's Yogurt Culture a few weeks ago, excited from the first page after she opened her story in Eritrea.  Eritrea, a tiny country I couldn't have found on a world map before our in-depth geographical study of Africa last year.  It is a simple and well written book, a heavy thing that feels good in your hands, the pages thick and somewhat glossy (but not so glossy that they encourage fingerprints).  I made her recipe for 9 chocolate cupcakes right away to use up some chocolate frosting from a birthday cake commission.  I wasn't at all surprised that every family member loved them.  After the muffin discussion with my friend, I figured I needed to make poppy seed bread (or muffins) - so I looked to Cheryl's lemon almond version of a loaf cake that looked like it had good bones for poppy seed inclusion...

Lemon AND almond!  I have read poppy seed recipes for years and never have seen the two together.  And despite my almond addition, I did add the zest of 1 lemon and found it to balance everything well.  This was also a butter-based bread, with only 1 cup of sugar in pleasant proportion to the 2 cups of flour (and 1/2 c. almond meal).  I was sold.

poppy seed bread.

Billed as a loaf cake, I actually made it pretty much as written on the first go.  I baked it in small, disposable tins - disposable except I've been washing them out and reusing them since last Christmas when I wanted to give petite pound cakes as gifts.  (Sometimes, I think the best bakeware is the absolute cheapest.  The thin aluminum allows great browning on all sides.)  There was probably a bit too much batter for the 3 pans, and that's when I conceded that a muffin might be in my future.  I altered it a little bit more, decided upon using tin liners, and lined up a couple neighbors to share in the wealth of muffins.

Almond Lemon Poppy Seed Bread (or Muffins) (adapted from Cheryl Sternman Rule)

makes 15-16 standard size muffins, 1 9x5 sized loaf, or 3 3 1/2x6 mini loaves

  • 10 T. room temperature butter (that's 5 oz.)
  • 2 c. AP flour
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/4 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1/2 c. blanched almond meal
  • 3 T. poppy seeds, preferably fresh Dutch Blue ones
  • grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 room temperature eggs.
  • 2 1/2 - 3 t. almond extract, depending on your level of almond love
  • 1 c. plain yogurt (not a thick Greek style)

Preheat the oven to 350, and butter your loaf pan(s) or line muffin tins with liners.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, almond meal, poppy seeds, and lemon zest together until well blended.  In the bowl of a stand mixer (or another bowl with a hand mixer), cream the butter and sugar until lightened and "fluffy", about 5 minutes.  Mix in the eggs, one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition, then beat in the almond extract.  On low speed, mix in half of the dry ingredients until just blended.  Add the yogurt, also blended until just incorporated, then add the final half of the dry ingredients.  Mix well, but don't overmix - and use a spatula for the final few strokes to be sure there are no dry pockets.  The batter will be somewhat stiff.

Portion into the prepared muffin tins (or loaf pans), filling about 3/4 of the way full.  Bake for 20-25 minutes for muffins, slightly longer for mini-loaves, and 45-55 minutes for a large loaf.  A tester should come out cleanly from the center and the tops should be slightly browned.

Leftovers store well at room temperature for 2 or 3 days if covered tightly with glass.

poppy seed muffin

I'll admit that these taste best after just coming to room temperature; the tops have a slight crust that disappears by the next day.  But the airy yet stable structure of these muffins are just what I have been looking for, and I was able to enough almond extract to satisfy myself and 3 tablespoons of poppy seed are enough to give them a good crunch in every bite.  You could decide to glaze these with confectioner's sugar thinned with lemon juice, or more almond extract (and milk or cream instead of the lemon juice) - but they are just fine as is.  Next time I have the craving for a poppy seed muffin, I'll know just where to turn.

poppy seed muffin

Whole Wheat Banana Bread.

As much as I love long and slow bread, there is ample room in my heart for quick breads.  Nailing down a favorite would prove difficult: I have spent sleepless nights envisioning almond poppy seed bread or lemon poppy seed bread, I've picked up my walking pace to get home and make Dorie's Oatmeal Breakfast Bread.  A few weeks back I caught a nasty flu bug and lost my appetite for the better part of two weeks.  The experience left me completely over sugar.  It's weird; I still have absolutely no taste for anything sweet (though this berry trifle I made for Easter dinner did hit the spot I admit...).  Five pounds lighter as I head into spring is a good thing I suppose, and with that new-found lightness I went back to my baking schedule slashing sugars even more than before.  I'm wondering if it will stick and I'll turn into one of those people who don't look so forward to dessert...

B.S. (before sickness), I had devoured two baking books: Ovenly by Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga and Huckelberry by Zoe Nathan.  I baked quite a bit from each, admiring both equally for their creative flavors and make ahead ease.  I can't quite get over the Ovenly adaptation of Mollie Katzen's whole wheat banana bread, which I in turn adapted further and have been making weekly.  My boys like it so well I haven't been able to branch out from banana, but I would really like to try it with pineapple puree that's been well drained.  The fruit and maple syrup make it plenty sweet, so I cut out the sugar all together and no one's the wiser.  And of course, extra virgin olive oil is standing in nicely for the recommended flavorless oil.

whole wheat banana bread

Whole Wheat Banana Bread (adapted from Ovenly)
1 loaf
  • 2 bananas, mashed to equal 1 cup
  • 3/4 c. whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 c. ap flour
  • 1/4 c. flaxseed meal
  • 1 T. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. kosher salt
  • 1/2 c. maple syrup, preferably dark
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 1/3 c. Greek yogurt (regular yogurt or buttermilk also works, sour cream was suggested)
Preheat oven to 350 with rack in the center.  Grease a 10x4 (or 9x5) loaf pan with butter and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, flaxseed meal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together and set aside.  In a large bowl, whisk the maple syrup with the eggs, olive oil, and vanilla until well blended. Add the yogurt and mashed banana and whisk until nearly smooth.

Fold the dry ingredients into the wet, taking care not to over mix.  Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 50-55 minutes until a tester comes out clean.  Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before removing the loaf to a wire rack to cool completely.  Try to resist slicing it until it has cooled at least 1 hour.

whole wheat banana bread

I'm pretty sure the best way to eat this is with a good amount of butter, and it's your call if you would like to toast it first.  If you forgot to buy salted butter like I did last time I was shopping, just sprinkle the top with a little flaky salt.  This bread ages very well, the wheat flavor deepening and the flax becoming more nutty tasting the next day.  Stored at room temperature, you can easily keep it for 4 days or so - it would likely fare longer if stored in the refrigerator.  You could easily add nuts, but I like the soft texture without them for a change of pace.
We had one warm week last month, enough of a breath to carry us through the early part of spring that seems perpetually cool and damp.  It's good quick bread weather for a while yet and I don't mind. Once the world heats up, I don't have the craving for fast bakery like I do just now.  Then I like to let the warmer weather work its magic on the wild yeast and daydream of baking outdoors in an earth oven.  Meanwhile we're keeping an eye on the daffodils and magnolia trees, eagerly anticipating the first of the chives which miraculously seem to have grown overnight due to the rain.  Sometimes it's easy to wish away this type of weather, but all too soon summer will arrive and I'll wish for these cool, dreary days!  Better make some more coffee, slice some bread, and enjoy it while I can.

Chocolate Tahini Tea Cake.

Spring really seems to be taking the time in arriving this year.  We've had more downright cold and rainy days than moderately sunny and mild ones, and just when I think I should be craving more bright and light food, I'm drawn back to rib-sticking, carb heavy, comforting things.  Not that I ever need an excuse to bake.  Even in the hottest part of the year, I brave the lighting of my oven.  No matter the season, baking is akin to life-giving breath for me - especially in the sourdough department.  Quick bread making, however, seems to dwindle in the summer months, becoming much more of an occasional task than a weekly one.  

chocolate tahini bread

I was thankful for a rainy day yesterday to sneak in another quick bread before the world heats up, one that was more of a tea cake baked in a loaf form and healthy enough to be breakfast if so desired.  I had been thinking about making something with tahini all week, remembering this piece that Deena wrote recently highlighting it.  I love sesame, but never really have tahini on hand.  It seems that my co-op only stocks unhulled sesame seeds, which turn into a fairly bitter butter when ground and processed in the Vitamix.  On a recent shopping trip, I discovered they had packaged tahini themselves and I couldn't resist picking up a little container even though it goes against my grain of making things myself.

During the week Deena sent me more tahini links, and I was almost sold on this one for flatbreads rolled with sweetened tahini.  But couldn't shake both the feeling that I needed a quick bread, AND a little bit of chocolate.  I certainly didn't expect to hit that sweet spot on the first go, but I did!  A perfect concoction of not-too-sweet, reasonably healthy, and just a tad elegant.

loaf pan liners.

I used loaf pan liners that my parents brought me back from a trip they made to the UK. They are smaller than the standard 9x5 or 10x4 loaf tins I have, but fortunately a friend gave me a couple of Ziploc brand (they said "made in Italy" on the labels) glass loaf dishes.  They come with plastic lids for storage - and I love making loaves in them because it's like I have built in storage after baking.  This recipe fits perfectly into the 2 lb. loaf mold, it will likely bake faster and look a little more shallow if using a different sized tin.  I might actually seek out a metal tin this size, since I like a smaller loaf cake or quick bread that has some height to it.

As I searched for a starting point for this cake, I ended up "de-veganizing" a recipe I found on have cake, will travel.  I took a cue from the apple-walnut tea cake I love so much and used a shredded whole apple, peel and all.  It translates as near-applesauce bits and almost disappears altogether.  Some additional sesame seeds lend a little toothsome interest, and using raw honey makes me feel good in a way that agave nectar would never.  And of course, no new baking adventure happens lately without the addition of milk kefir...

I made this cake by weight - approximate amounts for conventional measure are also given.

Chocolate Tahini Tea Cake (inspired by have cake, will travel)
  • 40 g. cocoa powder (about 1/2 c.)
  • 180 g. ap flour (about 1 1/2 c.) (I used local Lonesome Stone Milling flour which is more wheat than most ap flours)
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/4 t. fine salt
  • 96 g. tahini (1/4 c. + 2 T.)
  • 210 g. honey (1/2 c. + 2 T.)
  • 113 g. shredded apple, peel and all but core/seeds removed (1 small, 4 oz. apple - or about 3/4 c. shredded)
  • 154 mL whole milk kefir (scant 3/4 c.)
  • 3 T. sesame seeds, divided
 Preheat oven to 350.  Prepare glass loaf tin with a liner or butter generously and flour well.

Sift cocoa powder, ap flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.  In a medium sized bowl, mix the remaining wet ingredients.  Add the well mixed wet ingredients to the dry and use a spatula to fold together until just mixed and no dry areas remain.  Fold in 2 T. of the sesame seeds, and mix just to distribute evenly.

Transfer mixture to prepared loaf pan, and use a knife to smooth the top evenly.  Sprinkle with remaining 1 T. sesame seeds.  Place in the center of the oven and bake for about an hour until a tester comes out clean.  Remove from oven to a wire rack, and cool for 45 minutes before removing the bread from the loaf pan to continue cooling.  Try to let the bread cool completely, about 2 hours, before slicing.

chocolate tahini bread-2

This bread has such a nice texture, almost "puddinglike" in the way that some British puddings are steamed and then marvelously moist-centered.  It has a satisfying sesame flavor, that if you wanted could be further complemented by spreading a slice with equal parts tahini and sugar (or honey), but that wouldn't really be necessary.  It's good enough to enjoy a fat slice alone, with the company of a cup of coffee or tea.  I've taken to storing the leftover in the refrigerator, as much to prevent myself from eating it too quickly as to protect the dense structure and ample fruit moisture.

I love how a tangent can take over my food life, winding away over a few days and inspiring me more by the hour.  I love having dedicated friends who are up for chatting spontaneously about the best uses for ingredients or which recipe to use or tweak for which occasion... and better yet don't find it the least bit strange when the overwhelming craving for sesame seed hits.

chocolate tahini bread-3

Not sure if I ever officially mentioned it here that I broke down and joined Pinterest.  You can find me under the same name: rcakewalk.  I've been enjoying it, and even more, I enjoy following the whims of my friends and seeing how pins morph and manifest into new inspirations.  I'm doing pretty good at going back over things I've saved for later too.  Unfortunately, I rarely make things more than once (when cooking and not baking, that is), but this social tool is also helping me remember things that were wonderful, and is a quick reference when I try to recall or share.  I probably won't (definitely won't) be adding paper straws to things to photograph, but a pin did lead to my Easter Lamb Cake

Experiments in Milk Kefir.

A few years ago, I became overzealous with cultured foods.  I tried culturing everything from leftovers to condiments, and had buttermilk, yogurt, kombucha, and several types of experimental vinegars (not to mention the sourdough) all vying for attention around the kitchen.  Slowly, a few of the cultures lost their "oomph", victims I'm guessing of cross-contamination.  I began to streamline my cultured life, focusing on the things that I loved most and were most practical for me to continue with, and by default reducing the amount of stress of caring for all of the little “children” with varying needs and schedules.

First to go was buttermilk.  I loved making homemade buttermilk, but with yogurt also being made, I couldn’t justify keeping both – especially when the best quality milk I can find runs me $4.50 per half gallon.  I never drank plain buttermilk either, so I was keeping it solely for baking purposes.  Yogurt filled in this gap nicely, especially when I found a no-heat, Scandinavian culture at Cultures for Health called viili.  I loved it completely, and used it exclusively for about a year and a half until it died out on me.  I tried to restart it from some extra dehydrated, and didn’t have any luck.  I took to buying some local yogurt that was made from non-organic but also non-homogenized milk, and it was so good that for the last year I just called it good enough.  I was nice to have the break from weekly worry, even though it only took seconds to perpetuate the culture.  With a new baby on the way it just seemed refreshing not to do every little thing myself and to take it “easy” while I still could.

soaked soda bread
Kefir soaked soda bread: click the photo for recipe... 

Maybe because this winter got so long, I started feeling lonely for additional culture in my life.  I tried again to reactivate some powdered viili yogurt culture without luck.  Is there too much sourdough in my atmosphere around here?  After the arrival of Tartine #3 and the many recipes in it using milk kefir, I decided this was my new solution to a probiotic, milk-like baking and drinking medium.  Holly L. sent me a loving start from Minneapolis back in February, and every 24 hours since I’ve been harvesting a cupful of milk kefir.

The milk kefir grains are healthy and multiplying, and from what I’ve read the symbiotic relationship between the bacteria and yeasts (similar to kombucha) create more priobiotic punch in the finished product than a standard yogurt or buttermilk containing bacteria strains alone.  Mostly I culture whole milk, but culturing heavy cream is superior, and it’s good in absolutely everything – particularly as an ingredient in baked goods and stirred last minute into soups.  It seems to bake up heavier than yogurt or buttermilk however; there is a learning curve for me as I go about converting.

whole wheat kefir banana bread.
Whole Wheat Kefir Banana Bread - another recipe link if you click the photo!

Last week, I decided it’s been too long since I’d made ice cream and I was itching to try one made with milk kefir as a main part of the base.  On internet perusal, most people either heated the kefir or omitted the eggs – but I wanted no heat to come to my kefir and I wanted an egg yolk base to my frozen concoction.  I compromised my technique, heating 4 egg yolks with a small amount of whole milk to the 170 degree mark, then combining it with cold heavy cream and whole milk kefir.  The result was a mildly tangy, probiotic rich ice cream that I loved.  It was creamier and more like soft serve after about 2 hours in the freezer, and then slowly morphed into a more icy, crystalline structure that was still soft enough to scoop.  A week later, it’s still delicious!

milk kefir ice cream

This milk kefir ice cream seems to have a naturally lemony taste, which could be enhanced by including some zest if you like that sort of thing… I actually added a tiny bit of almond extract which lends a pleasant bitter note in the aftertaste.  I would omit that if playing up the citrus zest.

Milk Kefir Ice Cream (inspired by recipes from David Lebovitz and the Bojon Gourmet)
yields about 1 quart
  • 1 1/4 c. whole milk kefir
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 3/4 c. whole milk
  • 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 T. brown sugar (light or dark)
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 t. almond extract (optional)
Combine kefir and heavy cream in a large bowl or quart jar.  Beat the egg yolks briefly in a small bowl and set aside. To a small sauce pan, combine whole milk and the granulated and brown sugars and heat over medium heat stirring with a spatula until the sugars melt. Temper the egg yolks with the warm milk, then add them to the saucepan.  Increase the heat a bit, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture just thickens (or until the temperature reaches 170 degrees).  Pour into the large bowl or jar with the kefir and heavy cream, add the vanilla and optional almond extract and stir well.  Chill thoroughly, preferably for 24-48 hours, before churning in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer instructions.

milk kefir scones
That's a good amount of the new local flour I just discovered from Lonesome Stone Milling.  I can't be more excited to begin baking with Wisconsin grown and milled organic flour...

Last Friday, I used milk kefir cream in the Tartine #3 recipe for whole grain scones, the recipe I'd had my eye on since first cracking that book open, and probably the one that made me anxious to start my own milk kefir culturing in the first place. I made my version with Cara Cara orange zest and some of the blackberries I had hoarded in my freezer since last summer.  Without a doubt, they were the messiest endeavor I'd ever encountered, but the result was thankfully more than worth it.

milk kefir scones

I cut 16 scones instead of 12 (which would have been massive in my opinion), and froze them all.  The point of scones to me is baking them from the freezer, and these passed this test.  They might not have been quite as flaky as baked fresh after forming, but they were perfect.  Not too sweet, flaky and crisp on the outside - I was so pleased that I had kept the blackberries for such a worthy pastry.  (When baking scones from frozen, I give them about 40 minutes at room temperature before they go into the hot oven.  I look for just being able to indent them with my fingertip - signaling that they aren't frozen completely solid.  With high butter content, this time frame usually is about right.)

milk kefir scones

I'm far from finished working out new projects with milk kefir.  On my short list: pancakes (subbing for buttermilk in my basic recipe made for flapjacks a little on the dense side), non-banana quick breads, and another ice cream built entirely on kefir cream.  All in all, the new culture on my block seems easily at home after just a few short weeks - and it seems to inspire me to get back to a few other long lost ferments.