Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread

Although I am by no means a picky eater, there are foods that in the past have occupied a place on my "won't eat" list. When I was little, my grandmother often served me regular penne for lunch instead of ravioli, as I had decided I didn't like the ricotta cheese in the filling; I turned up my nose at the sunny side-up eggs my mom made my brother for breakfast, suspicious of the runny yoke; and up until fairly recently, I'd always declared that I disliked citrus desserts (why would you want lemon when you could have chocolate?!) I'm not sure if my taste buds have grown up a little or if I had never given these foods a chance in the first place, but as I've gotten older I've discovered a new found appreciation for them. In fact, on this blog you'll find ricotta pie, quite a few citrus desserts, and this waffle with a sunny-side up egg. People can change, I guess, or at least their palate can. 

Banana bread is another recipe that fits into the above category. In elementary school, I struggled to hide my disappointment when the designated room-mother for the month brought in banana bread for snack. Bananas, as far as I was concerned, were to be eaten as were, part of my breakfast or an addition to my lunch box. The idea of mashing them up into a dessert -- and using the squishy, overripe ones, at that! -- did not appeal to my 8 year old self, and for years I passed on banana bread. When I got into baking later on in life, I found myself in the same predicament the second grade room mother had probably found herself in years ago -- we had a whole bunch of overripe bananas in the fridge, and the obvious thing to do was to make banana bread. After trying a sliver of what I had baked, I had to admit that maybe, just maybe, I'd been missing out. This recipe is one of my favorites for banana bread. Besides the fact that it is particularly easy to whip up -- just a little stirring and mashing, and you're all set! -- it is absolutely delicious, fragrant and tender and studded with chunks of melt-y dark chocolate, everything you could ever want to for breakfast, snack, or tea. It is especially good served warm and would be nice with a dusting of powdered sugar, if you want to make things a little fancier. 

A couple of notes: If the top of the banana bread browns too quickly during baking, cover it with aluminum foil. You can use either chocolate chips or chocolate chunks here -- I don't love the chocolate chips here in Italy, so I usually buy my own chocolate bars and chop them up in to chunks, which takes a bit more effort but is worth it. You could also replace the chocolate with walnuts or pecans, add a little cinnamon, or leave out the add-ins all together and make plain banana bread. When I melted the butter, I cooked it slightly to make a brown butter (read more about brown butter here) to give a nutty, caramel-y taste to the banana bread, but if you'd like to use plain old melted butter, that would be fine too. Finally, you can make this bread with either 2 or 3 overripe bananas. If you make it with 3 the banana taste will be a bit stronger. Enjoy!

CHOCOLATE CHUNK BANANA BREAD

Ingredients:
2-3 overripe bananas,  mashed until smooth
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chunks or chips

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 4x8 inch loaf pan and set aside. In a large bowl, mix the mashed bananas with the butter. Add the egg, then the vanilla, and then the sugar, mixing until everything is well combined. In a small bowl, combine the flour, salt, and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the banana mixture, and stir until the ingredients are just combined (do not overmix). Stir in the chocolate chips or chocolate chunks. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a tooth pick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached. Let cool completely before serving. Serves 8-10.



Recipe from www.simplyrecipes.com




Red Wine Chocolate Cupcakes

Yup, you read the title of this post correctly. This here is a recipe that combines red wine, chocolate, and cake, three things that you not even in your wildest dreams probably ever imagined could be combined and consumed all at once, yet here are these cupcakes, proving you wrong. Despite my quick-and-easy recipe kick, and usual penchant for everyday cakes, I figured that a blog anniversary -- a second blog anniversary, to be precise -- deserved something as festive and over the top as these Red Wine Chocolate Cupcakes with Mascarpone Frosting. 

That's right, Pancakes and Biscotti turns two this week! It seems like just yesterday that I was researching Blogger vs Wordpress, figuring out how to write blog posts, and deciding what the first recipes would be. It has been a great first two years. This blog has pushed me to cook and bake even more than before and has taught me a lot about cooking and baking as well -- indeed, a lot of recipes  I experiment with don't make it on to the blog (most recently, less than satisfactory carrot cake muffins, a rather bland red velvet cake) while other recipes or methods I don't think will work have surprised me. I write far more (two blog posts a week) and I have learned about photography. Most importantly I've learned that I love having a food blog, love developing new recipes and experimenting in the kitchen, and love being able to share my recipes with others

Naturally, there have been a few changes the past two years. As you may have already noticed,  I am now the sole blogger here -- Gloria is now cooking full-time in England, which understandably leaves her with little free time  -- and a few practical changes in descriptions, photos, and links are being made to reflect this. The blog address is now www.pancakesandbiscotti.com, and the recipes and posts are no longer available in Italian. Changes aside, I hope to continue to provide good, consistently delicious recipes that you can make at home and that will hopefully become standbys in your repertoire. So, here's to many more years of blogging!

Back to these cupcakes! Since this blog has a good mix of Italian and American recipes -- not surprising from an American living in Rome -- I thought that American-style cupcakes infused with some Italian red wine and frosted with whipped mascarpone was a perfect mix of the two cultures. The result is a dense, moist, and intensely chocolate-y cupcake with undertones of sweet red wine and a hint of cinnamon. The frosting is similar to but a bit more refined than the usual cream cheese frosting, and makes a nice background for the sprinkling of bittersweet chocolate on top. Note that these cupcakes are not very sweet either, arguably more elegant and sophisticated than your typical yellow cupcake with buttercream. Think of these as cupcakes, all grown up. 

A couple of notes: The alcohol here does not bake out completely, so while these  cupcakes won't make you tipsy or anything, they wouldn't be the best thing to bake up for a child's birthday party, for example. If you'd like, you can also bake this cake in a round 9-inch cake pan, or double the cake and frosting recipes to make 3 9-inch rounds, making a 3 layer cake. Finally, you can make the chocolate shavings to garnish these by grating a bar of chocolate with a plain old cheese grater. Enjoy!

RED WINE CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

Ingredients for the cupcakes:
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 cup red wine
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
A pinch of salt (a little less than half a teaspoon)
Chocolate shavings to garnish the cupcakes

Ingredients for the frosting:
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 cup + 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 12 cup muffin pan and set aside. In a large bowl, use electric mixers or a standing mixer to beat the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well, then the red wine and vanilla. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt together, right over the wet ingredients. Beat the mixture just to combine all the ingredients, then stir together with a wooden spoon. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pan. Bake the cupcakes for 15 minutes or so, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of each layer comes out clean. I used my small electric oven for this which cooks very fast, so your cooking time could  be a bit more than mine was. Cool the cupcakes for about 10 minutes, then remove them from the pan and let them cool on a wire rack.

To make the frosting, in a medium bowl, beat the mascarpone with the powdered sugar, and vanilla extract at medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy. Frost the completely cooled cupcakes, sprinkle with chocolate shavings, and enjoy. Makes 12 cupcakes.




Recipe very slightly adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.




Carrot Cake Whoopie Pies

In my many years of reading cookbooks/food blogs, I've come across recipes for not only cheesecakes, brownies, and cookies, but also desserts that, if we're judging by name alone, definitely take the cake (see what I did there?!) Ever heard of crumbles, buckles, cobblers, trifles, clafoutis, or fools?! What about Apple Brown Betty or Eton Mess? Dig a little deeper into the dessert world and you'll see that there are tons of sweets with silly names, which in my opinion make them all the more appealing (it's way more fun to say you're bringing a Raspberry Fool to a dinner party instead of, say, a chocolate cake). The stranger the name, the better, no?

These Whoopie Pies of course, fall into this category (how could you not want be at least a little curious about something called a Whoopie Pie??) and are as delicious as their name is amusing. If you're not sure what a Whoopie Pie is, no worries -- the classic Whoopie Pie consists of two cake-y chocolate cookies that sandwich a vanilla cream filling, and fun fact, Wikipedia tells me that it is actually a dessert that originated in Pennsylvania. This recipe shakes up tradition, using carrot cake for the cookie part and cream cheese frosting for the filling. The result is two soft, fluffy, and spicy cookie which are balanced perfectly by creamy, not overly sweet frosting -- in short, all the taste of carrot cake in a compact, portable form (perfect for your next Spring picnic!) While I was already quite happy with how these came out, their deliciousness was confirmed when a colleague -- whom I had only ever exchanged a few "hellos" with -- sent me an email, saying she had heard that there were some really good carrot cake cookies in the office, and would I mind terribly if she stopped by to try one? Another colleague ended up eating three. And the whole batch was gone within half an hour. Need any more convincing?!

Now, a couple of notes on this! I upped the spices here as usual, but if you want your Whoopie Pies to have less spice, feel free to use 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1 teaspoon ginger. If you're not a fan of cream cheese frosting, 1.) what's wrong with you?! and 2.) you could I imagine substitute a simple vanilla buttercream here. Regarding the little grated carrot asterisk* below -- my intense carrot cake whoopie pie research shows that most people recommended grating the carrots with a hand held grater, as the carrots come out much finer, preferable for such a delicate cookie. I was impatient and chopped the carrots fine with my mini food processor and was happy with the result. Finally, I used baby carrots here, but feel free to use regular carrots if that's easier -- just be sure not to use pre-shredded carrots as those tend to be dry. Enjoy!

CARROT CAKE WHOOPIE PIES

Ingredients for cookies:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light or dark brown sugar 
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups shredded carrots*

Ingredients for frosting:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
6 oz cream cheese, softened
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly butter two large baking sheets. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, powder, spices and salt in a medium sized bowl. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy with electric beaters. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in the vanilla. Gradually add the dry ingredients and beat just until combined. Fold in the carrots.

Using a small cookie scoop or tablespoons, portion out rounds of batter onto one of the prepared baking sheets, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart. Bake each batch for about 12 minutes, or until the cookies are slightly golden around the edges. Remove the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the rest of the batter. 

For the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat until everything is well combined.

Match the cookies up into pairs based on size and fill with the cream cheese frosting. Makes 16-20 Whoopie pies. 



Recipe adapted very slightly from www.thebakerchick.com.







Orange Glazed Poppyseed Muffins

The weather in Rome seems to be in a bit of a rush lately, deciding to skip over Spring and go directly to Summer. The past few weeks have been characterized by sunshine, short sleeves, and lazy weekends in the park -- sunglasses required -- and I am so very happy to not be living in New England right now, where the snowfall continues (sorry Rhode Islanders!) The lack of cooler weather has made me momentarily set aside any recipes falling in to the "buttery," "fudge-y," "rich," or "chocolate-y" categories, cookie cakes and lava cakes suddenly seeming better suited for colder weather and rain. Now don't panic -- I can't stay away from frosting and chocolate chips for all that long -- but I have most certainly found myself looking for lighter, bright and sunny recipes to match the mood outside. Enter these Orange Glazed Poppyseed Muffins!

I had totally planned to make a Tres Leches Cake this weekend -- that would fall squarely into the above mentioned "rich" category -- but found myself instead inspired by the sunshine and a few oranges I had in my fridge, not to mention a bag of poppy seeds still in my pantry. The result was these muffins, which pack a true a citrus punch thanks to the orange zest, juice, and glaze, not to mention the extra juice brushed over the top right after they come out of the oven (the same method I used in these Orange Pound cake) The zest is also heated first with water and sugar, which brings out the orange flavor even more. Citrus aside, these muffins are soft and fluffy thanks to the addition of plain yogurt, and I actually found that they were delicious the next day as well (and perhaps even a bit more orange-y, as the flavor had developed even more). These are perfect for brunch, breakfast, or snack, but I also think the glaze makes them dress-y enough for dessert (just call them Orange Glazed Poppyseed Cakes!) 

A couple of notes: I used poppy seeds in these muffins to shake up the classic lemon with poppyseed combination with another type of citrus, but if you'd prefer, you could also substitute raspberries, blueberries, or even chocolate chunks here. I put 3 tablespoons poppyseeds into the batter and then after wished I had put more, so add 3 to start and then see if you want to up the amount. You could also add a bit of almond extract to make these orange almond muffins, but if that is the case, do not use a whole teaspoon -- almond extract tends to be a lot stronger than vanilla extract. Start with 1/4 a teaspoon and then taste the batter and adjust accordingly. Enjoy everyone! 


ORANGE GLAZED POPPY SEED MUFFINS

Ingredients for muffins:
3 large oranges
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons orange juice (from oranges listed above)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup whole milk
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3-4 tablespoons poppy seeds

Ingredients for glaze:
1/3 cup orange juice for brushing (from oranges listed above)
1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice (from oranges listed above)
3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted


Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 12 cup muffin pan. Set aside. Finely grate the zest from the oranges (be careful to zest only the bright orange portion of the peel -- the white part of the orange under the peel is extremely bitter.) You should have about 1/4 cup of orange zest. In a small saucepan, combine the zest, 1/4 cup of the sugar, the orange juice, and the water; stir together over medium heat for about 2 minutes until sugar dissolves. Add the butter and stir until melted, about 1 minute more. Set aside the orange zest mixture.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. In a separate large bowl, whisk together the eggs, vanilla, yogurt, milk and reserved orange zest mixture until smooth. Add the flour mixture and stir just until blended (do not over mix or the muffins will be tough). Stir in the poppyseeds. 

Spoon the batter into prepared muffin tins, filling each cup three-quarters full. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in tins for 3-5 minutes and then remove and cool completely on wire rack. Brush the muffins lightly with some of the 1/3 cup orange juice while they are still warm (you might not use all of the juice).

Combine the powdered sugar and 1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice in a bowl and whisk until smooth. If glaze is too stiff, beat in a few more drops of orange juice. Spoon over the muffins while they are still a bit warm. Makes 12 muffins.







Rosemary Roasted Marcona Almonds

Guests at a dinner party can usually be divided into two camps: those who cook, and those who do not. It's not exactly difficult to tell who falls into what category. Those of us who cook are easily recognizable, characterized by our eagerness to contribute ("What do you need?! First course?! Dessert?! Is anyone bringing dessert?! Are there vegetarians?!") Some of us cooks even poll other guests to figure out if there are any strong dessert preferences, and keep running lists of dinner party ideas (or is that just me?) The non-cooks at the dinner party, on the other hand, are distinguished by their willingness to bring alcohol, the bread, or dessert, if aforementioned dessert can be purchased at a bakery. There is nothing wrong with this of course -- my own sister falls into this category -- but that being said, I wanted to offer a recipe to the non-cooks, one that is as easy as Banoffee Pie or this Asparagus with Prosciutto. If you're not much of a cook and you find yourself wanting to contribute something a little fancier than the usual loaf of bread, keep reading! 

So! This recipe! I tried Marcona almonds at the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid last week that were prepared just like these -- toasted with olive oil, salt, and rosemary, and served warm. They were perfectly crunchy, salty, and addictive, while still being arguably healthy to boot. I tried to replicate them at home with great results, and given the simplicity of the recipe and the short ingredient list, I thought these almonds would be an ideal easy appetizer for non-cooks to contribute to their next dinner. Pair these with some olives, cheese, and a glass of wine, and you have the perfect spread for all of the non-cooks to munch on while the cooks do all the heavy lifiting preparing the main courses in the kitchen. We enjoyed our almonds with Manchego cheese from Spain -- so good! -- so if you can get your hands on some of that, I highly recommend it, if only to round out your Spanish cuisine experience. 

A couple of notes: If you're not familiar with Marcona almonds -- one of Spain's specialties -- go out and buy them right away! They are smoother and have a much more delicate flavor than regular almonds, and are also delicious eaten plain. They are not too hard to find in Italy or the U.S, but if you can't find them feel free to substitute regular almonds. Next, you can prepare these either in a pan on the stove or in the oven. If you make them in the oven, they tend to come out a bit dryer and not as oily as when you pan roast them -- and a little oil here is good! -- but both methods work. Be careful not to over toast these as well -- nuts cook very quickly, so keep a close eye on these whatever cooking method you use. Enjoy everyone! 

ROSEMARY ROASTED MARCONA ALMONDS

Ingredients:
2 cups Marcona almonds
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
Salt

If you are using your oven, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Lay the almonds out in a single layer on the baking sheet and toss with with the olive oil, rosemary, and a little salt. Add a little more olive oil if you think its necessary (and feel free to add more or less rosemary, if you want -- the quantities above are just suggestions). Roast the almonds until they start to turn slightly darker (watch these carefully!) This shouldn't take long. Let the almonds cool slightly, mix everything around, and serve warm. If you're using the stove, heat up the olive oil and rosemary in a skillet and add the almonds, tossing them to coat in the oil and waiting until they turn slightly darker. Add salt to taste. Serve warm. Makes 2 cups almonds, about enough for 10-12 people. 





Madrid, Days 2 + 3


We had an excellent introduction to Spanish cuisine with our food tour on the first day of our trip, and were eager to continue eating our way through the capital city until our flight back home on Monday. My impression of Spanish food so far had been quite positive (thank you again, Devour Madrid) and as much as I love Italian food, it's nice to experience a new cuisine and shake things up every once in a while. So! On to days 2 and 3!

1. CHURROS + CHOCOLATE
Everyone knows breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so we decided we would get our Easter Sunday started off right with a Spanish classic -- churros and hot chocolate. Our guidebook recommended the Chocolateria San Gines, but Mette had told us her favorite churros and chocolate were actually at the aptly named Chocolat, in Via Santa Maria. We met our new friend Derek (an expat living in London who was on our food tour) at around 10:30, just in time to get a table. We were offered a complimentary cookie while we were waiting for our churros, hot chocolate, and cafe con leche, which was a nice touch. So, the verdict? I haven't had churros anywhere else in Spain, but I'm inclined to  believe that Mette was right -- these were fabulous, slightly crisp on the outside and fluffy and soft on the inside, reminiscent of a fresh doughnut (there's my American side coming out). The hot chocolate was equally delicious -- again, the pure melted chocolate type hot chocolate that can be eaten with a spoon. As I enjoyed my churros, I began to seriously considering moving to Madrid, ideally in an apartment right next to Chocolat, in order to have these for breakfast every morning. Yum.

2. EL PARQUE DEL RETIRO
After breakfast my sister, Derek, and I took a walk to El Parque del Retiro. This one of the largest parks in Madrid that (a quick search on Wikipedia) informed me belonged to the Spanish Monarchy until the late 19th century, when it became a public park. The park also houses El Palacio de Cristal (the Crystal Palace,) a large glass pavilion designed by the architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco in 1887. The park was beautiful, full of green (always nice to see in a city!) with a pond complete with baby ducklings and turtles (!!!) and the weather was perfect. All in all an ideal way to spend a Spring day. 

3. TAPAS IN LA LATINA WITH LUKE
Though I had checked off  "churros" and "jamón" on my "Spain" to do list, I still hadn't tried tapas. Not trying tapas when in Spain is like not eating pizza when in Italy -- unthinkable for a foodie -- so I was pleased when my sister Alexandra told me we would be going for tapas with a local. The local in question was Luke, who had done my sister's food tour in Rome last year (my sister is a food tour guide for the company Eating Italy) and who she had wisely thought to contact. Luke has been living in Madrid for the past six years, works for Devour Madrid, and runs his own travel and food website (www.lukedarracott.com) so I knew we were in good hands. We met in La Latina neighborhood, where we started our tapas tour with some red wine, tostas and cheeses at Casa Gerardo -- life changing-ly good cheese! -- before moving on to Bar Martina for Vermouth and patatas bravas, or fried potatoes topped with a spicy sauce (yum). We then moved on to Bodega Ricla for a dish made with beans with chorizo (insanely delicious) and finally Casa J Blanco for cecina, dried beef similar to Italian bresaola. It was a great way to spend an afternoon, and I can't thank Luke enough for the awesome, unofficial food tour. It is always interesting to meet other expats who have also "adopted" another culture, language, and country as their own, and I do not think we could have done tapas half well if we did not have someone as knowledgeable as Luke -- blonde hair aside, he fit right in with the Spaniards.

4. EL PALACIO REAL + EL MERCADO DE SAN ANTON
Our flight back to Rome was at 8:30 pm, so we had all of Monday in Madrid free before heading to the airport. We started the day off at El Mercado de San Antón in the Chueca neighborhood. The market sold fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish, as well as pastries, sandwiches, and regional specialties like cocido madrileño. For breakfast, we opted for orange juice and a bocadillo de tortilla de patatas, or rather a sandwich filled with tortilla española. Tortilla española has nothing to do with the tortilla as Mexicans know it, and for Spaniards, is dish made with egg and potatoes (think quiche without the crust). The sandwich was extremely simple but delicious, so much so that I think I'll have to try and recreate it for the blog. After a walk around the market we headed to the beautiful Palacio Real (The Royal Palace) for a guided tour -- truly impressive -- and then back to El Riojano for dessert before leaving Madrid. I opted for a torrija de leche, a Spanish Easter specialty a bit like french toast. It was the perfect way to end the trip.



So, overall conclusions? I can't say enough good things about Madrid. Like Aarhus, it is a city that I could most certainly see myself living in (though I'd have to brush up on my Spanish for sure). Despite being a capital city bigger than Rome, Madrid was well organized, clean, and manageable; I found its people to be incredibly warm and welcoming; and of course, the food was incredible. Five stars for Madrid! Can't wait to go back!