Elvis Bread Lives!

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done-baking

It all started when I bought a few too many overripe bananas. At 99 cents for six, how can one not buy a dozen?

For years, I’d read about Elvis Presley’s love for a grilled sandwich containing bananas, peanut butter, and bacon. While actually making and consuming same seemed a bridge too far (I hadn’t yet lost all respect for my oft-abused arteries), I reasoned that the essence of The King’s bestest sammie could well be condensed into a single, less punishing, loaf.

Riffing off a basic banana bread recipe, I set out on the road to culinary Graceland. The first pass yielded a version that, while tasty, didn’t quite hit the sweet spot of a bread fit for a you-know-what (too peanut butter-y). A friend suggested that I could micro-manage the outcome by having bacon, peanut butter, and mashed bananas on hand to course-correct on a slice-by-slice basis, but that seemed to me like cheating. By the second go, I was TCB; peanut butter ratcheted back, bacon pumped up, and for good measure, I slipped in some bacon drippings for shortening.

I think the latter was my -ahem- good luck charm. Nailed it.

INGREDIENTS

1 pound (1/2 kg) bacon, cooked crispy
2 cups (250 gm) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (5 gm) baking soda
½ teaspoon (3 gm) salt
4 overripe bananas
½ cup + 2 tbsp. (145 gm) crunchy peanut butter (I used Kroger Crunchy Peanut Butter with Honey)
1 cup (250 gm) turbinado sugar
⅓ cup (80 ml) buttermilk
⅓ cup (80 ml) bacon drippings
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tbsp. (15 ml) vanilla extract

chop-the-bacon

DIRECTIONS

1. Fry bacon until crispy; crumble or chop and set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 350°F/ 175°C. Grease and flour an 8″ x 4″ loaf pan.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda; set aside.
4. In a separate large bowl, combine the banana, chopped bacon, peanut butter, sugar, buttermilk, bacon drippings, eggs, and vanilla extract with electric mixer until completely mixed.
5. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and fold together with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until completely combined; be sure to moisten all the flour, but don’t overmix — or overthink.
6. Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top into an even layer. Bake until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick or thin knife inserted into the center comes out almost perfectly clean, about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.
7. Let the bread cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a wire rack to finish cooling. Wrap the cooled loaf tightly in plastic wrap; it can be stored at room temp for up to 5 days. [Good luck keeping it around that long.]

elvis-bread-at-thanksgiving

Should you require a soundtrack in the background while you bake your Elvis bread, I might modestly advance an odd little ditty that a record label I once worked for released nearly thirty years ago.

 

Maple. Bacon. Muffin. Yum.

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Maple bacon munchable.

Maple bacon munchable.

Maple and bacon go together like… well, maple and bacon. Just saying those two words together conjures up pastoral images of a smokehouse out in the woods of rural Vermont (or Québec, if you happen to be a Canadian like me), nestled among a stand of sap-producing trees, each with its own bucket. Heck, people even cure bacon with maple. So naturally, I was curious about how to make a portable (and edible) vehicle for conveying these two great tastes that taste great together.

I started with Maple Bacon Cookies, but try as I might (several batches), I couldn’t quite get the balance right. I tried making them with maple sugar (very expensive), with maple bacon liqueur, with enough maple syrup to turn the cookie dough into something resembling cake batter. In every case, the maple flavour seemed to get swallowed up like an extra in a Tarzan movie, disappearing irrevocably into the quicksand of the dough.

So I abandoned the project temporarily. And yet, the problem nagged.

One afternoon, I thought I might try my hand at a maple bacon muffin, rather than a cookie, and I came across an interesting recipe on littleleopardbook.com. This author’s version called for a streusel topping, which I knew I didn’t want, but I was curious to try the muffin itself. Not bad, but it suffered from the same problem I’d had with the cookies; not enough maple. Another blogger suggested using maple extract, but the local grocery had only imitation maple flavouring — that was right out — and online bakers reviewing the various extracts available through Amazon frequently experienced The Case of the Disappearing Maple Flavour. One product in particular looked interesting, but it had only three reviews, and at $4 per oz. (it was $9.89 + $6.60 shipping for a 118 ml bottle), I decided to go a different route for the time being.

If the maple flavour was being swallowed up on the inside, why not put it on the outside? So for the next pass, I added the requisite amount of maple syrup to the batter, but I also fixed upon a post-bake maple glaze to ramp up the taste.

I also opted to use the grease left over from the cooked bacon as part of the shortening for the recipe. Instead of the 1/2 cup of oil that the original had called for, I substituted approximately 1/4 cup of rendered bacon grease (all I had from cooking 1 lb. of applewood smoked bacon) and topped off the measuring cup with canola oil.

Those two little tweaks turbocharged the flavour, and turned my “grrrrr” into “grrrrreat.”

One last tip: If you have access to it, No. 2 or Grade B maple syrup is — perhaps somewhat counterintuitively — preferable to what is commonly sold as Grade A. It’s darker and has a more pronounced flavour. Vermont’s maple syrup producers, in a typical case of grade inflation, have recently decided to reclassify all commercially available maple syrup produced in the state as Grade A, with descriptors on the label to distinguish the varying colours. What was Grade B is in the process of being rebranded as “Grade A Dark With Robust Taste.” New York state has opted in on this scheme as well, and it seems like most other maple syrup producing regions will be on board by the end of 2015. Or maybe not.

Incidentally, many websites and blogs will imply — or even declare! — that Vermont maple syrup is the ne plus ultra of sap-derived products, but I will humbly (and with some degree of national pride) suggest that while Vermont’s state flag sports a pine tree, the Canadian national flag displays the maple leaf. Caveat emptor. But no matter where your maple syrup came from, by all means use real maple syrup and not that imitation chemical Frankensyrup. That abomination’s only legitimate application is as a weak adhesive, suitable for sticking papers together. You might save a few cents, or even a couple of bucks, but life is short, and some corners were meant not to be cut.

Batter up.

Batter up.

MAPLE BACON MUFFINS [Gluten-Free Version] (makes 12 muffins)
Ingredients
1 lb./.45 kg crispy cooked bacon, crumbled
2 cups/250 g flour (I used gluten-free Cup4Cup)
3 tsp/12 g baking powder
1/2 tsp/4 g salt
1/2 cup/120 ml milk
1/2 cup/120 ml mix of bacon grease and vegetable oil
1 egg
2/3 cup/160 ml pure No. 2/Grade B/Grade A Dark With Robust Taste maple syrup
1/3 cup/75 g dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. In a small bowl, combine dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) and whisk together. In a larger bowl, whisk together the milk, oil/bacon grease, and egg, then add the syrup and sugar and whisk until the sugar is pretty well dissolved. Gradually add the dry ingredients, stirring as you add. No need to get super fussy about getting every little flour lump out, just give it a good quick mix and make sure that all the flour is coated with the liquid. Stir in crumbled bacon. Pour into paper cupcake liners or directly into a pre-greased and floured cupcake pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from cupcake pan onto cooling rack and allow to cool for 15-20 minutes before dipping in Maple Glaze (see recipe below).

Fit to be dipped.

Fit to be dipped.

MAPLE GLAZE
Ingredients
1/4 cup/60 g unsalted butter
1/2 cup/120 ml pure No. 2/Grade B/Grade A Dark With Robust Taste maple syrup
1 cup/112 g sifted confectioners’ sugar

You may not need this much glaze, so the important thing to remember is the butter-syrup-sugar ratio: 1-2-4. And if you want a “glazier” glaze, up the maple syrup just a bit. It’s less opaque and even more chock full of maple goodness.

As for the prep, you can heat the butter and syrup in a pot on the stove, or just pop them in a microwave-safe container to melt the butter (about 60-90 seconds on high should do the trick). Whisk in the powdered sugar and set it in the fridge to cool. When the surface has hardened (15-20 minutes), it’s ready for dipping.

Redeeming the world’s least favourite veggie — the Brussels sprout

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They don't have to be your gastronomic enemy. (image courtesy foodrepublic.com)

They don’t have to be your gastronomic enemy. (image courtesy foodrepublic.com)

A quick spin around the Web the other day proved to me that I was not alone in my longtime antipathy to what has been called “cabbage’s evil cousin.” According to a 2008 survey conducted by Heinz, Brussels sprouts are the most hated vegetable in America (and Britain as well). This conclusion was supported by a casual tour of several relevant websites, including ones here and here and here.

For most of my life, I weighed in with the majority opinion. But thanks to a small restaurant in Manhattan Beach, California, my point of view was irrevocably swayed. And while I can’t promise you absolutely that yours will be as well, this may be the best bet to nudge you (and yours) toward a sprout-supporting stature.

First off, part of the reason that you probably hate Brussels sprouts is that, well, they stink. Literally. Brussels sprouts contain chemical compounds called glucosinolates, which have health benefits, but also exhibit the unfortunate tendency to release lots of sulfur the longer they’re cooked. And if you — like me — grew up during a time when vegetables were boiled until grey, you no doubt have been served at least one plate of sprouts that smelled like a skunk with gas. Bad prep = bad rep.

If, however, you roast the little green gems, they caramelize (actually, technically, they undergo a Maillard reaction), and become sort of sweeter and nuttier, free of the sulfur stink, and actually quite palatable.

Here’s how to do it.

Straight from the stalk.

Straight from the stalk.

TIN ROOF BISTRO BRUSSELS SPROUTS

Ingredients

1 lb./.5 kg Brussels sprouts
3 tablespoons/45 g butter (or, if you’re dairy-challenged, Earth Balance vegan sticks)
1 teaspoon/5 g minced garlic
1 teaspoon/5 g minced anchovy (optional) — you can substitute cooked bacon, if you prefer
1 tablespoons/15 ml lemon juice
1 teaspoon/5 g capers
1 teaspoon/1 g chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
2 slices of ciabatta bread (optional)
3 tablespoons/15 ml extra virgin olive oil

Sprouts going in.

Sprouts going in.

Directions

Preheat over to 350ºF/175ºC.

Remove ends and rough outer leaves from Brussels sprouts. Cut in half lengthwise. Put in bowl and add 2 tablespoons / 15 ml olive oil. Toss sprouts in oil and then lay out on sheet pan. Roast for 30-40 minutes until lightly “caramelized.” Brown is good.

Sprouts coming out.

Sprouts coming out.

Brush ciabatta with remaining tablespoon / 7.5 ml olive oil. Grill or toast ciabatta.

When Brussels sprouts are roasted/caramelized, heat up small sauté pan. Melt butter (or margarine/non-dairy spread) and add garlic and anchovy (or bacon). Cook for several minutes until garlic turns a golden color. Add lemon juice, capers, parsley, and salt & pepper. Toss sprouts in sauce until thoroughly coated.

Oh, you saucy little devil, you.

Oh, you saucy little devil, you.

Place grilled ciabatta in bottom of bowl. Pour Brussels sprouts over bread, or serve without bread; they’re good either way.

There’s no way of knowing how many sprouts haters there were at Thanksgiving dinner this year, but we made a double batch (as a side dish for 12), and there were no leftovers. That kinda smells like success to me.

Calabaza Rellena con Todo lo Bueno — or — Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good

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Four years ago almost to the day, I was listening to National Public Radio (on KPCC in Pasadena, one of the two NPR stations to which I donate). I heard a woman hitherto unknown to me named Dorie Greenspan wax poetic about a French recipe that seemed to be the most delightful non-dessert pumpkin dish imaginable; she simply called it Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good. Intrigued by the concept, I purchased her most excellent cookbook (Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours), and I’ve made it a number of times, with great success. [Her version is simpler than this one, because there’s no pre-cooking involved; you just slice and dice and stuff and cook. Or, as the French, say, “Voila!” But hang with me here, and you’ll see where I was going.]

As I walked into the market this past Thursday, a cart piled high with gorgeous sugar pie pumpkins greeted me, and I was inspired to take a shot at reinventing the dish with a Southwest/Mexican flair. This is a fine way to introduce pumpkin into a Thanksgiving meal in some form other than pie, and it’s a remarkably flexible recipe. In many ways, this “recipe” sort of resembles a road map, with a thousand thousand routes that will all lead you from your point of departure (the kitchen) to your destination (the table).

You’ll want to note that all measures are approximate, because the pumpkin sizes will vary widely, but if you have leftover stuffing, you can always wrap it in tin foil (or, if you’re trying for a little more Southwest authenticity, a banana leaf or two), and cook it alongside the pumpkin. Arranging and wrapping the banana leaves in a way that will keep the liquid from seeping out may be something of a challenge, but it’s manageable.

This version is gluten-free; it can easily be “veganized” by substituting your favourite vegan cheeses, and full-fat coconut milk for the cream (the reason I suggest the full-fat coconut milk as opposed to soy-, rice-, or almond milk is that the coconut milk better replicates the creamy mouthfeel).

CALABAZA RELLENA CON TODO LO BUENO
(PUMPKIN STUFFED WITH EVERYTHING GOOD, SOUTHWEST STYLE)

Ingredients:

1 pumpkin (approximately 3 lbs/1.5 kg)
1 can (15.25 oz/432 g) corn, drained
4-6 slices of stale bread, cubed (I used Whole Foods’ Sun-Dried Tomato and Roasted Garlic Gluten-Free Bread)
12 oz/345 g Monterey Pepper Jack cheese, shredded (you could also use Cheddar or Gouda or Manchego)
3 Hatch chile peppers (or Anaheim chile peppers), seeded and diced (or a 4 oz/113 g can of diced green chiles)
6-8 shallots, chopped
6-8 stems fresh cilantro leaf (also known as coriander leaf or Chinese parsley), chopped
2-3 cloves garlic (to taste), peeled, germ removed and coarsely chopped
1 tsp/1.8 g dried oregano
4-6 sliced of crisp bacon, crumbled
2 links chorizo (about 1/2 lb/0.25 kg)* [see note on chorizo below]
1 plantain, diced (optional)
1 small or 1/2 large brown onion, diced
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup/80 ml heavy cream (or half and half, if you prefer)
2 tbsp/12 g Cotija cheese, crumbled or grated, for garnish (optional)
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, for garnish (optional)
3-4 banana leaves, optional (available at most Latino grocery stores)

Directions:

Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350°F/175°C. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, parchment, or a silicone baking mat so that if the pumpkin innards boil over (which they sometimes do, a bit), they don’t soil the inside of your oven.

This pumpkin needs a cleaning out.

This pumpkin needs a cleaning out.

Using a sharp and sturdy knife, carefully cut a cap out of the pumpkin’s top the way you would if making a Jack-o’-lantern. [Ms. Greenspan’s suggestion is to cut at a 45-degree angle. But be careful; the pumpkin rind is tough. I find that a stabbing motion, a la Psycho, is emotionally satisfying, but it’s your call.] The opening should be large enough for you to work inside the pumpkin. Clean the strings and seeds from the cap, and set it aside (we’ll be using it later). Scoop out the loose guts (again, strings and seeds) from the pumpkin’s interior. [The seeds can be cleaned, salted, and roasted later, should you desire, or you can toss them.] Season the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper, and place it on the baking sheet.

Chorizo and onions and plantains, oh my!

Chorizo and onions and plantains, oh my!

Heat a frying pan and cook the bacon until crispy, then let it drain on a paper towel. Peel the plantain and dice it into quarter-inch cubes. Remove the chorizo from its casing and put it, the chopped plantain, and the chopped onion into the still-warm frying pan (which should still have bacon grease in it, so no need for oil), being careful not to splatter hot grease. Cook for about 8-10 minutes, breaking up the lumps of chorizo, and stirring occasionally. Remove plantain, onion, and chorizo from pan with a slotted spoon (or drain in colander over a ceramic or Pyrex bowl, as you don’t want that grease going down your sink) and place in a large bowl. Add the bacon, bread, peppers, cheeses, scallions, garlic, cilantro, and oregano, then toss. Season with a bit of freshly-ground black pepper, and pack the pumpkin with the mix, leaving enough room for the cap to fit back on. [We’ll come back to what to do with any extra filling a little later.] Pour the cream into the pumpkin, and use your judgement to decide whether you need to use all of it; it’s for moistening the ingredients, not immersing them.

All stuffed up...

All stuffed up…

...and capped for cooking.

…and capped for cooking.

Replace the cap and bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours — check it after 90 minutes — or until the pumpkin filling is bubbling and its flesh is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. You may want to remove the cap for the last 20-30 minutes of cooking to brown the top and evaporate some of the liquid.

Note the colour change on the pumpkin. Gorgeous.

Note the colour change on the pumpkin. Gorgeous.

IF YOU HAVE LEFTOVER PUMPKIN STUFFING…
You can moisten it with a little cream (not too much!) and wrap it in a banana leaf, seal it in tin foil, or even put it in a small covered casserole dish, and roast it alongside the pumpkin on the baking sheet. It can come out after 60-75 minutes (after all, it wasn’t insulated by all that pumpkin flesh), but even if you forget, it should still be plenty moist. Alternatively (as this recipe yielded just about enough for TWO small pumpkins), you can freeze the remainder, making the next pumpkin-stuffing party all that much quicker.

Serving:

When the pumpkin is ready, allow it to rest on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes or so before trying to move it. Then, carefully transfer it to a platter and bring it to table. Remember, it’s hot, and the cooking will have reduced the pumpkin’s structural integrity, so take your time. It can either be cut into wedges with the filling spooned over, or you can scoop out pumpkin flesh and filling together. Garnish with the chopped cilantro leaves and/or Cotija cheese. Depending on the size of the pumpkin, the size of your guest list, and the size of your appetite, it can serve as either a main course, or the perfect accompaniment to a turkey or some other fowl.

A little Cotija, and now the stuffed pumpkin is ready to return the favour and stuff you.

A little Cotija, and now the stuffed pumpkin is ready to return the favour and stuff you.

*A NOTE ABOUT CHORIZO: Depending on where you live, the sausage known as chorizo may come in one of two forms. Typically, in Southern California (where I live), it comes in a loose, uncooked state, sometimes packed in a typical intestinal sausage casing (or a plastic one), but it is also sometimes sold without a casing, much like any spiced ground meat. In many other places, including my homeland of Canada, chorizo is generally sold fully cured and has a texture not unlike a dry salame. Either one of these will work, but it’s entirely unnecessary to fry the dried version of chorizo; it can merely be diced (about 1/4 inch is good), and added to the pumpkin stuffing mix just like any of the other ingredients. [You should, however, peel off the casing before dicing it.]