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A clear sign

I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I think fall may be coming soon. Also, and I know I’m really not supposed to say this, but I baked banana bread again. I’m so sorry, on both counts.

Clearly, I have a problem. If my count is correct, this is the sixth, SIXTH, banana bread and/or cake recipe that I have written about here. Is there some sort of treatment facility for this? A Betty Ford Center for Banana Bread Dependency? I try to stop myself, but I am weak. So weak. Especially when there is honey involved, and when there are crumbly bits of cinnamon sugar on top, and when some of those crumbly bits fall onto the plate and you can press them with the tip of your index finger so that they collect in a sweet, sticky clump, which you can then lift to your mouth and gently, nibblingly, consume. I am so weak about things like that.

It doesn’t help that, as of sometime last week, the rain has arrived in Seattle. I’m sure that we have a few more sunny days in store before it hunkers down for good, but as I type this, I am wearing two layers and contemplating a pair of socks. I am told that I should complain about this - I do have a couple more picnics to squeeze in - but instead, I feel oddly content. I am almost afraid to say it aloud, but I think this might mean that I’m a Real Seattleite. I am heading into my seventh year here, so I guess it’s about time? That, or I have finally started to forget what it was like to live in places that aren’t overcast for eight months of the year? Either way, on Sunday afternoon, after lunch, when the clouds started to hover and a cold wind galloped in and rain pelted the kitchen windows, I lay down on the couch with Jack and took the best, most peaceful nap ever. I didn’t even mind when I woke up a little chilled, with the pattern of the upholstery embossed onto my cheek. I think this is a clear sign of fall, don’t you? Not to mention a big green light for banana bread, which, as everybody knows, is what people, and especially people named Molly, are supposed to eat when they wake up from a nap.

This particular recipe comes, with just a couple of adjustments, from a bakery in Oakland called Bakesale Betty, via the September issue of Bon Appétit. I stumbled upon it last Friday night, while I was trying to organize a teetering stack of magazines on the floor next to my desk before some friends arrived for dinner. Organizing magazines, I find, generally requires thumbing through them at least a little, no matter how rushed I am, and so it was that, on page 135, my eyes fell on the words BANANA BREAD WITH CINNAMON CRUMBLE TOPPING. You can well imagine the noisy chorus of bells this set ringing in my head. It was deafening, like finding yourself in a large, echoing cathedral while the organist is rehearsing. I could hardly keep up a conversation, what with that kind of din. Before the evening was through, I had retrieved three frozen bananas from the freezer - I always keep a stash around - and put them in the refrigerator to thaw. And on Saturday afternoon, I made banana bread.

The recipe isn’t that different, really, from a classic banana bread, the kind that your mother or aunt or best friend’s mother or whoever used to make. But it’s an exceptionally delicate, tender take on the theme, with honey and cinnamon stirred into the batter to make it more interesting and - for the clincher - a generous layer of cinnamon sugar on top, which forms a craggly sort of crust as it bakes. I think it’s my new favorite. In concept, it’s not entirely unlike this recipe, only where that one is chewy and bread-like and bordering on hearty, this one is daintier and more balanced, closer to cake. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t eat it for breakfast, because you can. (Brandon can vouch for that.) It does mean, however, that it’s especially well-suited to the afternoon - to after-nap time, for example, on a weekend in late August. Of course, there’s only one of those left, so if I were you, I might go ahead and preheat the oven now.

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping
Adapted from Bakesale Betty and Bon Appétit, September 2008

For bread:
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (about 3 medium bananas)
2 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup honey
¼ cup water

For topping:
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 ½ Tbsp. packed dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Butter and flour a 9- x 5-inch metal loaf pan. (Alternatively, you can spray the pan lightly with cooking spray and then line it with parchment paper, letting the excess hang over the sides. That’s what I did, and it made it very easy to remove the finished bread from the pan; I just grabbed the parchment and lifted. Also, because I don’t have a 9- x 5-inch pan - and because an 8 ½- x 4 ½-inch is a little too small - I used a 10- x 3-inch pan that I found once at a flea market.)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. In a large bowl, whisk together the banana, eggs, oil, honey, and water. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir well. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle them evenly over the batter.

Bake the bread until a tester inserted into its center comes out clean, about 1 hour, give or take a little. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Then carefully remove the bread from the pan, taking care not to dislodge the topping. Cool completely before slicing.

Yield: 1 loaf


Good neighbors

The summer before last, I had a run-in with one of our neighbors over a blackberry bush. I am not usually the type of person who has run-ins, much less run-ins over fruit-bearing vegetation, but she started it. Have I told you about our mean, nasty, blackberry-hoarding neighbor? No? Well, pull up a chair. And bring a spoon, because I have some blackberry frozen yogurt in the freezer, and unlike some people, I don’t mind sharing.

We had moved into our apartment only a couple of months before, and with summer heading into its fullest flush, we noticed a thicket of blackberry bushes in one corner of the backyard. Needless to say, this was very exciting. The best part was, they were huge. Our yard is fenced on only two sides, and the bushes were sufficiently large that, on one of the unenclosed sides, they formed a partial wall along the property line. As walls go, it was somewhat ugly and unkempt, but it was covered in blackberries. Covered.

So we started picking, and then we picked some more. We made blackberry sorbet and a batch of jam. One afternoon, I decided to make some scones, so I went out with an empty Tupperware to harvest a little more. I was hunched over, picking intently on our side of the bush-wall, daydreaming about baked goods and probably humming something innocent and uplifting, when I heard footsteps. I looked up to see our next-door neighbor, the one whose yard adjoins the bushes, marching across the lawn. She came to a stop a few feet away, looked me up and down, and then spat, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Stunned, I giggled nervously and explained that we had just moved in, and that I had this great scone recipe that my sister had given me, and that I wanted to make a batch with fresh blackberries, and giggle giggle giggle.

“Well, this is my bush,” she snapped. “I planted it. And I use it every summah to make blackberry cooorrdial.” [In my mind, when I replay our conversation, I give her an upper-class British accent, even though she doesn’t have one. I think it makes her seem especially stern, don’t you? Like a strict governess, or maybe Queen Elizabeth.]

I wish I could tell you that I had a smart retort at the ready, or that I shot her down by pointing out that this particular side of the bush fell on my property or that blackberries are, in this part of the country, a non-native invasive weed, not something that one generally plants. In fact, they are considered a Weed of Concern by King County - I love that term, “Weed of Concern” - and if she did indeed plant these bushes, my (tall, imposing) landlord would probably like to have a word with her and, possibly, request that she pay a gardener to remove the bushes from my side of the property line.

Unfortunately, I only thought of these things after I had skulked away and gone inside to lie down and contemplate the general cruelty of the universe. I also contemplated the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall” and its wise line, “Good fences make good neighbors.” I love our delicate bush-wall, but for a minute there, I wished for something a little more substantial, like wood or brick or stone. Preferably with barbed wire on top.

Of course, I am able to tell you this now because our neighbor is no longer our neighbor. She still owns the property next door, but she moved out about a year ago and rented it to a couple of girls who are not only nice, but whose wardrobes and hair I covet. And last Friday afternoon, when it was scorchingly hot and all the blackberries were fat and warm, I took my Tupperware and went picking. I came back inside a half hour later with one pound of berries - having also, in that time, had a very nice conversation, pet a cute pug, been invited to a party, and received a glass of lemonade. I feel much better about everything.

And while I can’t exactly spread the good will by inviting you to the party, which already happened, or by sharing the lemonade, which I already drank, I am happy to pass along the recipe for the frozen yogurt that I made from the blackberries. I based it on David’s recipe for strawberry frozen yogurt, which I made twice last month and highly, highly recommend. It’s not frozen yogurt in the Pinkberry sense, so don’t start expecting a mound of rippling soft-serve, but it is utterly delicious - and, in my book, so much better. Also, it’s dead-easy. You macerate the berries in sugar and a small splash of vodka, puree them with plain yogurt and lemon juice, and freeze. That’s all. Think sorbet, essentially, but with a gentle roundness and soft tang from the addition of yogurt. Our friend Ben declared it “terrif,” for which we teased him mercilessly. He was right, though, and assuming that our good neighbors agree, I think I will make another batch this week.

Blackberry Frozen Yogurt
Inspired by The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz

1 pound fresh blackberries, rinsed
¾ cup sugar
2 tsp. vodka
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 ½ tsp. fresh lemon juice

In a medium bowl, toss the blackberries with the sugar and vodka, stirring until the sugar begins to dissolve. Cover, and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

In a blender, process the blackberries and their liquid with the yogurt and lemon juice until smooth. (I generally do this in two batches; it seems to work better that way.) Place a mesh sieve over a medium bowl, and pour the mixture through the sieve to remove the seeds. Taste. It should be a little too sweet at this point, but that’s good; it will taste less sweet when frozen.

Refrigerate the mixture for one hour. Then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Yield: 1 scant quart


Also, picnics

I have a little theory about summer. It’s called the Picnic Quota, and basically, the idea is this: that a person requires a certain number of picnics per summer (PPS) in order to maintain a reasonable level of happiness through the impending winter. The baseline PPS may vary slightly from person to person, as does the definition of “reasonable,” but you get the idea. As a general theory, I think it is pretty airtight. I also, incidentally, think I need more picnics.

The thought hit me this weekend, when I got caught in the rain while walking the dog - did I mention that we got a dog? We got a dog! - and realized with a start that I am not at all ready for summer to end. The calendar has somehow rolled around to August, which means that we have approximately one month, maybe six weeks, before the real Seattle rains arrive, and I haven’t yet had a swimsuit on. I haven’t even rolled up my jeans and waded. I don’t know what is wrong with me. Also, picnics. I have a quota to fill.

So, in an effort to promote a picnic or two, I planned to tell you today about something called Deep Dish Fruit Pie. It’s a recipe that I found in my grandmother’s recipe box while I was in Oklahoma, written on an index card in her loopy handwriting. I’m not sure why she called it a pie, because it’s more of a cobbler, or what some might refer to as a “dump cake.” (I love that name.) Either way, I made it yesterday, and it was terrible. It was too sweet, for one, but even worse, it was oddly jiggly, almost puddingesque, and the batter separated so that the fruit was bobbing in melted butter, lethargic and forlorn, like tiny buoys in an oil spill. I wasted four cups of blueberries on that sorry mess. FOUR. It was so sad.

However, as I scooped said mess into the compost, I remembered something else, another something I had meant to tell you about. And glory be, as my grandmother would say, this something was even better for a picnic.

Under ordinary circumstances, I am not much of a potato person. I like them as much as anybody, but to tell you the truth, when it comes to thinking about what to make for dinner, I tend to forget that they exist. But earlier this summer, I fell hard for the Hasselback potato, as you might remember, and it left me feeling sort of soft and susceptible. So when I saw a recipe in Gourmet for fingerling potatoes braised in a skillet and tossed with fresh herbs, I couldn’t help but start to daydream a little, and then clip it posthaste.

The principle is simple. You simmer the potatoes, peeled and halved, in a skillet with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and water to cover, and when they feel tender to the prick of a knife, you reduce the liquid to a loose glaze, bang in a generous palmful of herbs, and eat. Thanks to their gentle bath in the salted water and oil, the potatoes get silky and rich and full of flavor - not unlike a regular boiled potato, but better. I ate them warm that first night, with scrambled eggs and blanched green beans tossed in olive oil, and the next day, I ate them cold, right out of the fridge. The third day, on a whim, we threw them in a tote bag and took them to the lawn at Seattle Center, and they were unspeakably good that way, outdoors, on a blanket, eaten at room temperature with a little extra salt. We also had some cheese, crusty bread, yellow wax beans, and spiked lemonade in a water bottle, but I don’t think any of those swayed my opinion in the slightest. Not even the lemonade. Scout’s honor.

The original recipe calls for finishing them with chives and tarragon, but I opted for chives and parsley instead. Parsley is always classic, right? It’s like red lipstick. Anyway, tarragon, I find, has a sneaky way of making things taste absolutely awful. And while we’re being honest here, I guess I should also tell you that peeling fingerling potatoes is a royal pain. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make these, of course, because you should. I’m just saying. Go slow and make a meditation of it, and it can be quite pleasant. Whatever you do, don’t try to do it in a hurry. Take it from me: I got a nick in my thumbnail today because of these. But I also got a good excuse for a picnic, so I don’t really mind.

Fingerling Potatoes with Chives and Parsley
Adapted from Gourmet, July 2008

These would be delicious with almost anything: roasted chicken (served hot or cold), eggs any style, salmon (served hot or cold), you name it.

1 ½ lb. fingerling potatoes, such as Russian Banana
1 ½ cups water
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large garlic clove, pressed
½ tsp. salt
A few grinds of black pepper
3 Tbsp. chopped chives
1 Tbsp. chopped Italian parsley

Peel the potatoes, and halve them lengthwise.

Combine the potatoes, water, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper in a nonstick 10-inch skillet.

Place the skillet over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat slightly, and continue to simmer briskly, shaking the skillet occasionally, until the potatoes are just tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid, and continue to cook until most of the water has evaporated and the potatoes are glazed, about 5 minutes. Stir in the herbs.

Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, with extra salt for sprinkling.

Yield: about 4 servings