Brown Sugar Blueberry Banana Bread and a Sweet Little Finch

IMG_2098I had blueberries–I had bananas–I was in the kitchen near a stove–I was dangerous. Soon I found myself baking up a recipe for Brown Sugar Blueberry Banana Bread. As it turns out, it’s a wonderful combination, and I don’t think I’ll make plain banana bread again. The tart blueberry flavor plays off the bland banana sweetness in such a nice way, and I subbed brown sugar for plain white for more flavor. The crumb is moist and velvety. Here’s the recipe . . .

Brown Sugar Blueberry Banana Bread

IMG_21002 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup softened butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup mashed banana (about 3 smallish bananas)
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen

Grease a 9 x 5″ loaf pan. (You can also grease and line it with parchment paper.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. (325 if you are using a Pyrex pan.)

Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.

Cream the softened butter with the brown sugar and add the eggs, one at a time. beating well. Add the flour mixture and stir until nearly completely incorporated–it will seem a bit floury. Then add the banana and blueberries; stir just until combined. Scrape into the prepared pan, and bake for 60 to 70 minutes.

Baking notes: I made this using a big spoon, not a mixer, and it turned out fine. Just be sure to really vigorously stir the batter after the eggs have been added–aim for about 100 stirs. This recipe came from a community cookbook, and I always like to check baking times and temperatures with a standard cookbook like Betty Crocker’s. Turns out, this recipe is the Betty Crocker banana bread recipe, just with blueberries added! With the brown sugar, the blueberries, and the added vanilla, though, this has morphed into something else altogether.

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Finches, both gold and house, have been spending long sessions at the feeder. The goldfinches especially, sit quietly nibbling for long stretches of time. This little finch perched on the suet cage long enough that I could take her picture. I love her little claws!

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Lastly, I haven’t been seeing many robins lately, until today–they were on the roof and the birdbath, perhaps getting ready for the trip south. Peace to you. Fran

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Baking and Birdwatching

IMG_2010Hi–I’ve been baking and birdwatching–in other words, the usual! I’ve found a great recipe for a Chocolate-Hazelnut Swirl Bread that I’d like to share. It’s a variation on a common sour cream coffee cake recipe, but adding the hazelnuts and milk chocolate  chips makes it especially delish. It’s moist and buttery and easy to make, but it looks like you found it at a fancy bakeshop. This is another recipe to bookmark for the holidays!

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Chocolate-Hazelnut Swirl Bread

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (8 ounces) sour cream
TOPPING:
1/3 cup finely chopped hazelnuts
1/3 cup milk chocolate chips
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9 x 5″ loaf pan by greasing with shortening, or by using parchment paper (grease pan, cut parchment paper to fit and smooth into pan, grease lightly again). Prepare the TOPPING and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in extracts. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; add to the creamed mixture alternately with the sour cream.

Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with two-thirds of the topping, and top with remaining batter. Sprinkle with remaining topping. Bake for about 60 minutes or until skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool in pan for about 15 minutes before removing and slicing.

Baking notes: I recommend baking this in a light-colored metal loaf pan. There are a lot of pans out there that may be more decorative, including ceramic and stoneware, but they are best for bread recipes. Dark-colored metal pans allow the crust to brown too quickly. The hazelnuts I purchased were in a small bag that contained only 1/4 cup. More hazelnuts, which are delicious, would be nice, but the 1/4 cup amount worked. One trick to having a light coffee cake is to set your eggs, butter and sour cream out an hour before baking. You will have a higher, fluffier loaf.

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In one of the pictures above, a crocheted pot holder peeks out. I had picked up an old potholder at a garage sale and decided to make a few more like it. It’s crocheted with medium-weight crochet cotton using a few simple stitches. It’s the perfect project to work on while watching tv–there’s nothing complicated to distract you!

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Cotton Crocheted Potholders

These directions are for the beige potholder above. Use a medium-weight crochet cotton (size 3) and a Size E crochet hook.

Crochet a chain of 33 loops. Turn, skip a loop, and double crochet across. Continue this until you have a 5″ square. Make one more square, so you have two squares. Hold squares together and crochet them together by doing a single crochet through the edge loops of both squares, crocheting three single crochets in all four corners. Cut off the beige crochet thread, and pick up the cream colored thread in a corner.

To make scalloped edging: Skip one single crochet and make five double crochets in next single crochet stitch, skip one single crochet and slip stitch into next single crochet. Repeat around.

The cream-colored potholder was made in a similar fashion, only I used single crochet, and crocheted in the back loops to create a ridged pattern.

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Original potholder.

Back to birds! I was sitting out in the garden when I saw this sparrow sitting in the sunshine.

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Lastly, a noble cardinal, and some beautiful clouds. Peace to you. Fran

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Seeing Red

IMG_1959It’s a beautiful fall day, and I’m seeing red leaves and red birds, and in this case, the red cranberries in this recipe called “Cranberry Marzipan Bars.” I’d been meaning to try this for quite awhile, and today finally saw fresh cranberries for sale at the local grocery store. Marzipan is made of almonds crushed to a paste and mixed with sugar–it’s a luxury item and quite expensive. So you may be glad to know that there is no actual marzipan in these bars–it only tastes like it! It’s also incredibly easy–you make it in a saucepan–and delicious and buttery. It cuts beautifully and needs no frosting, except for a sprinkle of powdered sugar. I will be mentally bookmarking this recipe for the holidays–it’s a gem. It would be nice served with pistachio ice cream for Christmas.

(Have you ever heard of a recipe that is too good? Well, this is it. I have packed up the bars and sent them off with Jim to the art studio where he is a member. Artists are always hungry, and I  know that I would be in serious danger if left alone with them!)

Cranberry Marzipan Bars

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup chopped fresh cranberries
Confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Then add the sugar, beaten eggs, vanilla extract, almond extract, flour and baking powder.  Stir in the chopped cranberries. Pour into a greased 9 x 13″ pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown on top. Let cool and sift confectioners sugar on top. Cut into squares to serve.

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Golden brown and fresh from the oven.

Baking notes: Preparing the fresh cranberries is the most time-consuming part of this recipe. I washed about a cup of whole cranberries in a colander and shook the colander well to shake off excess water. Then I took a fresh kitchen towel and used it to scoop up the cranberries to dry them. Then chop coarsely. The result will be about a cup of chopped cranberries.

I lined the pan with parchment paper. When you do this, first lightly grease the pan. Then line with the paper, smoothing it down. Then lightly grease the paper. This sounds involved, but it only takes a few moments, and it guarantees that the bars will cut beautifully, and not stick to the pan.

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A vivid red cardinal visited the feeder this morning.IMG_1949 IMG_1952 IMG_1953 IMG_1954 IMG_1955

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The lovely female cardinal.

On the way home from the grocery store this morning I picked up some leaves to press. When they are dry, in about two weeks, I can frame them.

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Continuing in the red vein . .

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Peace to you. Fran

Fall Day

Photographing a bird brings me into the bird’s world–I find myself wondering what they are experiencing or thinking. I don’t know what this little house finch is thinking, but I do see the spirit of life in her eyes.

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Seeing the smallness and fragility of birds has done more to make me care about our environment than any statistic. We are all in this beautiful world together.

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Two friends. Well, maybe not friends, exactly, but they are coexisting peacefully!

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Not sure how to segue from birds to chocolate cake, but here goes . . .

Fall means apples to me, and I guess it means chocolate, as well, because yesterday I found myself baking a Chocolate Applesauce Cake, from an Italian cookbook called The Golden Book of Chocolate, first published in Florence, Italy. Books like this can be treacherous, because stuff can get lost in translation. But in this case, the cake was molto delizioso! It’s moist and fine textured with a mild chocolate flavor. And, it’s easy to make with just a spoon and a bowl, and calls for ingredients you may already have on hand. And, sprinkling it with almonds and chocolate chips finishes it off nicely, with no need for frosting.

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Chocolate Applesauce Cake

IMG_18891 cup flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup semisweet pieces
1/2 cup sliced almonds, walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8″ square pan, and then line with parchment paper. Mix the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Beat the softened butter, sugar and vanilla in another bowl until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Gradually beat in the dry ingredients, alternating with the applesauce. Soon the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with the chocolate chips and nuts. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake completely in the pan before cutting.

Baking notes: This cake really is easy and good. If I had one quibble, it’s that for a chocolate fiend like myself, the chocolate flavor could use amping up. I will add another tablespoon of cocoa powder the next time. Or, you could keep the cocoa quantity the same, and add a half teaspoon of cinnamon.

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I have been taking photos of fallen leaves . . .  kind of amazed at how profligate nature is. Peace to you. Fran

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Shortbread Fans and a Ball of Fluff

IMG_1858From a January 1969 issue of Gourmet comes this wonderful recipe for Shortbread Fans. They are easy to make, have buttery shortbread flavor, and are a bit of a conversation piece! They would be wonderful for a tea party. Here is the recipe . . .

Shortbread Fans

In a bowl sift together 1 cup flour, 1/3 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt. Add one stick or 1/2 cup of soft butter, broken into pieces, and work the mixture with the fingertips until it is mealy. Continue to work the dough until it forms a ball. Wrap it in waxed paper and chill it for about one hour.

Roll out the dough about 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured board and cut out circles about 3-1/2 inches in diameter. With a sharp knife cut each circle into quarters and score each quarter with the back of a knife in several places to resemble the ribs of a fan. Place the cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. While the cookies are still hot sprinkle them with sugar.

Baking notes: When you are rubbing the butter into the flour/sugar mixture, you may wonder if it will come together, but proceed! Kneading it a bit right at the end will bring it all together. Rolling the dough to 1/4″ will result in a slightly soft cookie; rolling to 1/8″ will yield a crisper cookie.

Make this cookie your own: These are small cookies; use a larger cutter for bigger fans. Using lightly tinted pale rose sugar could be beautiful. Mix one tablespoon of sugar with a tiny bit of red food coloring until the sugar is a pale pink. If you have a rose geranium plant, bury a leaf in a jar of sugar for a week or so, and use the scented sugar for sprinkling. Or you could use edible glitter. Or, you could dip the curved edge of the cookie in melted chocolate. Or, make the cookie bigger, and when its done baking, poke a hole near the handle of the fan. Thread with silk ribbon and hang it on the Christmas tree. Also, a couple of these would be perfect to adorn a scoop of ice-cream for dessert. Or (!), dip the edge of the cookie in melted white chocolate and then into sanding sugar (a coarse, sparkling sugar). Oh, yum! Just thought of something else–sandwich two fans together with lemon curd or melted chocolate.

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Butter cut into chunks before rubbing in.

Below–You really don’t need lots of fancy utensils to bake. I am using a recycled beer bottle here to roll out the dough. This is not such a crazy idea–it works perfectly. (I have left the label on here just to show where it came from–you should remove the label before rolling.) In the old days there were porcelain rolling pins that could be filled with cold water to help keep the dough cool as it was rolled out. You could do the same with this bottle, using a cork as a stopper. If you don’t have a 3-1/2″ round cutter, a tuna fish can works well. This one was 3-1/4″–close enough!
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Use the dull side of a dinner knife blade to score dough. Score as deeply as you can without actually cutting through the cookie.

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This little ball of fluff is a young sparrow. Couldn’t be sweeter!

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IMG_1791IMG_1789 IMG_1790Peace to you! Fran

Pear Custard Bars and Bird Stuff

I usually like to have a bird photo up on my computer monitor at work, and this is the one I’ve been enjoying for the past few days. There’s something about this sparrow’s calm, sweet expression that I really enjoy. Birds can put things back into perspective for you!

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I always try to share recipes worthy of an A+, but the following recipe for Pear Custard Bars merits an A++, and this is from someone who is not all that crazy about either pears or custard. What’s up with it? Well, there is the way the crunchy, nutty, buttery crust plays off of the cool creamy custard, and then there is the light fruity taste of the pears. The “custard” is actually cream cheese, but through some sort of recipe alchemy it tastes like you spent an hour hovering over a saucepan of cream, eggs yolks and sugar, nurturing it into a pale golden custard. The even better thing about this recipe is that I subbed low fat (Neufchatel) cream cheese for the full fat cream cheese called for in the recipe, and it still tastes fabulous. And I used pears packed in juice instead of sugar syrup, and, still, fabulous. This is something a little bit different, and really good!

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Pear Custard Bars

Crust
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup chopped macadamia nuts (see Baking Notes)

Filling/Topping
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 can (15-1/4 oz.) pear halves, drained
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Crust: In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Stir in the flour and vanilla, and then the nuts. Press into a greased 8″ square baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Increase heat to 375 degrees. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar, egg and vanilla; mix until combined. Pour over crust. Cut drained pears into 1/8″ slices; arrange in a single layer over the filling. Combine sugar and vanilla; sprinkle evenly over pears. Bake at 375 degrees for 28-30 minutes (center will be soft set and will become firmer upon cooling). Cool, and than cover and refrigerate for two hours before cutting. Store in the refrigerator.

Baking Notes: As mentioned, I used the low fat cream cheese and pears in juice. You certainly could use full fat cream cheese and pears in syrup for over-the-top richness. In place of the macadamia nuts I used sliced almonds, chopping them up. Macadamia nuts are expensive, and the sliced almonds tasted great. When sprinkling the cinnamon sugar over the cream cheese, try to cover everything–the  plain cream cheese is white even after baking, and looks more appetizing with the sugary coating. This recipe is from a Taste of Home feature on pears.

While I have been having a surprising amount of fun photographing sparrows, this grackle was too much fun to miss!

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Lastly, the fall colors are really spectacular! Peace to you. Fran

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Sparrows and an Oogle Bird

I have spent time recently lurking near some forsythia bushes behind our house, not for any nefarious purpose, but to snap pictures of the sparrows who congregate there. Sparrows have surprised me with their beauty and personalities–hope you enjoy them, too.

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When I first looked through the viewfinder and saw this little creature, I couldn’t imagine what it was. But it reminded me of the oogle birds in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (not everyone will remember these!). Oogle birds were very shy, and had feathery plumes sprouting from the top of their heads. Ok, so maybe this isn’t an oogle bird! I’m pretty sure it’s a young female cardinal with her adult feathers coming in!

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A rabbit’s eye view of life . . .

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Can’t resist posting a few more pictures of our new cat Moose. He is settling in nicely, and enjoys sitting with me while watching Agatha Christie on Masterpiece Theatre.

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Lastly, the leaves are turning . . . the summer has gone by so quickly. Peace to You. Fran

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