Category Archives: Cooking

Ban Anna? No, Just the Wafers

SOMEONE PLEASE ENLIGHTEN ME. Where in the U.S. Constitution does it require that any dessert involving bananas must include vanilla wafers?

Bananas do not usually get too ripe at the RBT house, as we all prefer them before they get brown and spotty. And I eat one for breakfast just about every day, especially before a morning run or race. But things have been a bit nuts around here recently, and so it was that I found five rapidly aging bananas in the kitchen this weekend.

MORE: Read about why bananas are considered by many to be a perfect food for runners

My standard approach is to make banana bread, but I wanted to try something new. Plus I needed a dessert for our D&D session. So I looked around for a banana pudding-style cake recipe in our cookbooks at home and on the Internet. What I found did not impress me.

The mac-and-cheese of mass market cookies.

The mac-and-cheese of mass market cookies. Source: Wikipedia.

The generic recipes (like Kraft Foods) called for instant banana pudding mix, or instant vanilla pudding with sliced bananas. Several promising leads to “Southern Banana Pudding” were nothing more than the instant stuff with a little bourbon added. A couple non-instant recipes were full of sugar and fat, but called for only a single banana – pretty odd for recipes with “banana” in their titles. And every recipe – I mean every recipe – called for a layer, crust, or topping of those d*mn wafers. Mmmm…vanilla-scented sawdust.

I checked supposedly upscale sites like Food Network and Martha Stewart. I consulted The Cake Mix Doctor, with which my wife has produced some real winners like her carrot cake and chocolate chip cake. Wafers, wafers everywhere. In desperation I began checking vegan recipes, which called for – wait for it! – vegan vanilla wafers. Arrgh!!!

How could i serve a Bohemian recipe to such a refined group of jolly fellows?

How could I serve a Bohemian cake to such a refined group of jolly fellows?

Finally I came across a recipe thankfully omitting the wafers. And it called for three ripe bananas. I upped that to four and made a few other tweaks. Here is the result. I used a caramel drizzle in place of the cream cheese frosting, to lower the fat and better taste the bananas. This was a hit.

Wafer-less Banana Cake

RBT’s Un-Wafer Banana Cake

Dry ingredients: 1 cup white whole-wheat flour, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1/4 tsp salt

3/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup lowfat milk
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
4 medium-sized ripe bananas, mashed
1 tsp vanilla extract

Combine the dry ingredients. Beat the egg and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, coconut oil, bananas, and milk. Fold in the dry ingredients until moistened. Pour into a cake pan (I used a Bundt pan for a little more elegance) and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cake is done when cake tester comes out clean. Turn out of pan and cool on rack. The cake should still be very moist inside.

When cool, drizzle with your favorite caramel sauce (here’s the one I made) and top with powdered sugar.

Enjoy with whipped cream, ice cream, whipped coconut cream (or all of them), and fruit.

Yes, it is.

Why yes, it is. 



Coffee Thoughts: Sharing, Preparing, and Size Matters

Coffee-related conversation overheard during the holidays:

“First I lose my sushi – now I have to share my coffee? This is Christmas? What the hell!”

DD #1 loves her coffee.

DD #1 loves her coffee.

DD #1 was lamenting the results of the Christmas Eve gift exchange, where she’d opened a do-it-yourself sushi kit, only to have it “stolen” by her equally sushi-minded cousin in exchange. Then after getting a bag of her favorite coffee on Christmas morning, I had the audacity to suggest we make some of it. (It was good, too.)

“Making coffee should be a gamble. Every time you prepare it should involve risk.”

Resistance is futile.

Resistance is futile.

With three coffee lovers around the house (DD #1, DD #2, and yours truly) for several days, there’s been increased discussion about all things coffee. So the conversation eventually turned to coffee makers, including the uber-sophisticated (and uber-priced) models at Sur La Table, and the Keurig device (yes, that thing) that is now part of the campsite up north we have with some friends. DD #2, a trained barista, shook her head and provided the comment above. Apparently she believes that making a really good cup of coffee should involve a degree of skill. Sounds a bit Luddite to me, but who am I to suggest that hard-working Americans like her be obsoleted?

“I have to use this 2-for-1 coupon. It expires today.”

While I don’t patronize this place anymore, I still own the stock. So stay thirsty, my friends!

Following last Saturday’s group run, a good friend invited me along for coffee, naming a particular Very Famous Chain Coffee Shop. I used to frequent said VFCCS, but am now spoiled by years of much superior coffee. I offered to take him to a different place that uses excellent local roasts, but he wanted to use the coupon, so I acquiesced.

I ordered a peppermint mocha. After all, how can anyone screw up a peppermint mocha? Well, this place succeeded. The coffee was so over-roasted that I found it undrinkable. Now I am not in the least ungrateful – I really appreciated his gesture, and I’m looking forward to treating him to some much better coffee.

And finally, there’s these words of wisdom I found on the Internet recently:

Take the issue of status…what should you do to get more of it? In a study led by David DuBois of HEC Paris, people who were observed choosing large coffees, pizzas, and smoothies were rated by others as having higher status…To take it one step further, surround yourself with the trappings of the salary and lifestyle you want, not the one you have.

This excerpt from the article is about trying to get noticed in the office and improving your “status” with your co-workers. Apparently the tried-and-true approaches, like speaking up, setting goals, and accepting greater responsibility, is second-rate compared to the size of your stuff. So here’s my tip to you all for getting ahead in 2014: Supersize it! 

On his way to the top! (If he doesn't explode first.)

On his way to the top, if he doesn’t explode first. Source: Oddity Mall. (Click to go there.)


QUESTION FOR YOU ALL. How many of you have a food philosophy similar to the following:

I want to eat better. I won’t give up chocolate.

No problem. The two statements aren’t mutually exclusive. Chocolate is one of those rare gifts, like sex and anything by Monty Python, that both bring us pleasure and are good for us. Yet despite its beneficial effects and nutrients, it contains a fair amount of saturated fat and sugar. So it is at least theoretically possible that there is such a thing as ‘too much chocolate’ – at least in any given 24-hour period.

Not sure chocolate and Spam work together. Maybe Spam, Spam, Spam, chocolate and Spam...

Not sure chocolate and Spam work together. Maybe Spam, Spam, Spam, chocolate and Spam…

How do we get past this dilemma? Could one get the goodness of chocolate into something less fattening and even more nutritious? Well-meaning people have been trying to solve this problem for a long time, and yesterday I tried out the latest attempt from champion ultrarunner and vegan Scott Jurek.

In Scott’s book Eat and Run, which I am currently reading, he includes a number of his favorite recipes. I’ve tried two so far. One is his vegan chili, which is a winner and which I will write more about shortly. The second is called “Carob Chia Pudding” although you can substitute cocoa powder and make “Cocoa Chia Pudding.” This is what I did, since I stand firmly behind Al Sicherman’s dictum that, ‘lips that touch carob don’t touch mine.’

There are several keys to this faux-chocolate dessert. The first is to use silken tofu as the base in place of cream, butter, and eggs. Maple syrup serves as the sweetener, and chia seeds provide a nutritional boost and thicken the pudding. Add cocoa powder and a touch of miso, toss it all in the blender, and you’re done.

I can hear you! I agree. Meh.

I can hear you! I agree. Meh.

The good news first. The texture was very similar to pudding – nice and creamy, and the Special Dark cocoa powder gave it a strong, though bitter, chocolate taste foundation. Unfortunately, the rest of the ingredients didn’t contribute much. And the chia seeds didn’t fully gel, so the pudding was slightly crunchy, although pre-soaking should fix that. No style points for color, either.

Okay, so by itself it’s not a keeper. What if we tossed in some fruit? That would add some natural sweetness.

Tofu cocoa pudding 2

Still not right. But after some more thought and experimentation, I believe I found the right combination of additions to make it work:

Got it! Now where did I put the whipped cream...

Got it! Now where did I put the whipped cream?

So there you have it – the way to incorporate tofu and chia seeds into a good-tasting, nutritious dessert. Or you could just make Jell-O brand with skim milk. Or you could do what I did after my Sunday bike ride and visit the Coffee House Creamery for this:

Winner! Espresso shake with Chocolate Moose Tracks ice cream.

Winner! Espresso shake with Chocolate Moose Tracks ice cream.


Note: This was supposed to be a post for my new blog, but I’m still finishing its design and didn’t want to wait. So what the hell.

Black Star Farms, Part 2: Sirius Winemaking

“I believe in a loving God,” Don said, “because he gave us a way to turn unremarkable grape juice into something alcoholic.”

I don’t drink wine – never developed a taste for it – but I enjoy learning about how it’s made. And Black Star Farms takes its winemaking seriously. Or perhaps I should say, “Sirius-ly” because all their beverage lines are named after stars. (To learn who Don is, and why I was here in the first place, see my previous post.)

Black Star Farms - Inside the wine cave

Inside the “wine cave”. Naturally, we could bring our beverages with us.

Here are some fun facts about winemaking that Don shared with us:

There are wineries in all 50 states today. Michigan has over one hundred wineries and is among the top grape-growing states, although most grapes (80%) go into grape juice instead of wine.

Black Star makes standard red and white wines, fortified dessert wines, and even some ice wine. They also make stronger beverages, such as cherry and apple brandy, and hard cider (which I sampled and found remarkably light-tasting and smooth).

Entrance to the wine cave. They took the top off the hill, built the cave, then put the top back on.)

Entrance to the wine cave. (They took the top off the hill, built the cave, then put the top back on.) The cave stays at a constant 55 degrees year-round.

"Exterminate! Exterminate!" (Sorry, I had a Doctor Who moment for some reason.)

“Exterminate! Exterminate!” (Sorry, I had a Doctor Who moment for some reason.)

The large vats you see here are where the wine ferments. The grape skins collect at the top of the vat and are skimmed off for white wine, or forced back down into the fermenting juice to color it for red wine. Don told us that recently a worker fell into one of these vats and drowned. “His end would have been quick,” he said, “but he got out six times to use the bathroom.” (*)

Sparkling wine is made with younger grapes, which have a higher acid content. When sugar and yeast are added to the juice, the fermentation produces natural carbonation. Instead of being aged in casks, it is fermented in the bottles. These bottles are extra thick and strong to handle the pressure of the carbonation. Black Star cannot call its sparkling wine “champagne” because that term is legally reserved for use only by the Champagne region in France.

Sediment inside a still-fermenting bottle of sparkling wine.

Sediment inside a still-fermenting bottle of sparkling wine.

The residue of yeast and grape solids is removed from sparkling wine in a multi-step process that preserves the carbonation. The bottles are set at an angle with the top pointed down, and rotated a quarter turn each day, so the solids settle in the neck of the bottle. Then the necks are cooled to freeze the plugs. The bottle is uncapped and the pressure shoots the plug out of the bottle, which is then quickly corked.

Black Star Farms - Brandy barrels

Dessert wines have fruit spirits added. This also “fortifies” the wine, which means to increase its alcohol content.

Black Star dessert wines have been served at White House dinners, and their Sirius Maple Dessert Wine remains in stock there as an example of a “truly American” wine.

Ice wine requires at least 8 consecutive days of cold temperatures for the grapes to freeze in the proper manner. Every year the farmers have to decide whether to take the chance that there will be enough cold weather to freeze the grapes and therefore to leave some on the vines after the normal harvest. The risk is that without enough cold weather, those grapes will rot and become useless.

If the weather cooperates, the grapes are harvested at the coldest time of the coldest night, picked up one at a time off the snow. Each grape yields about one drop of concentrated juice. And this is why good ice wine can cost over $100.00 per bottle.

So why, I asked innocently, couldn’t you use a freezer to create ice wine? Don said it could be done, but it’s illegal. According to Wikipedia, wineries in northern Michigan follow German ice wine laws, which dictate that “ice wine” can be made only from grapes that are frozen on the vine. So unless you want to sell “freezer wine,” I guess you’re in for some chilly harvesting.

After this marvelous tour, some of the group went off to the tasting room, while the rest of us headed to the cafe for wood-fired pizzas. Not a bad way to cap off a run!


(*) Actually, this is an old brewer’s joke. In another variant, it’s a whiskey vat, and when someone falls in, four co-workers jump in to save him, but he fights them off.