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Cook Happy Project Week Seven


How was your week? What are you doing to cultivate joy, contentment, peace of mind?

I confess that in addition to actual cooking, reading cookbooks feels like an indulgence to me, an activity that reliably brightens and lightens my mood.

Certain cookbooks evoke strong memories for me, as if to mark the passage of time: Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook immediately takes me back to my sunny, sparkly clean Evanston, Ill. studio apartment during my senior year of college, when I tried to bake my way out of completing my honors thesis. Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Breakfast & Brunch stirs bittersweet memories of hosting regular Sunday brunches for family and friends when my ex-husband and I were first married. (Today I am making the tome’s lemon-ricotta pancakes, a recipe I previously posted to this blog. So delicious!)

I could go on … Like photo albums, cookbooks encapsulate so much beyond recipes. They contain reminders, sometimes via physical stains, of people, places, entire phases of life.

What is possibly even more enjoyable and rewarding to read than a cookbook is a cooking-related magazine or catalogue—for half, or even a third of the price, or possibly even for free, you get similar content.

This week I found myself perusing the February 2022 catalogue for the King Arthur Baking Company as I drifted to sleep, setting me up for sweet dreams of sanding sugar and vanilla extract and all manner of extraneous bakeware, like “cookie dough freezer trays” and “Irish lace shortbread pan.”

The recipe that follows is adapted from its pages. (My other culinary projects this week were more of the same … consuming last week’s peanut sauce with week four’s roasted broccoli, and lots of brown rice.) The instructions are quite simple to follow, and the result is rich with caramel flavor, a welcome variation on banana bread.

Here’s to good eating, and good reading, in the coming week.

Caramel Banana Walnut Muffins
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
⅔ cup light brown sugar
1 cup mashed banana, about 2 medium or 1 ½ large bananas 
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ cup milk or half-and-half
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour 
¾ to 1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts


  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. 
  • Whip the butter and brown sugar together until smooth, using an electric mixer. Meanwhile, mash the bananas. Add the mashed banana, mix. Then the egg, mix; vanilla, mix; and milk or half-and-half; mix.
  • Add the dry ingredients: baking powder, baking soda, salt, and flour. Mix until just combined. 
  • Chop the walnuts until you have 1 cup. To toast: Heat a skillet over medium heat and add the chopped walnuts; heat several minutes, until fragrant, giving the skillet a good shake every 30 seconds so they don’t burn. 
  • Fold the walnuts and butterscotch chips into the batter with a large spatula. Scoop the batter into the prepared pan. 
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the middle muffins comes out clean. 
  • Let cool in the pan for a few minutes, then remove from the pan, using a butter knife around the edges if needed. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Cook Happy Project Week Two

In my pursuit of peace and healing this past year, I’ve taken steps toward financial freedom that include using this free budgeting app. Planning and tracking my spending has offered me a greater sense of abundance, actually, reducing my guilt over small indulgences like Starbucks or lunch delivery, as long as I stay within the limits of my financial plan.

All this to say, I found myself scrounging to meet my grocery budget during the last week of December. The recipes that follow represent my attempt to enjoy good home cooking without draining my wallet. 

First, I made a big pot of lentils pulling from the recipe for “Roast Salmon with Warm Lentils” in the cookbook, Williams-Sonoma French. I had recently made them with baked salmon and decided the lentils were good enough to stand on their own. The process is simple enough—some cathartic vegetable chopping, a douse of olive oil, a few squeezes of lemon, several teaspoons of Better Than Bouillon … And voilà. You’re good to go.

The second recipe I’d like to share is another from The Joys of Baking. I prefer to eat bananas when they’re underripe and I can never eat my way through the bunch before they turn brown, so I’m always on the lookout for banana-filled baked goods. I’m a bit burned out on my go-to banana bread recipe, so I was pleased to discover “Banana Date Bread with Lime.” (Geez. How many times can I say banana?) This quick bread has a gentle and mild sweetness to it that I find quite refreshing. The dates are delicious, but in the spirit of frugality, I chose to replace them with dried cranberries I already had on hand. I suppose any dried fruit would do the trick.

Here’s to simple, satisfying, no-fuss cooking in the new year. See you next week.


French Lentils 
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma French

3/4 cup French green lentils, rinsed and drained 
4 cups water + 4 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon
4 tablespoons olive oil 
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely diced
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley 
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil 

Whisk together the water and Better Than Bouillon in a large liquid measuring cup (or mixing bowl). Chop all your veggies and herbs and juice your lemons (microwaving them for 10 seconds beforehand to get the most bang for your buck). 

Combine 3 1/4 cups of broth and lentils in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cover, simmering until lentils are tender but not mushy, about 30 minutes.

Heat a large skillet over a medium flame, adding 3 tablespoons of olive oil and then diced red onion. Sauté until softened, a good 7 minutes or so. Add the celery and carrot and cook until slightly softened, approximately 2 minutes. Add bell pepper and sauté for another 2-3 minutes.

Add the cooked lentils to the skillet and sauté over medium heat, stirring often to combine the flavors, about 2 minutes. Pour in the lemon juice, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, chopped herbs, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

It’s that simple. Enjoy! Or serve with the baked salmon if you’re looking to prepare something a little more dressed up.

Tangy Banana Bread 
Adapted from The Joys of Baking 

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the pan, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1 teaspoon kosher salt 
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
2/3 cup granulated sugar 
4 teaspoons finely grated lime zest (approximately 4 small limes)
2 large eggs, room temperature 
11/4 cup mashed bananas (2-3 large bananas)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
6 oz dried fruit, such as chopped dates, cranberries, or raisins

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Generously butter a standard loaf pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a medium to large mixing bowl.

Beat butter, sugar, and lime zest with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, 3 to 5 minutes.

Best in the eggs one at a time, then banana, then vanilla. (I recommend measuring the mashed banana to ensure proper proportions of the main ingredient.) 

Fold in the dried fruit, then manually fold in dry ingredients with a large spatula. 

Transfer batter to a loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes (I believe mine was good to go at the 55-minute mark).

Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, then flip out and cool completely. Or follow my lead, and eat directly out of the pan for the next week 🙂

Going Bananas in Chiberia

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.27.46 PMIn case you have a touch and go relationship with the national news (or perhaps you are lucky enough to live in southern France) allow me to state the obvious: January in Chicago, or “Chiberia,” as Twitter calls it, has been frigid! CPS snow days, I have found, are a prime opportunity for taking stock — as in, looking back and reflecting — although making stock works too. If I remember correctly, I spent “Snowmaggedon” (the 2011 storm that amassed 20+ feet of snow in Chicago) standing over a pot of onions for an onion tart, stinking up my studio apartment with layers of pastry, mustard, onions, and baked eggs. Flash forward two years, minus about a month: early Jan 2013 involved its own version of hibernation — the kind that follows oral surgery — and many painstaking, unsightly bites of homemade bread pudding. (Not sure if the Vicodin played into this, but  sadly, I have had no desire for bread pudding since. In downtown San Francisco, P and I discovered a trendy bread pudding shop where they scoop the pudding into paper cups like ice cream. A cute idea, a creamy confection, somehow it reminded me of the dentist. Oh well.) This year, after 24 hours of intermittent weather related e-mails and duplicate forwards — “Clarification,” “CPS Announces,” “Update,” “Urgent,” “FWD: Urgent” — I found myself hunkered down again, unequivocally off-duty, and after a day’s worth of querying and following up and related freelance rigamarole, turning on the stove.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.34.00 PMPerhaps it was the cold, more likely it was the pile of increasingly brown bananas in my fruit bowl, but I decided that we needed a little tropical flavor in the house. So I decided to go a little bananas. I was trying to keep banana bread at bay, in favor of something more spontaneous, a little looser and less predictable, something that will inspire me next week when I’m having the same issue with these doggone, overripe bananas. Here are the results:

Vanilla Ice Cream with Caramelized Bananas and Almond Crumble

Adapted from Bon Appetit Desserts

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.40.57 PMThe Bon Appetit version is a baked phyllo dough package (excuse me, the recipe reads “purses”) filled with caramelized bananas and hazelnut crumble and served with a white chocolate sauce. As much as I love the many layers of that idea, a deconstructed version sounded better, and slightly less crazy, on a random snow day. The caramelization action over high heat made me wistful for Bananas Foster, brunch and dinner joint that used to sit the corner of Granville and Broadway, with a friendly, lively, Southern vibe and an excellent rendition of its namesake.


  • Brown sugar
  • Unsalted butter
  • Flour
  • Nuts (your choice)
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Fresh lime juice
  • Bananas
  • Optional: hazelnut liqueur or amaretto

Crumble it Up

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.48.41 PMPreheat an oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone mat and spray it with baking spray. In a saucepan, melt 1 cup of brown sugar with 1 stick of butter (1/2 cup) until the butter has melted. Take the saucepan off the heat and mix in 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, 1 cup of almonds or whatever nuts you have on hand, and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture on the greased baking sheet and bake until dry and golden, 20-30 minutes. Set the timer for 15 minutes and give it a little toss to make sure everything is browning evenly.

And Caramelize

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.53.36 PMSlice 6 bananas and juice several limes until you have 1/4 cup lime juice — most likely, 2 large limes or 4 small limes. Microwave the limes for 10 seconds to get as much as juice as possible. Place 6 tablespoons of butter (3/4 stick) in a sauté pan, along with 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup lime juice. Keep the heat on low until the butter melts. At this point, increase the heat to high and stir the mixture until it browns around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the bananas (and if using, 2 tablespoons of the liqueur, I did not) and stir until the sauce thickly coats them. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add Some Dairy

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.05.53 PMSpoon the caramelized bananas and nut crumble over vanilla ice cream or Greek yogurt. Almost looks like Chiberia.

As I write this, it’s Thursday — school is back in session, it’s warming up, and since we happen to be reading the scene in Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson whisks Sarah Brown to Havana, Cuba, we’re doing our best to keep the tropics vibe alive, hey mambo… So how about an even lazier approach:

Banana & Chocolate Chip Panini

Adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites


  • Banana
  • Chocolate chips or nutella
  • Spreadable butter
  • Bread

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 2.09.39 PMThinly slice a banana. Microwave 1/4 to 1/2 cup chocolate chips until they are partly melted (even easier, spread on the nutella.) Butter one side of four slices of bread. Flip the bread to the unbuttered side. Place the banana slices on two slices of bread and spoon the semi-melted chocolate chips over the top. Top with the other two slices of bread, butter side up. Grill on a panini press or sauté pan until gooey.

[Photos: “Josephine Baker,” megpi’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Chiberia 5,” Kathleen Virginia’s photostream, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Bananas Wrapped in Phyllo with Chocolate Sauce,” Food Thinkers’ photostream, under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Crumble Closeup,” ☃’s photostream, CC BY-NC 2.0, “Bananas Foster,” ginnerobot’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0, “Vanilla ice cream,” Sofie Dittmann’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “Nutella & Banana Panini,” Andurinha’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Potato/Pot-AH-to, Bread/Brioche

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 9.35.27 AM

At what point does the humble, wholesome, pleasant-tasting sweet potato reveal its inner potahto, from root vegetable to guilty pleasure?

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 9.37.18 AM

The obvious and correct answer is: when fried into chips. The word “fry” or “chips” may sound unhealthy, but so are desk jobs, cell phones, and breathing in certain cities, so I think we can fry up some sweet potatoes in vegetable oil, lightly salt them, and look the other way. As I enjoy the veggies of my labor, I’ll bask in food writer Michael Pollan’s assertion that  homemade chips are inevitably better for you than the store bought variety.

Sweet Potato Chips

Adapted from the potato chips recipe, Barefoot in Paris

You need a heavy bottomed pot, paper towels, a big plate, a slotted spoon (or better yet, one of those wire “spiders”), either a mandolin or sharp chef’s knife + excellent knife skills, a vegetable peeler, about 3 medium sweet potatoes, your choice of oil, sea salt or kosher salt, & any herbs you want to add.

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 6.51.39 PM

Prep the potatoes. Set the mandolin on the thinnest blade (1/16”) and slice. Soak the slices in ice water for a few minutes. Drain the water, refill with new ice water, pat the slices dry, and soak the slices in ice water a second time. (This removes the starch, getting them nice and crispy.)

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 6.54.03 PM

Fill the pot with 2-3 inches of oil. Heat on medium high heat. I used vegetable oil as opposed to peanut or canola oil and it worked fine. You can tell when the oil is hot enough if the oil sizzles when you drop a potato slice in. Reduce the heat to medium, drop a batch of slices in, and then bring the heat back up to medium high. I set the timer for 3 minute increments but it took over 5 minutes per batch. Just keep your eye on it and don’t drift too far from the stove. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with sea salt and any desired herbs. (Would be great dipped in guacamole or tsaziki.)

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 6.55.41 PM

Bread vs Brioche?

‘Tis a slippery slope, an existential dilemma, one that Marie Antoinette reportedly provoked when she said “qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which actually means, “let them eat bread that is characterized by inordinate quantities of butter, honey, and eggs.” Bread? Cake? Eh. You say potato, I say potAHto.

Isn’t “quick bread”  a coy term for cake, just as brioche is dessert in a loaf pan? I recently had a craving for banana bread, only to stumble across a doppelganger recipe in the form of “Banana Caramel Cake” from The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook. Ah, hah! I am onto these silly semantics — bread, cake, same dif.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 9.51.26 AM

Semantics aside, I savor the idea that turning  bread into cake is the difference between a few more eggs and some extra butter + sugar. There’s a reason to celebrate.

Banana Bread? Cake?

Adapted from Banana Caramel Cake, The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook

12 T. unsalted butter, room temp, plus more for pan
1 2/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 very ripe bananas, mashed
3 T. sour cream or creme fraiche
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. + 1/3 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temp
1 c. chocolate chips (optional)

Set Up: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a round cake pan and line bottom with parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper. Alternatively, divide batter into loaf pans.

Dry Ingredients + Bananas: Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, mash the bananas and stir in sour cream + vanilla.

Mix Together: Beat butter and sugar in an electric mixer, several minutes, until light and fluffy. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add 2 eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add flour mixture in parts, with mixer on low speed, beating until just combined after each addition. Fold in the banana mixture using a spatula. Fold in chocolate chips, if using.

Pour the batter evenly into the pan, bake about 30-35 minutes until golden brown and cake tester/toothpick/fork comes out clean. Cool the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Flip over on wire rack and peel off parchment paper. Re-invert and let cool completely.

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[Photos: IITA’s Image Library Phostream, prep photo from Marie the Bee’s photostream, Katy Stoddard’s photostream, Steven Depolo’s photostream]

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