Monday, July 21, 2008

oh, the woes of baking in the UP...

Welcome to Nahma, MI. Home of 404 households and a population of 909. It's the middle-of-nowhere, or God's Country, if you're Roman Craig from "The Great Outdoors". Whatever you call it, it's the perfect place to get away from the internet, lay out in a ridiculously comfy hammock, and devour a good Robin Cook book. And it is the explanation for my long hiatus from blogging. :)

By now, my family is well aware of my baking obsession. So naturally, they expect me to whip up a delicious dessert to top off each of our dinners. 10 desserts for 10 days? No problem. :)

The only problem is the unpredictable baking conditions of our humble log cabin. For one, there is a limited variety of bake ware. Sure, there are a few cookie sheets. And yes, the cabin does come with both 8x8-inch and 13x9-inch baking pans. Three 13x9's, in fact. But let's just say that quantity doesn't necessarily dictate quality. Also, there's always an issue with ingredients. This year, I found myself without a single sprinkle of baking soda, nor a splash of vanilla extract, nor a lone drop of vegetable oil. So what's a baker to do? Use substitutions, of course! Very very creative substitutions. And lastly, the stove. Getting to know a stove is like fostering a new friendship: I get to know you, you get to know me. We share some stories and go on outings together. We have some mishaps, and then we learn how to steer clear of these mishaps for the future. Well, I feel that 10 days is not long enough for real friendship to grow, so basically, the oven and I are simply acquaintances; we know each other, but not really. Which means that circle cookies tend to come out flat and cakes take longer to bake than usual. ::sigh:: If only our friendship could grow... :)

To steer clear of any potential baking problems, I conveniently baked two cakes (from boxes...eeep :X) the night before our trip. BEHOLD: cake number one! Inside was chocolate cake with strawberry preserves sandwiched between the two layers. Smothered on top was, yes, I am ashamed to admit, canned chocolate frosting. Now let's set something straight. In no way am I against baked goods that come from boxes and cans. But believe me, once you've tasted a dessert from scratch, you will realize that you've wasted years of your life eating those chemicals. Remember that.

Day three of our vaca, I developed a wicked craving for chocolate chip cookies, in bar-form, of course. :) Thankfully, I've made the Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe an embarrassing number of times and could recall it by heart: 2 1/4 cups flour, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. salt, 2 sticks of butter (1 stick if you want cake-like cookies), 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 eggs, 1 tsp. vanilla, and 2 generous cups chocolate chips. Whew. :)

Like I often do, I set off to make these cookies without making sure I had all the ingredients. Whoops...no baking soda or vanilla in this casa! I decided to leave them out, hoped they would rise, and planned to not tell my fam that two crucial ingredients were missing. And lo and behold, they were AMAZING! Yes, they were paler than usual, but my cousin, Frank, personally told me that these were the best chocolate chip cookies ever...and he is a tough critic. There was something about these cookies...I think the butter flavor stood out so much more without the vanilla there, so they were richer than your average cookie. And who needs baking soda?! These puppies rose all on their own.

Boxed cake number two! This time, a four-layer white cake with strawberry preserves. But then I was in a jam. There was not a can of frosting to be found, and no powdered sugar to make my own frosting. Suddenly remembering that my aunt had mentioned whipped cream the other day, I ran over to her cabin to retrieve some. It ended up being Reddi-Whip, which I'd never used to top a cake with before. So I dolloped away, stood back to admire my beautiful dolloped design, and placed the cake in the fridge until dinnertime.

An hour before dinner, I discovered the dollops had deflated. Majorly deflated. As in dripping sadly down the sides. Which made me sad, too. So what did I do? Make ganache, of course! Or.....tried to. The limited ingredient problem got to me, and I ended up with a really thick chocolate peanut butter-y glob. Delicious, but disgusting-looking, without a doubt. I tried to think of so many ways to save this cake, that I honestly don't even remember how I ended up making it presentable for my fam...haha. But they ate it, so it must've been alright!

So a trip to Nahma is not complete without a fruit-of-the-year in tow. This tradition started when my grandpa went to his favorite fruit and veggie market a few years back and bought a HUGE crate of overripe peaches for only 2 dollars. My task? To create as many desserts as possible with our peach-surplus. :) Over the years, we've had crates of peaches, apples, nectarines, and bananas grace the kitchen of our cabin. It's always fun to dream up creative uses for our fruit-excess, and it becomes an almost laid back "Iron Chef" challenge, if you will.

So this year's fruit-of-the-year? Bananas! I love baking with bananas because they are easy to peel and mash up. No chopping required! And did you know that bananas, like applesauce, can be substituted for oil in recipes? Which was perfect since I was forced to bake oil-less for 10 days! The day before we left for civilization, I realized that we had one lone banana left from our huge stash. Craving cookies (again), I created this Peanut Butter Banana bar cookie, which came out decently delicious! They looked a little boring, but a handful of honey roasted peanuts sprinkled over the batter could fix that. Or better yet, chocolate ganache! Or mini chocolate chips mixed into the batter. Really, the possibilities are endless. The banana flavor isn't strong at all in these cookies, but basically helps to make the cookie moist. Oh, and I didn't use vanilla when baking these, but I'm adding it in the recipe since I feel it needs it. :)

Also, other desserts were successfully baked and devoured during the week, like Bananas Foster, Banana Cream Pie, and Mocha Cookies...among others which sadly failed to be documented on camera. Oh well, there's always next year. :)

Peanut Butter Banana Bars

2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 stick butter
3/4 cup peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 overripe banana, mashed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 13x9-inch pan with cooking spray.

In small bowl, combine flour, oatmeal, and salt. Set aside. In large bowl, beat butter, peanut butter sugars, and vanilla until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in mashed banana. Gradually mix in flour mixture. Spread dough into prepared pan.


Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until cookie is golden brown. Cool in pan on wire rack. Cut into squares, and serve.

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