Alimentary, My Dear
Three Quick Breads Anyone Can Bake
By Tamia Nelson
November 17, 2009
Quick breads would be a royal pain to make in a camp kitchen, but they're great to take along on a canoeing or kayaking trip. After all, you don't need to count calories when you're paddling hard. In fact, you won't want to. Your boat's engine can't run without fuel, can it? So you can eat that second piece without guilt. Better still, quick breads are good travelers, outlasting other breadstuffs. That crusty French loaf you brought as a lunchtime treat will go stale long before your quick bread loses its chewy savor. The upshot? Quick breads aren't just for day trips. They'll stick by you through a long weekend and on into the following week. There's only one problem. How do you get one? Well, you could head on over to the HyperMart, of course, and hope that you can find something suitable. Or you could try your luck at your local bakery — if you're fortunate enough to have a local bakery, that is. Or you could make your own. This gets my vote. Homemade usually beats store‑bought on several fronts: economy and taste, to name only two. That being the case, let's look at what it takes to make a travel‑worthy quick bread.
To begin with, you'll want a good stock of your favorite fruits and nuts. This means taking a trip to a nearby farmers' market, your local food co‑op, or the HyperMart's produce department. And there's no better time of year than fall, the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," when shelves groan under the weight of bags of fresh‑picked apples and bins of in‑shell nuts. That said, you're not restricted to shopping in the autumn. You can find plenty of fresh and dried fruits to choose from at any season of the year. Then, once you've brought your bounty home, you'll be ready to have a go at baking a quick bread. And don't worry. You won't need to be a graduate of the CIA — that's the Culinary Institute of America — to make any of the three delicious quick breads I'm about to describe. All you'll have to do is read and heed these…
Simple Instructions for Bread‑Makers
Each of the three breads is prepared in essentially the same way, and the method is common to most other quick‑bread recipes, as well. First, marshal all your ingredients. You'll want to know if you're missing any vital element before beginning to mix your batter. You'll also need to make sure that everything is at or near room temperature. If a recipe calls for creaming butter, be sure to remove it from the refrigerator early. The same holds true for your eggs. Once all is in readiness, it's time to preheat your oven. And while you're waiting for it to come up to temperature, grease a 9‑inch by 5‑inch loaf pan with a light film of butter (or some substitute). Then set it to one side, ready for use.
All quick‑bread ingredients fall into one of three classes: wet, dry, or solid. The recipes below will make it clear which are which, but you wouldn't go too far wrong just using your common sense. Wet ingredients are mostly liquids at room temperature; dry ingredients are pourable powders; solids can be cut with a knife. Still, there are exceptions, and the final classification is somewhat arbitrary. Let the recipe be your guide. In any event, you'll need to mix the wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls before combining them. The dry ingredients will usually be added to the wet, by the way, and not the other way around. The solid stuff usually goes into a third bowl — or sometimes a fourth. (You can see why making quick bread in camp would be such a pain.) If you want to get a head start, mix the dry and wet ingredients in advance — separate bowls, remember? — but don't combine them to make a batter until you're ready to pop the pan into the oven.
Why is it so important to keep wet and dry ingredients apart? It's chemistry, pure and simple. Baking powder and baking soda (if called for) will start "working" just as soon as they come into contact with the moisture in eggs or any other liquid. And the solution to the problem? You guessed it. Just keep dry and wet ingredients in separate bowls. One more thing: If you mix the wet ingredients more than half an hour or so before you plan to make your batter, it's best to put the bowl containing them in the fridge. You don't want to court food poisoning, do you? I didn't think so. But don't forget the Room‑Temperature Rule. Remove the bowl with the wet ingredients in time for it warm up before the final mixing.
Once wet, dry, and solid ingredients are assembled in their separate bowls, it's time to bring everything together, adding the dry ingredients to the wet. This is usually done in two or three stages, punctuated by just enough mixing to combine them. It's important not to "over‑work" the batter. If you do, your bread will be tough and rubbery. And never, never, add hot ingredients (such as melted butter) to other liquids — allow the hot stuff to cool to something approaching room temperature first.
That's the Room‑Temperature Rule again. But important as it is, it's really only a special case of a broader, even more all‑embracing dictum, the Ultimate Rule of bread‑making, as illustrated in my passing reference to "over‑working" the batter. And what is this Ultimate Rule? It couldn't be simpler: Moderation in All Things. That's why I prefer to mix ingredients with a sturdy fork, a wooden spoon, or a robust spatula, rather than use an electric mixer. It's far too easy to over‑work a batter if all you have to do is squeeze a trigger. Hand mixing takes a bit of muscle, to be sure — you'll get a pretty fair workout during each baking session — but it's also a lot easier to control. (And you'll find a good use for your new upper‑body strength when you next get out on the water, of course.)
After the wet and dry ingredients are combined, your batter is almost done. All that remains for you to do is to fold in the solids. Don't overdo it. (Moderation in all things, right?) Just spread them around. That's good enough. Now scrape your batter into the prepared loaf pan with a rubber spatula, tamp it into the corners, and level the top as best you can. Then put the pan onto the center rack in your oven without delay and bake for the stipulated amount of time — usually between 50 and 60 minutes. (I'm assuming that your oven thermostat works properly. If not, adjust it before you start your baking career.) Resist the temptation to open the oven door frequently to see how things are going, but plan to check the bread about 10 minutes before you think it will be done. It's important not to over‑bake a loaf. Burned bread is pretty unappealing stuff. But so is gooey, gummy, under‑baked bread. To avoid this other extreme, just stick a dry, clean toothpick into the center of the hot loaf, taking pains to miss the nuts and fruit. When the toothpick comes out as clean as it went in, your bread is done. Remove it from the oven and allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes or so, then turn it out onto a wire rack for further cooling.
There's a bit of a knack to this business of "turning out" bread, as it happens, but the trick is easily learned. Simply run a dull knife around the edge of the loaf, then invert the baking pan and give it a good shake. The bread should pop out and fall right into a waiting hand. Now place it on the rack and set it aside to finish cooling. Warning! Wear oven mitts or use potholders when doing this. I find it easiest to lift the pan with one hand and shake the bread out into the other, before placing the wire rack on the bottom of the newly freed loaf and turning the whole assemblage — wire rack plus loaf — upright again. Then it's just a matter of putting the rack down on the counter.
As soon as your bread has cooled (to room temperature, of course), wrap it well and freeze it. Later, on the morning of The Day, remove it from the freezer and pack it in a rigid container. Now head off for the put‑in. Your quick bread will thaw by lunchtime — and keep moist and good for days afterward. There's no better traveling fare.
OK. That's the general outline. Now let's devil into the details for three of my favorite loaves:
Portly Banana Bread
- 3 large overripe bananas
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- ½ cup soft (not melted) butter
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 1¾ cups all‑purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ cup raisins
- 2 tablespoons port wine
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- ¼ cup chopped dried apricots
Yes, port wine is a liquid and sugar is dry, but they change hats in this instance. Think of them as the exceptions that prove the rule. Start by preheating your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit while you mix the raisins and port in a small pot. (You can use an inexpensive ruby or tawny port — save the vintage stuff for later on, when the bread is ready to eat.) Heat the port‑drenched raisins till the liquid starts to simmer, then remove the pot from the burner and allow it to cool. The raisins will soak up much of the fortified wine in the process.
Next, combine the dry ingredients in a medium‑sized bowl, before mashing the bananas with a fork in another bowl. This is one way to salvage overripe bananas that would otherwise end up in the compost bin (or the garbage). Now add vanilla extract to the bananas and set them aside, while you cream the softened butter and the sugar in a third (large) bowl. Once the butter and sugar mixture has achieved the consistency of wet sand, add the eggs and stir with a fork. Finally, combine the banana mash with the butter, sugar, and eggs and mix again. The resulting slurry will have the consistency of cream soup, with little chunks of banana suspended throughout.
It's time to fold the dry ingredients into the wet, using a rubber spatula. Do it in three stages. Once that's done, you're ready to add the raisins — first drain off any surplus port into a glass (the chef's reward!) — as well as the chopped walnuts and dried apricots. Fold these in, too, then pour the completed batter into your already‑prepared loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes.
Cranberry and Hazelnut Bread
- 1 large egg
- ¾ cup orange juice
- Zest (finely grated peel) from 1 orange
- 2 tablespoons shortening
- 2 cups all‑purpose flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup whole cranberries (frozen or fresh)
- ½ cup dried cranberries
- ½ cup chopped hazelnuts
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine all the dry ingredients but the shortening in a large bowl. Then "cut in" the shortening until it's been reduced to grape‑ and raisin‑sized pieces, all of them coated with flour. (Use a blunt knife or a fork to do the deed.) Here's what things should look like at this stage:
In a second large bowl, add the orange juice and grated peel (a "wet" ingredient by courtesy here) to a beaten egg. Next, combine the solid ingredients in a third smaller bowl before stirring the egg and orange mix into the dry ingredients. Better do this in two installments. (And, yes, it violates the usual practice of adding dry ingredients to wet. But rules are made to be broken. Sometimes.) Now fold in the solids, scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan, and bake for 50‑60 minutes.
Spicy Apple and Nut Bread
- ¼ cup butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup oil
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1½ cups all‑purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon cardamom
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups sweet apples, peeled, cored, and finely chopped
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- ½ cup mixed raisins and dried cranberries
- ¼ cup chopped prunes
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cream the butter with the sugar in a large bowl (the sugar is now a "wet" ingredient) before adding the eggs, oil, and vanilla. Next, combine the dry ingredients in a second, smaller bowl. Now add the dry ingredients to the wet in two installments. Lastly, fold in the solids, scrape the assembled batter into the loaf pan using a rubber spatula, and bake for 50 minutes.
That's it. Three quick breads that anyone can make. Well, almost anyone. I've got my doubts about Farwell. He'd just eat the raisins and walnuts and drink the port and then decide he wasn't hungry. Still, he's never turned down a slice of quick bread, so maybe there's still hope, even for him.
Have you ever met a paddler who didn't say "Yes, please!" when offered a baked treat? I haven't. Quick breads are a great way to liven up your next riverbank lunch break, to say nothing of putting fuel in your tank for paddling the homestretch to the take‑out. Quick breads travel well, too, so they're not just for day trips. Best of all, you can make them yourself. So what's stopping you? Anybody (even Farwell) can bake a quick bread. And that's alimentary!
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