Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Banana Muffins with Crystallized Ginger

I know, it's been a week -- a long time to go incommunicado in blog-land. I swear, I have a good reason: I'm busy! Very, very, busy. Also? Very, very stressed: lots of decision-making looms ahead, and being the type of person that can't even decide what to eat for lunch most days means that making real decisions is extremely difficult. But I asked for it, and it's the best type of decision-making to do, choosing between wonderful things. It could be much worse. Good thing I had some banana-nut muffins to soothe me through last week; without them, I would have simply melted under the pressure.
I mentioned this when I made the Red Fire Brownies, but I'll say it again: although I'm not the type of person to throw a recipe together from scratch, by my lonesome (with plenty of references, I admit) I'm trying to work on that. I want to be confident in the kitchen, and confidence requires experimentation -- at least in this case. So after making those delicious, almost-fudge brownies, I had to forge ahead and try another recipe of my own creation. It didn't hurt that the brownies were a complete success. I'd been eying Molly's delicious-sounding "Glenn's Banana Bread with Chocolate Chips and Candied Ginger" for quite some time, but I wasn't that interested in a bread. I wanted something more compact, something easy to eat with one hand while walking to work in the morning, something that required only four large bites to consume. I wanted a muffin. Muffins are one of my favorite types of baked goods, aside from popovers, scones, croissants -- oh, I can't pick a favorite. I like all baked goods equally, especially those made for consumption in the morning, when the dew hasn't yet dried and the air is heavy with promise. But don't get me wrong: these muffins are just as delicious at midnight as they are at six in the morning: they've got a perfect, crunchy exterior that lifts away to reveal a moist, chocolate-filled interior. Crumbs are non-existent: you'll gobble what little there is of them right up, using the last bite of muffin to squeeze them off of your plate. They're absolutely delicious, and I'm not kidding when I say that you'll make a batch and soon regret not doubling or tripling the batter. The chocolate and nuts are ordinary additions to most banana muffins (or to banana bread, for that matter) but the ginger brings out the sweetness of the chocolate and provides a wonderful contrast to the bits of walnuts strewn about in the muffin. These three ingredients dot the inside of the muffin with an array of pleasing tastes and textures, and the banana provides a smooth underlying note of sweetness, enveloping the entire muffin with a mildly fruity, pleasing taste.

Banana Nut Muffins with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger
Begin by bringing all ingredients to 70º. This prevents them from seizing up when they're mixed together. Cold eggs, especially, tend to "freak out" when they're beaten with sugar and butter, making your batter tough. Besides, it's nearly impossible to cream cold butter: I dare you to try it. If you succeed, your muffins won't: they'll turn out rough and brittle, scattering crumbs every which way while you try to eat the darn things.
Preheat the oven to 400º and grease a muffin tin with six spots. This recipe makes only six glorious muffins, which is why I recommend doubling or even tripling the size; however, I'd caution against using just one muffin tin for multiple batches without cooling it down completely between sets. These have just the right amount of crunch in their crust, and putting the batter into a hot pan would give them too much of a hard outer shell, in my opinion.
Now we're ready to get our hands dirty. Start by creaming 1/2 a cup of sugar with 1/2 a stick of butter (that's 1/4 cup for all of you with fancy butter like mine) and 1 large egg. In a separate bowl, mash 1 large, ripe banana and stir in 1-1/2 tablespoons of milk. Speaking of ripe bananas, you can take ripened (to the point of nearly rotten) bananas and chuck them right into the freezer until you're ready to bake with them. Simply remove them from the freezer a bit before you're going to bake and allow them to thaw. The fruit will slide right out of the jacket in a slippery mess. Once they are completely thawed, the bananas are very easy to mash.
In a third bowl, sift together 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 a teaspoon baking powder, and 1/4 a teaspoon baking soda. Mix half of the flour mixture into the creamed butter, sugar, and egg; then, add the bananas and milk and stir until just combined. Stir in the remaining flour. Be sure not to overmix the batter -- that makes the resulting muffin tough and unappetizing. Once the batter is combined, fold in 3 tablespoons of crystallized ginger, reserving an additional tablespoon to top the muffins, along with 1/3 a cup of chopped walnuts and 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips. I used Ghirardelli bittersweet chips with fantastic results -- they've got a slightly flowery taste and are cloyingly mellow. Next time I make these, however, I'm going to use another Vosges bar: Black Pearl, which has hints of ginger and wasabi. As you may know, I am partial to chopped chocolate -- chips are too uniform for my taste -- and I'm excited to try another one of these delectable savory/sweet chocolate combination bars with these muffins, which are already crammed to the gills with flavor. I only hope that it isn't too overpowering.
After folding in the nuts, chips, and ginger, spoon the batter into your muffin cups. Be sure to fill them nearly to the brim: I like the tops of muffins best of all, and you can only achieve a tasty, puffy top by nearly overfilling the muffin cups. Top the muffins with a sprinkle of sugar and a healthy pinch of crystallized ginger. Bake in the 400º oven for about 25 minutes, removing when they just begin to brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few stray crumbs clinging to its sides. Allow to cool for 5 minutes while still in the pan, then remove and finish cooling on a wire rack. They're absolutely drop-dead-delicious with coffee or tea, by the way.
You can purchase crystallized ginger, also known as candied ginger, at many stores. Spice Island even offers it in a spice jar for your convenience, which means that it's easy to procure at nearly every grocery store. If you're not interested in paying ten dollars for a miniature jar of ginger and you're not able to get to a Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods -- they both sell it for less than Spice Island, naturally -- you can try making your own. It's similar to the process I discussed in the comments section of the Red Fire Brownies for candying hot peppers.
Purchase some fresh ginger at your supermarket. Be on the lookout for thin, tender, evenly-skinned ginger that smells pleasant and feels firm. Spongy ginger should be avoided. Purchasing about 10 ounces of ginger will yield 6 ounces of crystallized ginger, which works out to 12 full tablespoons -- and 12 tablespoons will not seem like enough once you start using the stuff. It can be stored, though, in a cool dry place, so making more than necessary is definitely a good idea. Carefully peel the ginger and remove any rough or darkened spots. In addition, cut off any of the knobs and reserve to use in a separate dish. Cut into long, thin strips -- about 2 inches by 1/8 of an inch -- and poke holes in the flesh with a sharp knife. Place the slices in a bowl filled with 2 cups of sugar and toss to coat.
Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add 1 tablespoon of water to the hot pan. Pour in the ginger and sugar and bring it up to a very low simmer. Keep your eye on the stuff for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Don't allow it to boil; keep the mixture at a very low simmer and on a relatively low heat. After an hour has passed, lower the heat and allow the mixture to simmer again, stirring all the while and separating the slices from one another with your spoon. Soon, the mixture will begin to crystallize and become thick; a rim of sugar will collect around the sides of the pan. The mixture will start to bubble over the surface, at which point you must stir to prevent the mixture from caramelizing. Don't allow the sugar to caramelize -- if it does, you've gone too far and the ginger will be unusable. Stir until the syrup is mostly crystals and you can gather the sugar in the center of the pan in a mound without much liquid escaping. At this point, remove from the heat and continue to toss as it cools, being sure that the slices stay separated. The ginger should separate from the sugar at this point. Lay the ginger on a clean cookie tray or on a plate to cool and store in a dark, dry place.


Susan said...

Sorry you're going through a hard time of stress right now (I can spell STRESS, BTW). Get back on the blog wagon when you can. You paved the way for Vosges for me; the jury is still out. No matter. I'm in.

K8 said...

Hi Susan! Thanks for the note -- I will be back; I'm working on a crazy schedule right now that isn't even leaving me time to look at other blogs, let alone update my own. But I'm still cooking, at least, so I have things to write about. And I'll be back.
Let me know how you like the Vosges. Some of the flavors are better than others: Red Fire seems to be a particular favorite of many. I also love the Black Pearl bar.

Susan said...

I'm nursing a Red Fire right now. It has a nice, slow burn, and with the sticker shock, I better take it slow. Of course, I have to try all the other freaky flavors before I make up my mind. ; )

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