Hack splutter gust

Feels like I’ve been sick forEVER. Flu, then a brief reprieve, followed by cold/allergies/sinus + respiratory gunk unto infinity. Tea by the bucketful, out the proverbial wazoo if not the schnozz, danke gott. Candy-colored collection of cough lonzengery. Poofs and heaps of spent tissue brimming from baskets that like laundry insist on emptying. TB sheets to wash, dry, disinfect, and refold into tight and orderly linen closet stacks. Life to realign, spine to get up and out walking in light of day, lungs to exercise in fresh air. The houseplants have been such greenly companionship, but I’m ready for some outside world explosure. Friday night downtown, smack! zing! ahoy!, for literary cum gustatory junket with endearing companions I ain’t laid eyes on in a parch days.

Banana bread

It serves bakers well to be naturally alert early risers. Unlike much stovetop cooking where there’s lots of wiggle room for variation, substitution, and off-the-cuff experimentation, baking tends to be a more exact science. Recipes come down to us, revised and devised through precise attention to chemistry: so much leavening to so much fat. Creating a balanced blend of wet and dry ingredients and flavor harmonics:  acid and salt, savory and sweet. In baking it’s physically necessary to handle your work with a varying touch: vigorous with gluteny yeast breads and glancing with pastry trifles, where little left-behind butter lumps serve merely to make the finessing pockets of fat that define the delicacy.

Sometimes, when you wake up before the sun has rightly risen and hit the kitchen with a hungry stomach, your wits may stay abed and let you make silly mistakes like half a pound of butter instead of half a cup. (Ahem. Those stick counts always throw me.) And sometimes you, all unawares, encounter baking disasters you never could have seen coming.

I grew up in a house that loved itself some banana bread. Anytime we had two or three bananas that had ripened too far for acceptable peeled eating or cereal topping, my mom would crank up the mixer to create a fragrant, nutty loaf for several mornings’ enjoyment. The first thing I learned to bake, but of course, was chocolate chip cookies. The second was banana bread. It was tried and true, reliable and delectable.

But on one memorable occasion the result of Mom’s culinary concoction emerged from the oven, cooled, and was sliced with typical mouth-watering anticipation only to hit our tastebuds with a repulsive– I could only describe it at the time as soapy– flavor, which I ran at once to spit in the sink.

What in tarnation could have gone wrong? We wondered and were unilaterally flummoxed.

Mom had used the traditional banana bread recipe, sleep-walkingly familiar, but somehow the result had turned out perfectly awful. Ten-year-old me took to troubleshooting: were the eggs bad? Nope. Butter? Fresh as could be. What the heck could have made that disgusting flavor? By process of elimination I winnowed suspects down to the sugar canister, only to find it full of salt.

Well. That explained it. A full cup of salt in place of sugar would surely produce a problematic breakfast bread.

To this day The Salt in the Sugar Canister Conundrum remains one of those lingering family mysteries. My mom for her part blamed the messenger, assuming I’d done the deed to be vexatious. Fuming in my room, I cursed my older brothers, surely more prone to such shenanigans than me. Years later I still wonder– could it be that Mom, granted a little flighty post-brain surgery, had herself made the mixup? (my sister’s theory) Or was the culprit farther back along the chain, a store who’d stocked its bulk goods bins with the wrong white granular stuff?

We’ll never know. But the taste of that single soapy bite lingers on my palate to this day. Every time I make my own banana bread and take that first bite a little part of me lurches in anxious expectation– and then I’m flooded with the flavor of sweet, buttery goodness, melting into contentment.

This morning, I must admit, rather more buttery than intended.

Banana Bread

Yield: 1 loaf
Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cream together:
1/2 cup butter, softened (that is, ahem, one stick)
1 cup sugar

2-3 very ripe bananas, mashed
2 eggs, beaten

Sift together and add:
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

Roughly chop and mix in:
1/2 cup walnuts

Fill a bread pan, center in oven, and bake for about an hour (should be solid, no jiggling). Cool in pan for 10 min, cut around loaf, and tip out to cool on a rack.

Slice and enjoy with a nice cup of tea. :)

Flu and soup refrain

Around these parts we’ve been knocked on our collective keister for the past week-and-then-some by the first of the Season’s nasty viruses*. I was quick to take to bed, relinquishing my enervated (and after a few days stinky) self to long pools of recuperative drowse. Even Chris, gallant man of the all-hours stoical slog, collapsed on the heels of a near all-nighter, only to rise with any sort of equilibrium after six days prone and with a sinus infection for his trouble.

It’s a nasty bug with several legs– over a foundation of chills and fever dreams, first day and half brought splitting headache followed quickly by back and muscle aches, sneezing/coughing/stuffy/itchiness, and, in a sort of revolting crescendo, gut cramps and the quick expulsion of most solid foods. Apologies for TMI– but fun, right?!

Myself a few days ahead in the sick cycle**, I took to making medicinal chicken soup (it’s been tested and proven somewhere, I know). Several sustaining brews emerged from the base ingredient of poultry bird in pot. My personal favorite, detailed here, packs flavor to knock your stuffy-headed socks off. For another yummy variation leave out the cilantro and tomatilloes and add a bunch of fresh chopped ginger.

Tart & Pungent Chicken Soup

bring to a boil and simmer for 25 minutes:
1 4.5 lb chicken
1/2 an onion
1 stalk celery in quarters
1 carrot in quarters
1 bay leaf

Remove chicken from pot, let cool enough to handle, remove meat, return bones to pot. Simmer for 3-4 hrs.

Strain and remove fat from the stock. Easiest way to do this is to refrigerate until to fat solidifies and then skim. I was less patient, so simply skimmed the top layer from the pot the best I could into a glass measuring cup, where I could see it separate, etc.

Slice and saute:
6-8 small young white bulbed green stemmed onions
6-8 cloves garlic
1 stalk celery
4-5 tomatilloes
1 plum tomato

Add broth and bring to a boil.

1 6-oz. package soup-sized pasta (star shaped is fun; today’s is bowtie)

Simmer for 8-10 minutes.

Add 1 cup of the chicken meat cut in bite-size pieces, juice of 2 lemons, and 1-2 cups chopped fresh cilantro.

Heat through and serve.

*Note to self: flu shot

**Yeah, okay, so I presumably “gave” my husband this contagion. Can we finally just put this catholic construction to bed and agree that influenza is a guerilla terrorist that hijacks one and all the same? I’m really working on covering my mouth when I sneeze, I swear. Kthanxbai.