Why not bake?

The process of mixing and making this Banana Bread can bring calm.

The moment I started making banana bread, a sense of calm began to wash over my jittery, anxious self.

Moving through those familiar rituals — measuring flour and sugar, cracking eggs, greasing a pan — turned out to be the kitchen equivalent of a deep cleansing breath.

Once the house began to fill with the tantalizing scent of this childhood favorite, I was certain that I’d made the right decision to pull out the mixer and preheat the oven.

I’ve always been aware of the concept of stress baking, but only as an intellectual abstraction. But in this time of continuing crisis, baking has become a new meditation of choice, an emotional salve.

I highly recommend it.

Start with these time-tested crowd-pleasers, reliable for their uncomplicated nature. No ingredients that stretch beyond pantry staples, no challenging techniques, no out-of-the-ordinary equipment. Also, they’re delicious.

One peek into a refrigerator drawer filled with Braeburns and McIntoshes and my imagination immediately dashed to fragrant, cinnamon-scented baked apples, and to “Comfort Me With Apples,” the second (and best, in my opinion) of food writer Ruth Reichl’s series of memoirs; I think I’ll download it on Kindle and reread. And because it’s fruit, it’s good for you, right?

I’m baking coffee cake because it’s not just for breakfast, and because I happened to have sour cream on hand, and blueberries in the freezer. And cinnamon, always; my spice rack is never without it. Coffee cake also has a long shelf life, a key selling feature for the housebound.

Cookbook giant Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies have been a fixture in my baking repertoire ever since 2006, when Mary Eckmeier entered them in the Star Tribune’s annual holiday cookie contest, and won. They exude a deep chocolate aura, one that’s accentuated by sea salt (even more so with the addition of espresso powder). They follow a basic cut-and-bake formula, yet taste as if you fussed.

There are almost always a few ripe bananas in our freezer, waiting to be converted into smoothies. Or, better yet, banana bread. This recipe is adapted from the one that my late mother-in-law used to feed her family.

As for the pudding, yes, technically, it’s not baking. But it is dessert, and who doesn’t like butterscotch pudding? This recipe requires just a few steps beyond the instant boxed mix variety, and the results are far more impressive.

The recipe hails from a foolproof collection of comfort foods that New York Times food writer Marian Burros published in response to an earlier tragedy, the Sept. 11 attacks, and I’ve been cooking and baking from it ever since. Now I realize that I reflexively reach for it during times of stress.

CINNAMONY BAKED APPLES

2¼ cups brown sugar, divided

1½ tablespoons ground cinnamon, divided

1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

6 medium-to-large tart baking apples, washed (do not peel)

¾ cup raisins

½ cup chopped pecans

1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons Calvados, divided (see note)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces of equal size

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with parchment paper.

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine 2 cups water, ¾ cup brown sugar, ½ tablespoon cinnamon and the lemon juice. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes. Remove syrup from heat and reserve.

Remove the apple cores, but do not cut all the way through the bottoms.

In a medium bowl, combine the remaining 1½ cups brown sugar, remaining 1 tablespoon cinnamon, raisins, pecans and lemon zest. Fill each apple with brown sugar mixture, to within ¼ inch of the top. Pour 1 teaspoon Calvados over the filling in each apple and top with ½ tablespoon butter.

Transfer the apples to prepared baking dish. Stir the remaining 1 tablespoon Calvados into the reserved syrup and pour syrup over apples. Bake apples until tender, about 1 hour, basting them occasionally with the syrup in the pan.

Remove from oven and, using a slotted spoon, transfer baked apples to a serving dish. Pour the syrup from the pan into a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and cook until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly, then pour 1 tablespoon of syrup over each apple, and serve remaining syrup at the table.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: Calvados is apple brandy from France’s Normandy region. If you don’t have it, you can substitute apple juice, brandy or even water. From “The Silver Palate Cookbook: 25th Anniversary Edition” by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.

SOUR CREAM COFFEE CAKE WITH CINNAMON STREUSEL

For streusel

½ cup flour

½ cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into dices

For cake:

2½ cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for pan

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

3 eggs

1 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups berries, fresh or frozen

To prepare streusel: In a medium bowl, combine ½ cup flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Add 6 tablespoons butter and, using a pastry blender or your fingers, blend until mixture is crumbly. Reserve.

To prepare cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

In a large bowl, sift together 2½ cups flour, baking powder and baking soda.

In an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat 1 cup butter and 1 cup granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping the bowl down as needed. Add the sour cream, vanilla extract and salt, mixing until well-incorporated. Reduce speed to low and add the flour mixture in thirds, mixing just until everything is blended together. Gently fold in berries (the batter will be thick).

Scrape batter into prepared pan and spread it evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle streusel mixture evenly over batter. Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar over streusel. Bake until the top of the cake is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out with a few crumbs clinging but no batter, about 45 to 50 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. Remove from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack to cool for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Cut cake into squares and serve warm.

Makes 12 servings.

Note: Author Tom Douglas notes that raspberries, blackberries or even pitted sweet cherries can be used instead of blueberries. Frozen berries do not need to be thawed. Adapted from “The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook.”

CATHERINE DAVID’S BANANA BREAD

1¾ cups flour, plus extra for pan

2 teaspoons. baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pan

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, well beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup mashed very ripe bananas (2 to 3 bananas)

½ cup chopped and toasted walnuts (see Note)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter the bottom and sides of a 5-by-9-by-3-inch loaf pan, then dust with flour, tapping out any excess.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, and reserve.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla extract and beat until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in thirds, alternating with mashed bananas and beginning and ending with flour mixture, mixing only until just combined. Fold in walnuts.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake until nicely browned and a tester inserted into the center of the bread comes out fairly clean (with bananas, this bread is moister than most). Remove from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes before removing from pan.

Makes 1 loaf.

Note: To toast walnuts, place the nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, and cook, stirring (or shaking the pan frequently) until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 4 minutes (alternately, preheat oven to 325 degrees, spread the nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and bake, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes). Banana bread is remarkably adaptable. Add a half cup of a whole range of ingredients: chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, shredded coconut, pitted and chopped dates, or chopped (and toasted) pecans, macadamia nuts, pistachios or unsalted peanuts. If you have unflavored yogurt, sour cream or buttermilk, add ¼ cup after beating in the eggs, which will make the cake more moist and rich. No brown sugar? Just use 2/3 cup granulated sugar instead. If you have whole wheat flour on hand, substitute ½ cup of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour. Or follow the directions as is.

BUTTERSCOTCH PUDDING

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1½ cups packed dark brown sugar

4 cups whole milk, divided

3 tablespoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon salt

4 eggs

1 tablespoon coffee liqueur (such as Kahlua), optional

Freshly whipped cream for garnish, optional

In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, then stir in the brown sugar. Increase heat to high and cook until the mixture bubbles. Reduce heat to medium, stir in 3 cups milk and cook for about 5 minutes; the mixture will be a little thick.

In a small bowl, combine a little of the remaining 1 cup milk with the cornstarch to form a paste. Stir the remaining milk into the paste, then add the milk-cornstarch mixture to the pan. Cook the mixture over medium heat until it thickens slightly, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the salt.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Pour a little of the hot mixture into the eggs, whisking well, and continue until the eggs are warm. Whisk the warmed egg mixture into the pudding mixture and continue to cook, bringing to a boil and whisking constantly. Cook until thickened, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in coffee liqueur (optional). Spoon pudding into 6 cups or small bowls, and refrigerate. Serve cold, garnished with whipped cream, if desired.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: If whole milk is unavailable, substitute 2 percent milk.

From “Cooking for Comfort,” by Marian Burros.

WORLD PEACE COOKIES

1¼ cups flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ teaspoon. baking soda

½ cup plus 3 tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2/3 cup light brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt (or ½ teaspoon fleur de sel)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chip-size pieces (roughly ¾ cup)

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder together, and reserve.

In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter until soft and creamy, about 1 minute. Add brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt and vanilla extract, and beat for 2 additional minutes.

Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix until just combined, working the dough as little as possible. Fold in chocolate pieces.

Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface. Gather dough together and divide it in half. Working one half at a time, shape the (sticky) dough into logs that are 1½ inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours (dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months; if using frozen dough, no need to defrost, just slice the logs into cookies and bake 1 minute longer).

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using a sharp, thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are ½ inch thick (the rounds are likely to crack as you’re cutting them; just squeeze the bits back into each cookie) and place 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake cookies 1 sheet at a time for 12 minutes. They won’t look done, nor will they be firm, but that’s just the way they should be. Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Note: This dough must be prepared in advance. For additional flavor, add ½ teaspoon espresso powder with the cocoa. “I once said I thought these cookies, the brainchild of Parisian pastry chef Pierre Herme, were as important a culinary breakthrough as Toll House cookies, and I’ve never thought better of the statement,” writes Dorie Greenspan in “Baking: From My Home to Yours.”

Greenspan initially introduced these members of the sable family in her “Paris Sweets” cookbook, but under a different name: Korova Cookies. Her neighbor believed that a daily bite of these easy-to-prepare cut-and-bake cookies “is all that is needed to ensure planetary peace and prosperity,” wrote Greenspan. “I prefer them at room temperature, when the textural difference between the crumbly cookie and the chocolate bits is greatest.”

TNS

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