Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, December 19, 2001

A wreath of quick breads includes slices packed with dried fruit (the dark ones), macadamia nuts and coconut (the light ones) and a poi-nut bread (medium-toned).

Think fast

Quick breads make festive
baked gifts, without all of the
fuss and bother of yeast

By Betty Shimabukuro

Banana bread is the furthest many of us will ever delve into the higher science of baking. Intimidated by yeast, we secretly believe the ritual of kneading, proofing and punching down to be the province of magical elves -- or at least people with way more patience and knowledge of chemistry.

Banana bread -- and all its kindred in the family known as quick breads -- falls within our comfort zone. It's fast, ingredients are cheap and limited, and it's fun to mash the bananas.

Christmas is just a week away, but one weekend remains for baking. If you're short a few gifts, the proverbial, perennial favorite of quick bread offers some easy answers.

But be brave and venture beyond bananas. In the recipes that follow, we offer some new adventures in quick breads. They all passed both the newsroom yum test and the easy-does-it recipe test (Rule No. 1: No yeast), yielding moist, flavorful loaves that seemed more complicated than they really were.

One is packed with dried fruit and spiked with bourbon, like a fruitcake but simpler, better and without the negative labeling. One is tropical in flavor, with macadamia nuts and toasted coconut; another is made with poi.

Why quick breads?

Let us count the ways:

>> The recipes are ultimately forgiving. You don't even need an electric mixer, just a spoon. Over mix, under mix, measure casually -- it's all OK. Not enough nuts? Who cares; compensate with raisins. Don't like coconut? Who cares; leave it out.

>> You can make a lot at once, which saves time and electricity. Unlike cookies, which ideally should be baked a sheet at a time, you can pack an oven with four full-sized loaves, or several mini-loaves. That's a lot of gifts in one fell swoop.

>> The breads keep a long time, so the recipient can refrigerate or freeze them, then wait until the holiday sugar rush is over and enjoy them in the holiday-less month of April. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

>> Or, carry a fresh-baked basket of breads to a Christmas Eve party as a hostess gift. The family can eat them Christmas morning. How thoughtful of you!

>> They lend themselves to value-added presentation. Pack several small loaves in an attractive plastic container or a festive jar. Some specialty shops even sell pans that bake loaves in Christmas tree shapes. Include the recipe as a gift tag.

Mark Miller, chef at the famed Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., is a man with no fear of yeast who considers bread to be "one of the first complex masterpieces in the history of cuisines." (Think about that next time you slap some Best Foods on your Wonder Bread).

For all the reverence Miller pays to the serious art of bread, he devoted a chapter in his 1996 cookbook, "Flavored Breads," to the simplicity of quick breads. They are, he writes, "the easiest breads to make and among the most satisfying, because they yield wonderful results and delicious flavors with a minimum of effort and equipment. For this reason, they are ideal for those who are building their bread-making confidence or teaching children to bake."

Note that he expects us to graduate to greater things.

But never mind. "Flavored Breads" yielded two fabulous quick-bread recipes, so it seems that the fast and easy alternative does earn his blessing.

In baking these breads, note that standard loaf pans come in two sizes, both of them about 3 inches deep. Larger pans are 9-by-5 inches; the next size is 7-by-4 inches. The recipes are generally forgiving enough that you can use either size pan, but check the recipe anyway. If you use a 9-by pan for a 7-by recipe, your loaf will probably be flatter and not as aesthetically pleasing, if that matters.

You can also bake these breads in mini pans, a better size for gift-giving, or in those cute petite pans, just 2-by-3 inches. (Find these in kitchen specialty shops, generally linked together in groups of eight or 10 to make them easier to get in and out of an oven. Kmart carries the Martha Stewart pan for about $8.)

Heck, you can even make these into muffins, or if you're really into quantity, thousands of those mini-muffins. Just remember that the baking times are for the larger pans; anything smaller will bake faster.

One last efficiency note: All these recipes call for the same oven temperature and close to the same baking times, so you can put several different loaves in the oven at one time.

Dried Fruit Harvest Bread

"Flavored Breads" by Mark Miller (Ten Speed Press, 1996)

4 cups mixed dried fruit (see note)
1 cup water
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch pepper
3/4 cup canola or corn oil
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 7-by-4-inch loaf pans and dust with flour.

Chop fruit into uniform pieces. Heat water, add fruit and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and let sit 10 to 15 minutes, until soft.

Sift dry ingredients together; set aside.

Whisk together oil, eggs, molasses, brown sugar, bourbon and vanilla. Stir in dry ingredients until combined.

Drain fruit and stir into batter. Divide batter between pans. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, or until a pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pans 15 minutes. Serve warm or turn onto a rack to cool completely. Makes two loaves.

Note: Most supermarkets sell time-saving packages of chopped, mixed fruits. Or make your own mix of any combination of dried cherries, raisins, apples, pears, apricots, cranberries, figs, prunes, dates, mango or papaya.

Coconut Mac-Nut Bread

"Flavored Breads"

2 cups flour
5 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup toasted coconut (see note)
2 ripe bananas, in chunks
1 cup crushed macadamia nuts
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 7-by-4-inch loaf pans and dust with flour.

Sift dry ingredients together. Stir in coconut, bananas and nuts; set aside.

Whisk together butter, brown sugar, eggs and milk. Stir dry ingredients into the egg mixture until combined.

Divide batter between pans. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, or until golden brown and a pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pans 15 minutes. Serve warm or turn onto a rack to cool completely. Makes two loaves.

Note: Use grated coconut from a fresh coconut if possible, or buy packaged, unsweetened coconut. If you can only find sweetened coconut, cut the white sugar to 1/4 cup. Toast by spreading grated coconut on baking sheet and baking at 325 degrees 12 to 15 minutes, or until light brown.

Poi Nut Bread

"Favorite island Cookery, Book IV" (Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, 1985)

1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup undiluted poi
1/4 cup each nuts, raisins and shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease one 7-by-4-inch loaf pan.

Combine dry ingredients together; set aside.

Mix eggs, oil and vanilla. Stir in poi. Add nuts, raisins and coconut. Gradually add dry ingredients and stir to combine. Dough will be very sticky.

Pour batter into pan. Bake 45 minutes, or until a pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Makes one loaf.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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