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Velvet Banana Bread – my blue ribbon winner!

It all started in 2009 when I entered the foods competitions at the Kansas State Fair for the first time, and met a wonderful & talented woman named Colleen Woker.  We met while watching the pie judging and I asked her if she’d won any ribbons in the other competitions. She listed off approximately 241 things she’d placed in, including getting “Best in Show” for her banana bread, which as far as I understand means that her banana bread was so good, that the judges deemed it better than anything else submitted for judging in the foods competitions. I mean, it beat cakes!  CAKES! I was so impressed by her and in that moment, knew that some day I had to get myself a blue ribbon in the banana bread competition.  Little did I know it would become nearly an obsession.

In my quest to win a blue ribbon, I’ve made over fifty different banana bread recipes, and no matter how hard I tried to find the best, most perfect banana bread, the highest I ever placed was 3rd.  I really thought I was doomed to never get my blue ribbon, or even a red one.  This year I had no idea what recipe I was going to make until the day before the competition.  In fact, I had even forgotten to buy bananas in advance to let them get super duper ripe, and all I had was bananas that were still green at the stems.  Not acceptable!

I posted a last minute plea on Facebook for rotten bananas and was given some by two wonderful women (thank you Lacey & Lisa!), enough to make a practice loaf or two if I could find the time.  I decided to take my best good friend, Jackie‘s, advice and replace the pumpkin in my most favoritest pumpkin bread recipe with bananas, which she has been doing for a year.  That recipe has 1/2 cup of water in it, which I’d never ever seen in all the banana bread recipes I’ve read in my search for the perfect one, and I was so scared to try it.  I asked her probably five times, “Do you really put the water in it when you make it? REALLY?” She assured me she did, and that it wasn’t wet or gummy, but really similar in texture to the pumpkin bread.  That sold me, because that soft texture is the ultimate for me in a quick bread.

Despite my deep fears of including the water, and the temptation to replace it with something more exciting like milk or pineapple juice, I gave her idea a go, adding a touch of cardamom, and was absolutely floored by the result.  I had never in my life had such tender, soft banana bread.  And so delicious, sweet & perfectly banana-y with a the perfect balance of spices to set it off.  Unfortunately, it was one of the uglier loaves I’d ever made, and since 25% of the judging score was based on appearance, I lost all hope right there.  Because I knew it was too good not to submit, but also knew it was too ugly to win a blue ribbon. I just hoped it was good enough to win a red.

So many things went wrong in making the official loaf and my spirits sunk deeper and deeper with each obstacle. I kept questioning why I was even bothering.  This wasn’t the regular little banana bread competition, this one was sponsored by King Arthur Flour and the first place prize was a $150 gift card to their catalog, which is much bigger than the usual $9 prize.  This was a big deal, and more people would be entering than usual.  I didn’t have a chance! I was exhausted, would have loved to sleep in the next morning, didn’t want to waste the gas or the effort when I knew it was hopeless, but I’d been in the paper about the being the Banana Bread Queen Wannabe, and everyone on Facebook knew about it.  I had to go.

When I arrived to submit my bread, I noticed that everyone around me had loaves that were the same dark shiny brown, which I found unattractive.  That made me feel a little better, until I looked to see if any of my other three baked goods I’d already turned in had placed, and they hadn’t.  I knew it was going to be my very first no-ribbon year, and I went home defeated, knowing my quest might never end.

But when we returned to the fair as a family two days later, there it was. My ugly brown banana bread sitting front and center.  Next to a blue ribbon.

I squealed. I hopped around.  I squealed and hopped some more.  I think there was a lot of, “I can’t believe it!!”  I gushed my entire banana bread story to the poor couple standing nearby when my freak out started.  They were so happy for me, but everyone else looked pretty perturbed & disturbed by my antics.  I stopped myself several times from running up to random people to tell them I won.  Joshua was grinning and giggling, clearly trying to figure out what had Mom so excited.  I took his hands and we did a little celebration dance together.  When Dennis approached us (he’d been in the bathroom), I wanted to let him discover it on his own but I just couldn’t contain myself and as soon as I saw him I beamed and jumped up and down and waved him over, pointing wildly at the display case where my winning bread resided. He knew instantly of course what that meant, and he hopped up and down with me a little in celebration.  Joshua was so happy to see all the happiness and I was so happy, and Dennis was so happy, I thought all our heads might explode.

It took six years and countless loaves of banana bread, but I did it. The blue ribbon is MINE! Thanks be to God, to Jackie, Lisa, Lacey, and to Colleen for not entering the banana bread competition this year and giving me a chance.  And to everyone who has rooted for me all these years, thank you!!  My quest is complete and I couldn’t be happier to have found my very favorite recipe for banana bread and gotten the blue for it so that I never have to try another recipe again.  I’m so DONE with new banana bread recipes.  This one is definitely my new favorite, and I truly may never make another recipe again.

Velvet Banana Bread

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

1 cup (8 oz) mashed overripe banana
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (4 1/8 oz) vegetable oil
1/2 cup (4 oz) water
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cups (7 1/2 oz) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Preheat oven to 350F. In a large mixing bowl, combine banana, sugar, vegetable oil, water, and eggs. Whisk until well mixed. Measure the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, and cloves into a separate bowl and stir until combined. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the banana mixture, beating until smooth. Mixture will be very very thin and it’s OK to mix until no flour streaks remain, but if you see little lumps of flour that won’t mix out, don’t sweat it, they will dissolve while baking and overmixing will make this tender loaf tough and dry.

Spray the bottom of a 9×5 loaf pan and pour batter in (if your pan sticks, go ahead and grease the whole thing). Bake for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Immediately remove from pan, and cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Remove from pan immediately and allow to cool at least 15 minutes on a wire rack before slicing. Cool completely before wrapping leftovers in plastic wrap.

Veronica’s notes: If you aren’t measuring your ingredients on a scale, please use a very light hand when measuring the flour, spooning it gently into the cup and not packing it at all before leveling it.

Also, I only left the sides of my pan ungreased because the state fair judges have disqualified me in the past for greasing the whole pan. According to them, this is a baking sin and the sides of your bread will be much more tender if you grease only the bottom. This works fine with my new nifty galifty USA Loaf Pan because it’s crazy nonstick, but if you have any other not fabulously non-stick pan, you’d better go ahead and grease the sides. I honestly can’t tell a difference in the finished loaf whether the sides have been greased or not, the judges need to chill.

Speaking of loaf pans, be sure to use a large 9×5 as this is too much batter for an 8×4 loaf pan.  If you only have a small loaf pan, make some muffins with the extra batter, but don’t fill your pan more than 3/4 full.

Lastly, if you overbake your loaf a bit (I did on the one photographed, by a couple minutes because I was busy when the timer went off), don’t forget my water trick. It works on quick breads as well as cakes! Spray the sides and bottom well with water, don’t be shy with it, and it will all absorb while cooling and soften those hardened edges right up.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Pie

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I was challenged by a former co-worker years ago (five years ago, to be exact), to reproduce the Strawberry Cream Cheese Pie you could get at Long John Silvers.  He was slightly obsessed.

Although I didn’t duplicate it exactly, the crust is almost spot-on (it’s an unbaked graham cracker crust, unusual but so good), and it’s fairly close.  It has taken me this long to share the recipe because I couldn’t share the first one with you – I used wild strawberry essence in it, and not many people would have that on hand to use in a humble pie, such as this.  But I remembered how good it was and wanted to see if I could recreate my recreation of Mrs. Smith’s pie by concentrating the strawberry flavor in another way.  Then I made jam a few weeks ago, inspiration hit.  Jam, to me, is the essence of the fruit used to create it.

So I tried it, replacing the gelatin and fresh strawberries in my original recipe with the homemade jam, and it was perfect. It’s not as light as the original*, but so good in it’s own right. So thick and creamy, so cream cheese-y, so strawberry-y. And so perfect for summer because, unlike most of my recipes this summer, no part of it requires an oven. You’re welcome.

Strawberry Cream Cheese Pie

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

1 ½ envelopes graham crackers (13 1/2 sheets)
6 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon water

1 (8 oz) package cream cheese
1 heaping cup (13 oz jar) good quality strawberry jam
1 (14 oz) can (minus 2 tablespoons for the crust) sweetened condensed milk
2 cups whipped topping or homemade (sweetened) whipped cream

Leftover whipped topping or 1-1 1/2 cups homemade sweetened whipped cream
Leftover crust crumbs

While still in the package, smash up the graham crackers a little bit, then empty into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse & process until fine crumbs. Add the butter, sweetened condensed milk, brown sugar & water and process until thoroughly combined. Set aside 1/2 cup of the crumbs and press the remaining crumbs into a 9” pie plate. Place in fridge.

Wipe out the food processor. Add the cream cheese, jam, and sweetened condensed milk, and process until smooth. Add the whipped topping or whipped cream and pulse until mixed. Pour into prepared pie plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight. Pipe whipped cream around the edge in stars or rosettes using Wilton tip 2110 (1M). Garnish with whipped cream & the remaining crumbs before serving.

Veronica’s notes: If you’d like a lighter pie, you could use 3 cups of whipped cream, or the entire carton of whipped topping, and use another cup or two for garnish. You will have too much pie filling, but I doubt you’ll complain about eating the extra. ;) Also, it’s important to use the best jam possible, as this is what gives the pie its strawberry flavor. If you buy cheap Walmart jam, it will taste like you bought a Great Value frozen pie, not made it yourself. I’ve actually tried this using Walmart strawberry jam, so I unfortunately speak from experience (it was bad).  Homemade is ideal, and Bonne Maman is the only brand I can put my own stamp of approval on if you go with store-bought.

Cake Batter Lovins

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Remember the “Cake Batter Everything” craze that swept over the food blog world in 2011? Yeah, I hopped on that and enjoyed it to the fullest.  I shared only one of my cake batter explorations with you, the Cake Batter Crispy Treats, which were my favorite cake batter flavored treat, but do you think I let the remainder of my bag of yellow cake mix go to waste? No way, Jose.

Here’s a few ideas if you need some ways to use up extra cake mix.

Cake Batter Oats. This is actually a pretty healthy recipe, considering there’s cake mix in it. And tasty too!

Cake Batter French Toast. What can I say, cake batter is such a great way to start the day. And sprinkles just make everything so happy.  This one would be fun for a birthday breakfast! I made a simple icing glaze by mixing like 1/4 cup powdered sugar with just enough milk to get it a drizzling consistency.

Cake Batter Candies. For these, I just melted some vanilla almond bark and added enough yellow cake mix to make it taste like cake batter, but not so much it got too thick.  I poured most of it in a chocolate bar mold (like the one I used for this Vegan White Chocolate), but I didn’t get a picture of that before I gave it to a friend as part of a thank you gift for turning a stain on my jeans into a work of art. The rest of it I poured into peanut butter cup molds and put sprinkles over the tops while it was still setting up.  Kids went crazy for these at a get together, even more so than my Cupcake Bites!

Have you made any cake batter flavored yums?

Classic Cherry Pie

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If you had trouble accessing the Preacher Tuna Salad recipe yesterday, I apologize. I accidentally posted it twice and deleted the original, making the link most everyone got lead to nowhere.  You can click here to view the recipe.With the 4th of July holiday quickly approaching, I thought it was about time I shared my favorite cherry pie recipe.  Maybe it’s all the red, but it just seems very festive to me! :)  There’s nothing fancy about it, unless you consider a lattice top crust fancy, but it’s a very good pie and excellent with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  I love the flavor the almond extract adds, to me it is the essential key to a good cherry pie.

I love my Perfect Pie Crust above all others, and is the crust pictured here.  I highly recommend it for any and all pies, but truth be told, I just as often use a box of Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts.  Judge me if you must, but it saves so much time!  If you buy pre-made crusts, don’t bother with generic/off-brands, they are awful. Pillsbury is pretty good if you don’t have time to make your own.

Classic Cherry Pie

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

Pastry for a two-crust pie
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
2 (14.5 oz) cans tart cherries in water
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon red food coloring (optional)
Milk & coarse sugar for top crust

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out one pie crust and line a 9” pie plate; place in refrigerator. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar & cornstarch and mix well. Drain the juice from the cherries into the pan with the sugar & cornstarch; set the cherries aside. Stirring constantly, cook the juice mixture over medium heat, until bubbling and thickened. Remove from heat and stir in butter, almond extract, and food coloring, if desired, until butter is melted. Stir in the cherries. Spoon into prepared pie plate. Roll out second disc of dough and cut into strips with a pastry wheel or pizza cutter. Arrange strips on top of filling to make a lattice design. Seal and flute edges. Brush milk over crust and sprinkle with sugar. Place on middle oven rack and put a cookie sheet below to catch any spillover. Bake 30 minutes, then put a pie shield on the pie to protect the crust from over-browning. Bake another 15 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Cool at least two hours or overnight before serving.

Veronica’s note: I tend to cook my fruit pie filling until extremely thick, as I prefer my pies not to run at all when cut, as you can see in the photos. If you like yours to run a little, just follow the directions and you’ll be fine. My weirdness for cooking it until nearly cement is not included in them. :)  Also, I have a step-by-step video tutorial on another pie that includes how to make a lattice design here.

**Be sure to visit my “Current Favorites” in the sidebar at the right for other recipes that would be a great addition to your July 4th menu.**

Chewy No-Bake Granola Bars

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Are you a crunchy granola bar person, or a chewy granola bar person? I’m the latter.  My favorite granola bars are the Sunbelt Bakery ones. and it has been a quest of mine for a long time to find a recipe that would duplicate their soft, chewy texture.  I felt that baking them wasn’t the way to go, as all the ones I baked were just a little too firm, a little too dry, and not chewy enough.  I made lots of my own recipes in the search to find that perfect recipe, and never did find it.

Until Sarah.  She posted a recipe for Chewy Coconut Oil Granola Bars and my search ended there.  I’m tellin’ ya, coconut oil is such a good friend in the kitchen.  Makes great cookies, coffee, and granola bars!  These are exactly what I was looking for, and a little healthier than Sunbelt Bakery’s with the flaxseed, honey, coconut oil, and lack of processed/weird ingredients.  And totally crazy delicious!

Chewy No-Bake Granola Bars

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Printable recipe with picture

2 1/2 cups Rice Krispies cereal
1 3/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup ground flaxseed* (I used whole)
1/2 cup mix-ins of your choice (I used peanuts)
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
dash of salt
1/3 cup unrefined virgin coconut oil
1/3 cup natural peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup dark chocolate chunks (I used butterscotch chips)

*You can use wheat germ, wheat bran, or more rolled oats in place of the flaxseed.

Line a 9×13 pan with aluminum foil or wax paper, and grease well with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, stir together cereal, oats, flaxseed, and mix-ins. In a saucepan, stir together honey, brown sugar, and salt. Turn heat onto medium-low, then stir constantly until mixture comes to a boil. Boil for 60 seconds, then remove from heat and gently mix in coconut oil and peanut butter, careful not to splash. Stir in vanilla and cinnamon. Pour wet ingredients over the dry and mix to combine.

Press mixture into prepared pan, then evenly distribute chocolate chunks over top. If you mix the chocolate in, it will melt. Press into granola mixture with a spatula then cover and refrigerate for 2 hours to set. Cut into bars and wrap in aluminum foil or wax paper for easy transport.

Recipe source: The Pajama Chef

Coconut Oil Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Whoooooa Nelly, y’all.  I’ve been making the same chocolate chip cookie recipe for six years, after trying recipe after recipe and finally settling on the one I thought was the BEST and the only one worth making.  Until I made this one.  Which is much easier, and even better.

I won a blue ribbon at the 2011 Kansas State Fair for my Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies.  And these are better, in my humble opinion. :)

My ideal chocolate chip cookie is crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, and have superior flavor.  This one beats every recipe I’ve ever tried and knocks my standards out of the park.  So crispy on the outside, so melty and chewy on the inside, so chocolate & brown sugar-y, with just a hint of coconut flavor.  It’s that coconut flavor that makes it for me.  It’s not in-your-face obvious, and I’m not sure anyone who didn’t know the coconut oil was in there would be able to put their finger on the flavor, but it adds a little something extra that just kills it for me.  It’s out of this wooooorld, people.

I’m weird about labeling my recipes with “Best,” aside from World’s Best Salmon, and avoid it since my definition of best is likely different than your definition of best.  (Hint: any time you see the word “favorite” in a recipe name on my blog, that’s a recipe I consider “best.”)  So I won’t say these are the best.  I haven’t tried every single recipe, so I can’t say it’s the best. But it’s really, really good.  And definitely worth a try, even if you have already found your best.

Coconut Oil Chocolate Chip Cookies

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

½ cup virgin coconut oil, room temperature
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I prefer Ghirardelli)

With a mixer, cream together the coconut oil, brown sugar, salt, and baking soda for 4 minutes on medium-high speed. Add the egg and vanilla and whip another minute. Add the flour and stir together by hand until almost combined, then add the chips continue to stir until combined. Press a sheet of plastic wrap down on top of the dough and refrigerate while the oven is preheating.

Preheat oven to 350 and line baking sheets with parchment paper or silpat mats. Once the oven is preheated, remove the dough from the fridge and scoop out enough dough to make 1-inch balls using either a cookie scoop, or a metal spoon. If the dough has become too firm, you can smoosh the balls together and roll in balls, or leave the bowl out a few minutes to soften a bit before scooping.

Space about 2” apart on cookie sheet and bake 8-10 minutes, just until beginning to brown on the edges. Remove from oven and allow to rest on the cookie sheet for 3-5 minutes, then remove with a spatula onto a cooling rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough.

Store cookies in airtight container or Ziploc bag(s) with air pressed out.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Veronica’s note: Virgin coconut oil is different from regular coconut oil and you can usually find it by the healthier oils, like extra-virgin olive oil, in a glass jar. If you have coconut oil and aren’t sure what kind you have, look for the word “virgin” on the label. If you can’t find it, it’s most likely refined, but the final test is to take a sniff. It should smell lovely, like coconut, and taste the same way. Regular coconut oil will likely work, but won’t give it the special flavor.

Recipe source: adapted from Alida’s Kitchen

Pecan Praline Cake with Butter Sauce

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It’s been a while since I made this cake, but it was so incredibly good that I still remember the feel and taste of it in my mouth. You know a recipe is good when the end result leaves that kind of impression. Soft, warm, gooey, sweet, rich, nutty, crunchy, creamy, pillowy – basically, everything good. A whole lotta yum.  There is frosting mixed into the cake. And then it’s topped with even more goodness. Need I say more?

Pecan Praline Cake with Butter Sauce

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

1 (15 oz) box Butter Pecan Cake Mix
1 (16 oz) tub Coconut Pecan Frosting
4 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a 9×13 pan with oil and set aside.

Combine all cake ingredients except the pecans and beat together until well combined, a minute or two, then stir in the pecans.  Pour into prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Rest on a cooling rack while you make the sauce.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in the sweetened condensed milk.  Continue to stir until heated through, then stir in the pecans.  Pour over the whole cake, or individual slices.

Recipe source: The Country Cook

More cake mix favorites:

Chocolate Italian Love Cake – perfect for Valentine’s Day.

Easy Italian Cream Cake – chock full of pecans, coconut, and maraschino cherries, topped with cream cheese frosting. To die for.

Cookies ‘n Cream Cake/Cupcakes. I didn’t like Oreos until this cake.


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