“How can I learn to cook without recipes?” It’s a question that I get a lot once friends or colleagues find out that I have a food blog. It’s clear that the recession has spurred a lot of home cooking and once people become comfortable with their repetoire of recipes they are often eager to go off the beaten path, be more creative, and start inventing things on their own.
And I can relate because when I first started cooking, I wondered the same thing. I liked cooking from recipes and would make small substitutions and tweaks here and there, but being more inventive seemed daunting. How would I know what went together? Where would I get ideas?
Six years later, much in part to blogging, creating recipes seems more natural and at times, it’s a skill that I almost take for granted. So how did I get from being beholden to the recipe to cooking more intuitively? The biggest answer – no surprise here – is experience. In those years I’ve made hundreds of recipes, many outside my comfort zone, and the fact of the matter is that the more you cook, the more you understand the science of cooking, how flavors work together, and what you yourself like to eat.
And while doing is the best teacher, reading helps to. I have an almost out of control number of blog feeds in my Google Reader and a thorough collection of cookbooks and food magazines. I love looking at how similar recipes can be approached differently and how this impacts the results. I also recommend eating out, as if you needed an excuse already. Menus provide a wealth of inspriation when it comes to flavor and technique. Some of my favorite recipes like my Pineapple-Ginger Grilled Tofu with Edamame Salad and Pasta with Goat Cheese, Orange Confit, and Thyme were inspired by dishes I ate out. I also highly recommend asking questions of the waitstaff when you find a dish you really like. While some restaurants have secrets they won’t devulge, most are flattered and all too eager to share how they made something.
And my last trick, start with solid, trusted recipes that you can make your own. The book Ratio is great for this and provides formulas for things like pancakes, fritters, quick bread, and cookie dough so you can take them and play. But you can also just start with the recipes you already have and look for ways to experiment.
This Banana Tea Cake recipe is one of my favorites to play around with because it’s forgiving and holds almost endless possibilities. It’s a bit hard to describe this bread. It’s original cookbook description calls it a healthier version of Starbucks Banana Pound Cake, but in all honestly it doesn’t taste like pound cake to me at all, though it is still incredibly delicious.
It’s less moist, less crumbly, and more airy than your traditional banana bread making it perfect for transforming into luscious bread puddings or a sweet dessert panini. (I’m thinking one or both of these is to come.) I also especially love that straight out of the oven, the top is a little crunchy, providing the perfect foil to the soft and supple interior. It’s great as written, but also the perfect base recipe to play with. In the past I’ve substituted various flours for the all purpose flour, tried other fruit purees in place of banana, and topped it with a glaze. I’m sure you could think of even more ways to make it your own and since it is a healthier banana bread, you don’t have to feel guilty about all the experimentation. Of course if you prefer to stay true to the original. That’s fine too. It’s delicious so I certainly wouldn’t hold it against you.
Adapted from Fast Food Fix
-2 cups all purpose flour
-1 teaspoon sea salt
-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
-1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 3 medium bananas)
-1 cup sugar
-2 egg whites
-2/3 cup low fat vanilla yogurt
-2/3 cup mini chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a regular sized loaf pan (or 3 mini loaf pans) with cooking spray. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the flour baking soda, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the bananas, sugar, egg whites, and yogurt. Mix until thoroughly combined. Add the flour mixture and stir just until no flour is visible. Be careful not to overmix. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour into the reserved pans.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes (or 40 to 50 for mini loaf pans) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool the pan(s) on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove to the rack and cool completely. Cut into 8 slices. Serve warm or at room temperature. Wrap and refrigerate any leftovers for 3 days, or tightly wrap and freeze any leftovers in a freezer bag or freezer-safe container for 1 month.
What about you? Do you have any tips on how to cook without recipes?