school is sweet

I tend to have an optimistic outlook on life. Which is why, even after today’s 12-hour lecture/lab/review session marathon, I can honestly say that there are some really great things about spending so much time in class as a second year medical student. For one, these long days of study provide protection from the frigid temperatures outside. When most of my activities are housed in one building or in the hospital, which is a short underground tunnel walk away, I can almost forget that it’s zero degrees outside! From a nerdier standpoint, it’s pretty rewarding to walk away from day of class knowing that I’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge, which I’ll be putting to use to take care of people scarily soon. But perhaps the biggest advantage of being in class so much these days is that I am constantly surrounded by my wonderful, intelligent, and most importantly, dessert-loving classmates.

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Among our class, there is a strong culture of baked-goods-passing during lecture. I couldn’t help but laugh when a few weeks ago, as we were being schooled on the detrimental effects of diabetes and the rampant pace at which it is growing in the U.S. as our diets continue to deteriorate, a box chock-full of chocolate cake and cookies was making its way around the room.   While as med students, we know the importance of eating healthily, we also know that desserts, in moderation, definitely boost our moods and make all the learning we do just that much more enjoyable. Because of this, I am never at a loss for people with whom to share my late night baking experiments, and I am a regular provider of in-class sweets.

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My most recent contribution was cranberry orange bread with dark chocolate chunks. I had a stash of cranberries in my freezer that needed to be put to a noble use. Kate had been telling me about a great recipe she had for cranberry orange bread, and while I usually consult far too many books and websites before settling on a recipe to make, I trusted Kate’s judgment on this one and I’m so glad I did. This bread was dense, but extremely moist. The dark chocolate chunks were optional, but I’d highly encourage adding them. They added depth to the bread and helped cut through the acidity of the fresh cranberries and orange. Like many baked goods I’ve shared here recently, this would be great to serve at any occasion, but from my experience, it is especially suited to serve as a mid-lecture pick-me-up.

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Cranberry Orange Bread with Dark Chocolate Chunks

Adapted from The Shared Table

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup butter, softened

¾ cup orange juice

1 tablespoon grated orange rind

1 egg, room temperature and beaten

1 cup fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate

One large (9×5) or two small (7½ x 3½) loaf tins, greased or Teflon. If glass, reduce oven heat to 325

In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. With a pastry blender or two knives cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

In small bowl combine orange juice and grated rind with the beaten egg. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix just enough to dampen. Don’t beat. Carefully fold in the nuts and cranberries.

Butter pan well, line the long sides and bottom with one length of wax paper, butter paper in place, for easy removal of the loaf. The mixture will be stiff and must be pushed into the corners of the pan with a spoon or spatula. Form it slightly higher on the sides to compensate for the rising crown.

While oven preheats to 350°, allow the filled pan to rest.

Bake in the the oven until the loaf tests done when pierced in the center with a metal skewer or toothpick, about 50-60 minutes. If it comes out clean and dry, the loaf is baked. If moist particles cling to the pin, return the loaf to the oven for an additional 10 minutes. Test again.

Remove bread from the oven . Carefully turn from the pan, peel the wax paper away and cool on a metal rack. An easy way to remove the loaf is to turn the pan on its side, tug gently at the leading edges of the wax paper to work the loaf loose. Allow the loaf to age overnight before slicing.

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bread, the long way around

I love efficiency. Most of the time. You won’t meet many 20something women better at packing a light suitcase than me. I get unreasonably annoyed when the El doesn’t arrive on time- it can seriously ruin my day. If you are cooking with me and you’re too slow with your onion chopping, I will probably take the knife out of your hands and do it myself. I am sorry in advance. I didn’t say I was proud of this particular quirk.

When I bake bread, though, I am somehow able to squelch the efficiency impulse, and take the long way around. It must be  because bread baking is an inherently slow process, but something about it brings out my need to ditch the streamlining and just putz around sometimes. I love that I can listen to an album all the way through while I gather the ingredients, mix, and knead; that I can watch an entire movie while the dough proofs.

This is the ultimate long-way-around bread. It has fifteen ingredients and I have been known to go to three different grocery stores in one day to gather all those ingredients. But the end result is worth the trouble, pilgrim, because at the end of this long way around you’ll have two big, dense loaves of the most flavorful bread you’ve ever eaten.

I got completely hooked on dark, dense pumpernickle during my semester in Denmark. I ate my weight in rugbrod — a chewy, deep brown  loaf made with a fermented starter — during those months. In the nearly three years since I returned to the States, I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that I can’t recreate rugbrod in my own kitchen (I have been unable to find the right course grind of rye flour and I’m pretty bad at sourdough starters). Happily, this black bread shares a fair piece of its genome with that Danish cousin.

Black Bread

adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2 packages (1 1/2 T ) active dry yeast

pinch of sugar

1/2 c warm water

2 c water

1/4 c molasses

1/4 c apple cider vinegar

4 T butter

1 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 c whole wheat flour

3 c rye flour

3 c all purpose flour

1 c bran

1 1/2 T caraway seeds

1 T salt

1 T instant espresso powder

1 T minced shallots

1/8 c cornmeal

2 t flour

Stir the yeast and sugar into the 1/2 c warm water until it is dissolved. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Heat the 2 c water, molasses, vinegar, butter, and chocolate until the butter and chocolate are melted. Set aside to cool to lukewarm. Combine the flours in a large bowl. Combine 2 c mixed flours, bran, caraway seeds, salt, espresso, and shallots. Add yeast and chocolate mixtures. Mix until smooth, either with a wooden spoon or a stand mixer. Add 1/2 c of the mixed flours at a time until the dough comes together and clears the sides of the bowl while you mix. It should be quite sticky but firm. Flour your kneading surface well, turn out the dough, and knead for 8-10 minutes until elastic. Add sprinkles of flour as needed. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until double, about 1 1/2 hours. When done rising, deflate the dough and turn out onto a floured surface. Divide into two portions and shape into rounds. Place the rounds, seam side down, on a large baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Mix the cornmeal and the 2 t flour and sprinkle over the loaves. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until double again, about 45 minutes. Just before baking, use a sharp serrated knife to cut an X into the tops of the loaves. Bake at 350 for 40- 5o minutes or until the loaves are nicely browned and sound hollow when tapped. Cool completely on a rack. Keeps well in the freezer, wrapped in foil.

gems of summer

Although I have lived in the Midwest for five years, this is the first summer I have spent away from my hometown of Miami. When you grow up in a place where the average temperature is always 80+ degrees and beach-going vacationers abound year-round, there’s just not as much excitement surrounding the summer months. But here in Midwest, I’ve noticed summer takes on an entirely different meaning. It is celebrated as a precious time where the weather is predictably warm. Countless outdoor festivals and festivities make for endless, often free, entertainment. The lakefront, which not long ago was frigid and ferociously wavy, invites beach-goers into its refreshing waters (I must admit my ocean-jaded self was impressed by the niceness of Lake Michigan!). Best of all, summer produce is abundant, not only in stores, but in farms just a short drive outside the city of Chicago.

Two weekends ago, I had what has thus far been one of my most treasured Midwest summer experiences: blueberry picking in Michigan. This was not only my first time in Michigan, it was also my first time blueberry picking. I was determined to make the most of this new experience, so with a big white bucket hung around my neck, I immersed myself in the blueberry bushes, using both hands to pluck the juicy blue gems off their branches and letting a more than justifiable amount of berries find their way straight into my mouth rather than into my pail. I emerged with three pounds of the plumpest, freshest blueberries I had ever tasted, and with all sorts of plans for what they’d become.

To be honest, they were so delicious in their natural state that I ended up enjoying the bulk of them raw. But, luckily, I had a worthy cause to motivate me to incorporate them into a baked good. Alyssa, one of my closest friends and college roommates, was having a birthday, and even though we now live 1,000 miles away, I still wanted to send her a token of my love.

Given the abundance of this fresh fruit and Alyssa’s love for all things lemon, I knew there was no better way to wish her a happy birthday than in the form of a blueberry lemon loaf. I had to use every ounce of restraint to package it up without snagging a bite, so I can only tell you that it smelled heavenly while baking, but I’ll let Alyssa’s expression provide a testament to the taste.


Though summer seems to be fading away faster than I’d like, I am looking forward to continuing to enjoy many more beautiful moments and morsels in this celebrated season.

Piece Offering

Ten months ago, I moved out to Chicago bearing three oversized suitcases, a turtle shell of a backpack, and a freshly baked loaf of banana bread.

Amidst my clothes, books, and cooking utensils, it was this sugary delight that carried the greatest importance (and, not to mention, the greatest aroma to accompany me through a three-hour flight). You see, no less than four hours after disembarking the plane in Chicago, I had scheduled appointments with various local Craigslist sellers to acquire a giant plush couch, a coffee table, end tables, a full-size bed, a chair, an ottoman, two bookshelves, and an elaborate multi-piece desk. Call me crazy, but I wanted to feel settled in to my new city as soon as I could.

And that’s where the banana bread came in.

A simple post on our budding med school Facebook group’s wall requesting a helping hand in exchange for some banana bready goodness, and I was met with smiling faces, strong arms, and growling stomachs. Some may call it bribery, but it’s how I made my empty apartment a home, and more importantly, it’s how I made the first of my wonderful, generous friends here.

I’ve been making this banana bread for years, and it’s come to serve as a vehicle for my journeys in sharing the joys of baking with others. Through this bread, my mom taught me how to level flour and know the difference between wet and dry measurements when I was but a budding baker working by her side. Through this bread, I fundraised for Relay For Life by turning my dorm kitchen into an underground commercial baking operation. Through this bread, I’ve been able to ship my love cross-country in tightly-wrapped brown boxes. And most recently through this bread, I’ve brought finals-weary med students together to celebrate almost being done with our first year of this journey.

Over the years, through experimentation and taking tips from others, I’ve created something that’s uniquely my own, but always shared with others—as an offering of gratitude, friendship, and love.

Joanna Banana Bread

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 overripe bananas, mashed
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup milk (or soy milk)
1 cup chocolate chips (optional, but highly recommended)

Preheat oven to 350. Whisk together oil and sugar. Add eggs. Add mashed bananas. Add dry ingredients (flour through salt). Add vanilla and milk and whisk until just combined. Finally, lightly coat the chocolate chips in some flour and fold them into the batter (this will prevent them from sinking while baking).  Pour batter into greased 9x5x3” loaf pan* and bake for 60 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Allow to cool in pan on rack for 30 minutes. Remove from pan and allow to cool completely (if you have the ability to resist the temptation of just digging in!)

*Dust the pan with sugar or cinnamon sugar after you have greased it for a delicious crunchy crust!

Working Titles

I’m guilty. I often judge books by their covers. Not in the metaphorical, life-lesson sense, but certainly in the literal sense. It is a life goal of mine to assemble a cookbook collection the beauty of which would make the paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago blush. I find joy in the sight of the pretty cookbooks and textbooks that fill my shelves and banner this blog. If I had to choose an image to capture the way in which I spend my days, it would be the one at the top of this page. Interpret that as you will, but at least it looks nice.

I judge books (and blogs) by their titles, too. When Joanna pitched me the name “sugar cured,”and her concept for a med student cooking blog, I knew I couldn’t pass on involvement in a project with such a perfect title. I think you can tell a lot about an author by the amount of effort she puts into her titles. A narcissistic confession: I think a lot about names for my as yet unwritten memoirs. Today, the frontrunning title is My Life in Pizza. Yes, I know it lacks poetry, but I think the theme would capture my culinary history quite well.

The intro to My Life in Pizza would tell about how I was the only child in modern history who refused to eat pizza. The early chapters would chronicle how I saw the madness in my incredibly-picky-eating ways and how my mom taught me how to make homemade pizza. I’d spend good 20 pages describing the lifetime pinnacle of pizza consumption, achieved at the young age of 16 on a trip to Italy. I’d write about my first summer in my own place, when my housemate Nolly and I made pizza every Friday night, a tradition that sparked one of my dearest friendships. The most recently penned chapter would chronicle one year spent cooking and studying in this city of deep dishes and brisk winds. It may be no “My Life in France,” but I think it has potential…
When you take the time to make pizza at home, you should use it to tell the story of your life in pizza. Use my recipe as a starting point, but the fun part of making your own pizza is letting your imagination dictate the results. The crust comes from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking. I love it for its simplicity and its balance of chewy-crunchy. You can mix it up in the morning and let it sit all day, and anything extra keeps well in the freezer.
For 2 pizzas:
Crust:
1 1/2 t active dry yeast
1 c warm water
3 1/4 c all-purpose flour
1/2 T salt
Sauce:
1 small can tomato sauce
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed
2 T goat cheese or feta crumbles
1/4 t salt
Dash of black or red pepper (depending on your spice comfort)
Dash of oregano
Toppings:
2 c grated mozzerella cheese
1 onion, carmelized
2 roma tomatoes, sliced thinly
5 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 large red bell pepper, sliced thinly
Fresh basil, shredded
Place 1/4c of the water in a large bowl and mix in the yeast. Let sit for 10 minutes until the yeast is mostly dissolved. Add 1c flour and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon As you continue to stir, add salt, olive oil, 1 c more flour, and 1/4 c more water. Mix well, then add the balance of the flour and water, adjusting the quantities to make the dough manageable- soft but not too sticky.
Take the dough out of the bowl and place it on a well-floured counter. Knead until the dough becomes elastic and well-combined, about 10 minutes. Add sprinkles of flour as needed, but don’t overdo it- you want the dough to be fairly soft. Drizzle a few teaspoons of olive oil in a large bowl and add the kneaded dough, turning it to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise. Rising time is flexible. It can be as short as 1.5 hours or as long as all day.
30 minutes before you are ready to bake, turn the oven to 450. Make the sauce: mix all the ingredients in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the cheese melts and the mixture bubbles. Prepare your toppings. Punch down the dough, divide in two pieces, and stretch or roll as thinly as you can get it, yielding rounds of 11-12″ diameter. Place on oiled cookie sheets. Bake each crust (without toppings or sauce) for 3-4 minutes. Add all toppings except the basil and return to the oven. Bake 8-10 minutes. Baking time can vary significantly based on the kind of cheese you use and how hot your oven actually gets when you turn it to 450 degrees. When the cheese is starting to brown in spots, take the pizza out, sprinkle on the basil, cut, and serve.