Plantain Cacao Bread

My guilty pleasure is definitely making breads that should really be called cakes. In the last few months, I've spent a lot of time mastering recipes by great chefs like Deb Perelman and Yotam Ottolenghi. In the process, it's renewed my desire to experiment once again. With that, here is my recipe for plantain cacao bread. 

While plantain is a food that I grew up eating regularly, I've only recently been introduced to cacao.  Cacao (pronounced "cu-COW") refers to the Theobroma cacao tree from which cocoa is derived, and is used when referring to unprocessed versions of the cacao bean. Cacao is the purest form of chocolate, and it is much less processed than cocoa powder or chocolate bars, and contains a large amount of antioxidants like flavanols. 

In this recipe, I used overripe plantain, which is quite sweet, and balanced it with the slightly bitter, rich cacao. The result: one of the most delicious breakfasts (or, let's be honest, desserts...) that I've made in a while. I used applesauce and vegetable oil instead of butter so that I could pretend I was being healthier. Enjoy! 

Plantain Cacao Bread

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Yield: 1 8 x 4-inch loaf

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
2 large eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup applesauce
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 over-ripe plantains, mashed
1 cup raw cacao nibs
1 tbsp brown sugar mixed with 1 tsp cinnamon for topping and slivered almonds (for topping, optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg together, and set aside. 
  2. In a separate bowl or stand mixer, whisk eggs then add oil, applesauce and vanilla. Mix until combined. Add sugars and continue to mix until smooth.
  3. Add the flour mixture in batches to make it easier to mix. Fold in the mashed plantains and cacao nibs, and pour into a lightly greased 8 x 4-inch loaf pan.
  4. Optional: Top batter with sugar/cinnamon/slivered almond topping.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Stuffed Plantain

It’s been a while since my last post! Between moving from Accra to DC to London, I’ve been traveling a lot in the last few months, and cooking has unfortunately taken a backseat to research papers; however, I hope to update Jikoni more periodically. 

While most people from West Africa and the Caribbean are well-acquainted with plantains, here’s a crash course on plantains vs. bananas for those who may be unfamiliar. Plantains are a member of the banana family, but they’re starchy and can’t be eaten raw. They’re typically fried or baked, and the older they are (i.e. the more black spots), the sweeter the taste. 

In West Africa, plantains are typically cut, fried, and served as a snack or side dish. In The Gambia, where my mother is from, they’re usually served hot off the fire. In Ghana, the local take is called kelewele, and they're seasoned with dry chili peppers, ginger, and a whole host of delicious spices. 

In the spirit of kelewele, which I greatly miss from my Accra days, I’ve been reflecting on how to integrate sweet plantain with something savory. I decided I would roast some plantain and stuff it with meat and vegetables. 

Turns out that I’m not as original as I thought. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, which have large numbers of Afro-Latino people, stuffed plantains are called canoas de platanos maduros, or “canoes of sweet plantains.” 

Instead of frying the plantains whole, I took the advice of Jannese of Delish D’Lites and baked the plantains for a lighter twist without sacrificing the sweetness. For this recipe, I used plantains that were yellow with lots of black spots. As she warns, using plantains that are completely black will result in a mushy mess. 

For my take on the plantains, I followed Jannese’s recipe, and brushed the whole plantains with ghee, wrapped them in their peels, and baked them inside the peels for 30 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit in order to keep them moist. 

For the filling:

2/3 pound ground lean beef
2 chopped bell peppers
3 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 onion
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons tomato sauce
1/4 teaspoon oregano
Dash of salt and cayenne pepper
1 bay leaf
Optional: provolone cheese

  1. Heat a large skillet over low-medium heat. Add onions and garlic, and cook until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add bell peppers and cook until tender. Add tomato sauce and ground beef, which you should cook until browned. 
  2. Season with salt, pepper, and oregano to taste.
  3. Add bay leaf (discard before serving). 
  4. Fill the baked plantain with the meat and vegetable mixture. 
  5. Optional: drizzle cheese on top 

Serve alongside some Spanish rice (or jollof, for those who feel like taking it one step further)!

 

Gambian Classic: Chakery (Sweeetened Couscous with Yogurt)

Growing up, I always loved rice pudding. As the ultimate comfort food, it can be found in almost every culture. The Lebanese call it moghli and add anise and ginger. In India, rice pudding goes by the name kheer and is flavored with cardamom and a rich array of toppings ranging from raisins, cashews to pistachios and almonds. In The Gambia, the twist on rice pudding is a little different — a delicious mix of couscous or millet with sour cream and yogurt known simply as chakery. 

Elsewhere in West Africa, the dessert (which sometimes substitutes wheat couscous for millet) goes by different names ranging from burkina in Ghana to dege in Francophone West Africa. I'm partial to the couscous because it cleanly delivers from flavor of the base mixture while adding some rich texture. 

As most African cuisines tend to focus on umami, sourness and saltiness, chakery is a rare sweet dish in a culture dominated by all things savory. The name chakery derives from the traditionally millet couscous base. Some suspect that the modern rendition of chakery derives from a similar unsweetened dish that has since evolved from a main course to a dessert. 

Chakery

2 cups of plain or vanilla yogurt
1 cup of sour cream
Cup of pineapple or berries
Vanilla extract (if using unsweetened yogurt)
Couscous
Optional: Fresh mint leaves for garnish

  1. Cook the couscous separately with water., and allow to cool. 
  2. Mix the sour cream, yogurt, and vanilla extract together, then add the cool cooked couscous.
  3. Top with fruit and enjoy!

 

An Everyman's Drink Descended from Royal Libations

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During a recent trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I sampled tej, a honey wine that Ethiopians call their national drink and wrote about the experience for Roads and Kingdoms. You can take a peek here or read the full article below.

Tej in Addis Ababa

To the outside world, Ethiopia’s national drink is coffee, but, as my taxi driver tells me on my first day in Addis Ababa, the most popular local drink is tej.

In traditional lore, honey wine was the drink of Ethiopian nobility; legend has it that the Queen of Sheba presented it as a gift to King Solomon. But despite these noble beginnings, today tej is the drink of the everyman, and is particularly popular during festivals and celebrations.

Everyone has their own take on tej, which differs around the country, but a tour guide tells me that the best place to sample the drink is a tejbet, a small bar specializing in tej. At the tejbet, you’ll find the honey wine in mild, medium, and strong. Buyer beware: the stronger the tej, the more you’ll be left wondering if your head is swimming due to the altitude or the alcohol (which can reach up to 16 percent by volume).

Unlike beer or wine, which are becoming more popular due to the range of breweries that have set up shop in Ethiopia over the last decade, tej doesn’t require much equipment. Gesho, a local herb often called “Ethiopian hops,” water, and honey, one of Ethiopia’s largest exports, will do the trick.

If you’re really old-school, you’ll consume tej in an animal horn, in the way of the ancestors. But nowadays, you’ll most commonly find it served in a spherical glass beaker called a berele.

I sample the sweet honey wine for the first time at the tourist-friendly Yod Abysinnia Cultural Center, an Addis restaurant that locals recommend as one of the best places to sample injera and indulge in shiro, a delicious chickpea-and-white bean dish that makes my mouth water.

The Abyssinian mead, which dates back to the 4th century, has the texture of dessert wine, but a hint of spice. With its yellow-orange hue, it could easily be mistaken for mango juice.

Though Yod Abysinnia’s vibrant dancers and excellent food will draw me back in the future, its tej’s musky undertones will not. I resolve to keep an open mind about the varieties of tej, so I table my opinion as I go off in search of a local tejbet.

 

Butternut Squash and Leek Soup with Roasted Cauliflower and Toasted Egusi Seeds

I've been staring at the egusi seeds on my counter for a few weeks as I tried to figure out how to use them. Egusi looks almost exactly like a watemelon on the outside, but looks completely different on the inside with bitter white flesh and delicious seeds that taste like pumpkin seeds. 

Most people will know egusi through the famous Nigerian egusi soup (more appropriately called a stew), which is one of my favorite West African dishes. But the whole point of this food blog is to try new things, right? So I racked my brain and wondered what they would taste like toasted. They're about 30% protein, and a great addition to any vegetarian's diet.

Egusi seeds are usually ground before they're added to soup, so I've never eaten them whole. After I made this soup, I discovered that roasted egusi seeds have a delicious nutty taste that's a cross between sesame seeds and peanuts. They make a great addition to thick soups because of the little crunch they add. I think I'll roast some and eat them as a snack next , or experiment and see what they taste like as a nut butter.

Serves 2

1 large butternut squash, chopped and cubed
2 cups leeks, sliced and roughy chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups of chicken stock
1 teaspoon cumin
1 head cauliflower
1/4 cup egusi seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste

  1. In a medium-sized pot, heat the oil. Add the leeks, shallot, and garlic, and cook until softened. Cook for 10 minutes, then add the spices.
  2. Add the chicken stock with 2 cups of water and salt and cook on low to medium heat for about 30 minutes or until the squash is soft and the soup becomes fragrant.
  3. Using an immersion blender or a standing blender, blend the soup until it is uniform in texture.
  4. In a large pan, add 1 teaspoon of oil. Add cauliflower and brown on both sides. Add salt and pepper, then set aside.
  5. In a small pan, add a tiny bit of butter and add the egusi seeds. Brown them on both sides over low heat. 

Smoothie Bowl Adventures, Part Un

I’m a self-described foodie, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not health conscious. Instead of trying and failing at my usual New Year’s Resolution to go on a diet and say no to the baguette, I decided to focus instead of re-learning the art of eating. My friend Larissa shared this Guardian article by Bee Wilson on re-thinking our culture’s disordered and obsessive relationship with food. 

Wilson writes that “in today’s food culture, many people seem to have acquired uncannily homogenous tastes. ” Later, she goes on to say that “once we accept that eating is a learned behaviour, we see that the challenge is not to grasp information but to learn new habits… The point is that before you can become a carrot eater, the carrots have to be desirable.”

I’m on a quest to eat locally and healthfully — to integrate more fruits and vegetables into my diet without succumbing to the temptations of oil and butter.

I’m Kenyan-American, so I also grew up eating quite a bit of meat, especially red meat. However, as I think more about reducing my own carbon footprint and eating as many natural products as much as possible, I’ve pledged to Meatless Mondays and Wednesdays in solidarity with another of my dear friends, Emefa (My very traditional Kenyan father would probably be horrified if he read this post). 

Enter my new smoothie and soup obsession. 

One of the most popular Instagram trends these days is the smoothie bowl. My friend Mariah Amter of M’s Smoothies and Colorful Eats (@mamter) is at the forefront of that trend. I delight in the color of flavor of her gorgeous smoothie bowls. 

I’m an amateur and I’m slowly learning how to make my smoothie bowls prettier, so you’ll have to forgive me on these first two attempts. I told you I’d be transparent about my trials and errors in recipe development on this food blog. Nigella Lawson wasn’t built in a day and neither was Jikoni.

According to Bon Appetit, a good smoothie bowl has five main components: 

  1. The Base
  2. The Fruit/Vegetable
  3. The Crunch
  4. The Health Boosters
  5. The Sweetener

For the first bowl, my base was yogurt. Fruit: pineapple, passion fruit, mango, watermelon. Topping: desiccated coconut. I skipped the crunch and doubled up on my health booster, baobab. Sweetener: agave nectar. 

For the second bowl, my base was almond milk. My fruits and vegetables were mango, cucumber, and banana. My topping was the sunflower seeds. My crunch? Tiger nuts. My health boosters were (you guessed it) baobab and moringa. And my sweeter was honey. 

Let me know if you’ve got any ideas for a smoothie bowl! 

Roasted Cauliflower and Carrot Pepe Soup

This soup has a strong, earthy flavor with a spicy kick to give you a good antioxidant dose and get your metabolism going. I've been reducing my intake of meat lately, so I topped the soup with some moringa to give me a protein boost.

In West Africa, you'll find your fair share of pepper fanatics. Pepper (or "pepe" as many will call it) can make or break an otherwise bland dish. Growing up in a Gambian household, I thought that I was well adapted to spicy dishes. When I arrived in Ghana, I was proved wrong. In my few months here, I've eaten many a dish so hot that it feels like my mouth is on fire. But culinary Curious George I am, I persisted. Now, I'm proud to say that I can eat my friend Julie's okro soup without hesitation. I think the ultimate spice challenge will be attempting a true Indian vindaloo at its full spice potential. Pray for my tastebuds, y'all. 

If you're not too good with spice, use one scotch bonnet for this recipe instead of two. 

Enjoy!

Serves 6 - 8 people.

1 large yellow onion
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2 pounds carrots, peeled and chopped
1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets
Sea salt & fresh ground pepper
1 bay leaf
2 Scotch bonnets, stemmed, seeded, and minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups all-natural vegetable broth
2 cups water

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. In a large baking pan toss cauliflower, carrots, and garlic with oil to coat and roast in middle of oven until golden (about 30 minutes).
  3. Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the chopped onion, and cook, stirring occasionally until golden brown (about 8 minutes). Add bay leaf.
  4. Pour in the vegetable stock, and add the roasted vegetables.
  5. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to simmer for 25 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Discard the bay leaf.
  6. Using a blender and working in batches, puree until the ingredients are smooth.
  7. Garnish with herbs or vegetables of your choice. 

Makes a great make-ahead lunch meal for the work week if you freeze it!

The Breakfast Staple That Transcends All Borders

I've been following Anthony Bourdain-backed travel website Roads and Kingdoms for quite some time. The website bills itself as a "next-generation travel, food, music and journalism platform." And it's living up to its lofty goals: it's won two James Beard nominations, an IACP nod, and was named the best Travel Journalism site by the Society of American Travel Writers. I was really excited when the editorial team gave me the chance to write for their breakfast series. Check my ode to "diasporic dough" below and find it live on the Roads and Kingdoms website here

THE BREAKFAST STAPLE THAT TRANSCENDS ALL BORDERS

Bofrot in Accra

Across Africa and its diaspora, certain recipes and techniques stretch across borders. The most famous diasporic staple is likely West Africa’s okra stew, which shares similarities with New Orleans’ gumbo and caruru in Brazil’s Bahia, the hub of the Afro-Brazilian culture. But less well-noted are African and diasporic variations of fritters.

Louisiana has its beignets. Kenya, its mandazi. In Ghana, the fried dough of choice is bofrot, also called togbei, or “goat’s balls” in Ga, the language of one of the ethnic groups native to the Accra region.

Each morning, in the congested Accra traffic, street vendors weave in and out of the treacherous maze of cars selling on-the-go snacks. Boxes filled with bofrot and other pastries are balanced precariously on their heads. Drivers and passengers crammed in trotros, the local form of public transport, dive into their pockets in search of a few coins to exchange with hawkers before traffic begins moving again.

But you can’t get your bofrot from just anyone. A tried-and-true bofrot connoisseur, I find the bofrot sold on the street to be soggy after sitting too long. I prefer to purchase mine from a lovely lady named Ama, who starts deep frying the delicious round doughnuts each morning in Osu, Accra’s hustling, bustling “Times Square.” By now, Ama and I have a steady rhythm. Rolling down the car window in the morning, I’m always greeted with a warm smile and a raspy voice saying “εte sεn? One cedi?”

For the equivalent of twenty-five cents, I get two warm bofrot. Not the healthiest of foods, I (regretfully) indulge sparingly, just two or three times a week. While a popular breakfast snack, alongside other popular go-to’s like kooko (maize porridge) or kye bom (fried egg and bread), bofrot is also a staple at parties and weddings. As a sweet finger-food, it stands out in a culture dominated by salty and savory dishes.

Some Ghanaian friends tell me that traditionalists use palm wine in place of yeast, which gives it a distinctive taste. An uncle with a sweet tooth advises rolling the bofrot in powdered sugar to make it sweeter. As I perform my own gastronomic experiments at home, I dip the bofrot in a passion fruit glaze and delight in the sweet-and-tart taste.

Growing up, I was accustomed to bofrot’s Kenyan cousin, mandazi, which often features coconut milk and spices like ginger and cardamom and is frequently cut into triangles. Mandazi is more dense, with a consistency similar to cake rather than a beignet. Less sweet than bofrot, mandazi are often served with chai tea, a nod to Kenya’s fusion of Indian and African culture.

Different regions call for twists that alter the texture and taste, but the core components to diasporic dough always follow the simple formula: flour, yeast, sugar, water. The omnipresence of such a simple snack across the globe ensures that a piece of home is never too far away. A Kenyan-American in Ghana, my bi-weekly trip to Ama’s bofrot stand cures even the worst bout of homesickness.