Today is the darkest day of the year. Outside my window, rain splashes down in furious puddles on the Seattle streets. People walking by look harried, clutching packages and bags with fraying handles, their hands loaded down by last-minute presents. Were all fighting the darkness with lights and action. And what am I doing to deal with the shortest day of the entire year?
Im staying in and baking.
Actually, thats not all. Im working on an enormously important writing project. Schools finished for two weeks, which means I can sleep in and really dive into my writing. So I pace around the living room, looking at the Christmas tree, and humming, words thrumming through my mind. When Im in this space, all is right with the world. The dishes may be undone, the bills are yet to be paid, the presents Ill need under the tree in four days remain unknown never mind. What does any of that matter when I have the entire day to create?
And when Im writing, doing the work I love, I suddenly feel even more of an urge to cook. Cooking is a deeply creative act, after all. When Im stirring something in a deep pot, the smells wafting up to my nose, it feels the same as the pen drifting across the page. Deciding what to cook, then watching it emerge from underneath my hands feels like something from the deepest part of me, where its dependent on my awareness and entirely out of my control. Washing the dishes feels like scratching out the unnecessary words.
These days, Im cooking less often with recipes. For months, I studied every good cookbook I could find with a fervent attention normally only reserved for the work of scholars. And then Id try to replicate the vision I had formed in my mind on the plate. Im glad for all that time trying to follow other peoples minds, because it led me to mine. Now, more and more, I imagine a taste, and then throw in ingredients that feel right. What happens if it all falls apart? Oh well. It couldnt taste too terrible. Even if it does, I have a garbage disposal. But Im finding, again and again, that trusting my foodie instincts leads me to places I never knew existed. If I needed it all to be perfect, Id be doing something else. Its the experimentation that I remember best.
The only stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking youve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.
And so, with a what-the-hell attitude firmly in mind, I decided this morning to make some banana bread. With teff flour.
Teff (also spelled tef or tef) is the staple grain of Ethiopia. Packed with protein, calcium, and iron, tef is also one of the gluten-free grains, along with amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and quinoa. In fact, one cup of cooked tef contains as much iron as the USDA recommends for adults in one day. Its nutritionally rich because most of the grain is made up of bran and germ, where the nutrients live. The whole grain is made into flour. It takes 150 teff grains to equal the weight of a single wheat grain. The name, in Amharic, means lost, perhaps because each individual grain of tef is so small that, if dropped on the floor, it would be lost. Perhaps this explains why its so soft in the mouth, almost melting away immediately.
Teff was almost lost to the world. Grown exclusively in Ethiopia for thousands of years, teff was cultivated by Coptic Christians in Ethiopia. Isolated by their geography and religion from the rest of Africa, the teff farmers did not trade their grain, which is also quite labor intensive to grow. After the death of Haile Selassie, in 1974, the socialist military government insisted that the farmers grow less labor-intensive crops, such as wheat, to export to other countries and make more money for the state. Teff farming was beginning to die out. An American from Idaho, Wayne Carlson, was working as an aid worker in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Fascinated by the growing practices he witnessed, and having fallen in love with Ethiopian food, he took some of the teff seeds back home with him when he left. From there, he started growing teff in Caldwell, Idaho, then selling it to the Ethiopian communities in US cities. Today, the Teff company has a thriving business. I can find bags of teff flour fairly easily in Seattle.
And thank goodness for that. I adore Ethiopian food. We have a number of Ethiopian restaurants in this fair city, and I have visited most of them. My brother and sister-in-law and I have come to rely on Amy’s Cafe on 29th and Cherry, which looks ramshackle, and even boarded up, from the outside. Inside, the windows are steamed up from the cooking, and almost everyone at the tables is Ethiopian. They don’t even offer menus. You have to know what you want, or ask the kind waitress to explain in her broken English what she thinks you should eat. When I introduced a new foodie friend to his first Ethiopian meal recently, he couldnt believe the taste. Its fantastic. And it doesnt taste like anything else Ive ever eaten. The spices are just different. Hes right. In case you have never eaten Ethiopian food (and you must rectify that soon, if its true), you should know that various spiced lentils and vegetables arrive arrayed on a large platter, which is covered in injera bread. Injera, which has a slight sourdough taste, and a texture like a yoga mat, is made from teff flour. (Gluten-free readers beware: at some Ethiopian restaurants geared toward typical Americans, they might mix the teff with wheat flour. Be sure to ask.)
In order to reach the tiny little cafe (six tables, no more) at Amy’s, you have to walk through the Ethiopian grocery store. All the spices you could need to make your own veggie combo at home, plus big bags of pure teff flour for $5.99! Plus, Ethiopian dvds, should you want them. All of it enshrouded in clouds of incense smoke.
Ive eaten so many warm, beautifully spiced Ethiopian meals that I cannot imagine my life without them. Its a communal eating experience, because there are no forks involved. Instead, everyone tears off portions of the injera bread and pushes it into the cooked cabbage or spicy lamb. All formalities disappear. You cant help but talk and laugh as you bump fingers over the Ethiopian cheese or chicken wat or beef kitfo. The bread satisfies, deeply. And after a few moments, its all gone. And you feel wonderfully sated.
You should find an Ethiopian restaurant today.
So I knew about injera bread before my celiac diagnosis. But it wasnt until I was told I had to go gluten-free that I realized I could buy teff flour, or that I could make other foods with it. Nutty in flavor and fine in texture, teff actually makes an excellent baking flour. Ive been eating it for months. Teff makes an excellent pie crust, when you cut it with another gluten-free flour. In fact, it might be the best pie crust youve ever tasted.
This morning, revved up from writing, and eager to begin cooking, I noticed some bananas growing soft on my windowsill. And somehow, I realized I had never written about teff here before. Oh, I wrote about a sweet corn quiche with a teff flour crust, based on a recipe from 101 Cookbooks. But I barely knew how to post photographs then. (The dark days of this website.) Shame. And I knew I had to rectify that situation, immediately.
Ive grown comfortable enough with gluten-free baking that I felt safe making up my own recipe. I threw together some bananas and plain yogurt, butter and eggs. And in a separate bowl, I stirred in half gluten-free flour mix, half teff flour. Plus, unsweetened cocoa powder. And plenty of cinnamon. Other stuff too. Youll read it in the recipe. I was just throwing in food that felt right, in the spirit of that what the hell quote I have stuck to my refrigerator door. Humming along, eager to see what would emerge, rather than worrying about following a recipe correctly.
Would it be terribly gauche of me to say that it turned out spectacular?
Teff flour, being so soft, and slightly gelatinous when it cooks, makes a perfect ingredient for baking quick breads. This one tastes a little like a cake, in that way. A touch of cinnamon. Dark chocolate threading through. And the bananas emerging, bright, but not too much so. A good crumb, solid structure. And mostly, just a brilliant taste of something light, on the darkest day of the year.
You see what happens when you throw caution to the dark, rainy winds and just cook?
Chocolate Banana Bread with Teff Flour
In making this bread, I used a round enamelware pot, instead of a loaf pan. This lent itself to the cake-like quality of the bread, which I found I loved. If you want a more traditional quick bread texture, then try the loaf pan.
1 cup of gluten-free flour of your choice
1 cup of teff flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons high-quality, unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3 overly ripe bananas
1/4 cup plain yogurt (make sure it’s gluten free)
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350° degrees. Move the rack to a position in the lower half of the oven. This will prevent the crust of the bread from burning. Grease the pan you intend to use.
Stir together all the dry ingredients, making sure to tame the lumps of cocoa powder with a fork. Set aside.
With a standing mixer or hand mixer, beat the eggs lightly. Then, add the yogurt, vanilla extract, and melted butter. When this assemblage is completely mixed, then gently add in the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the dry ingredients until they are just mixed.
Scrape the dough into your pan. Pat down the top to make a flat surface. If you wish, toss a few pecans or walnut halves onto the top. Place into the oven and bake for about forty minutes, or until the knife you insert gently into the bread comes out again clean. Let the bread sit in the pan for five to ten minutes, then turn it over onto a wire rack. Serve warm, with cream cheese, if you wish.