Fudgy Peanut Butter Banana Bars (V)

IMG_1930This quarantine has sparked endless conversation, a popular one of which involves the discussion of everyone’s “new normal.” The sudden, jarring shifts in daily routine and atmosphere and social outlets forced by this pandemic have naturally resulted in the need to adjust–and cope. Everyone has been affected by this situation in some way, regardless of whether they’ve physically suffered from the virus itself.

Sheltering-in-place was not an effortless transition for me. Of course, I realized how fortunate I was when so many were not–I was healthy, able to pay my bills, living in an apartment  with roommates I loved. However, in time, I also had to accept that it was okay–vital, actually– to acknowledge that quarantine was hard. Is hard. You see, I had grown quite fond of normal–my old, worn-with-age, tried-and-true normal, the one in which I had a daily job and specific tasks to complete, the one that allowed me to make random stops at my friends’ homes or grab last minute groceries three times in the same week. As a dancer, I am used to physically expelling energy for hours every day, and as a recipe blogger, I’m accustomed to wandering aimlessly in stores, brainstorming potential baking plans. Being an artist, I felt uniquely stifled by the restrictions; the lack of places to expel my creative energy quickly became overwhelming and translated into many anxious, seemingly unproductive days (as well as a few random sketches and a LOT of walking).IMG_1851

After a week or so, I was beginning to feel a bit more comfortable with the changes. Per the suggestion of my counselor, I began planning out a schedule for each day, a strategy that made a massive difference in the way I approached the sudden surplus of time that almost everyone experienced. With more moments of mental clarity, I was also able to address some specific sources of anxiety for me. One of them, I realized, was my food. In an attempt to adhere to the social precautions everyone adopted, I had ordered my groceries through a delivery service. However, with demand unbelievably high, it was about a week before I received them. This left me with six days of eating whatever pantry items I could use to concoct a meal, and, more often than not, they were all various types of carbs. My diet consisted of around  20% oatmeal, 20% peanut butter, 10% absolute randomness, 50% homemade sourdough (okay, not really complaining about that), and 0% vegetables (anyone who knows me knows that was pure torture). Within just a few days, I realized how frustrated I was, how much my body craved the balanced diet it was used to receiving, how it was affecting my mood. Arguably the most shocking affect, though, was that I, the maker of all things sugary, even started to lose my craving for desserts. Perhaps now you can understand just how dire those few days seemed.IMG_1939

Thankfully, I write to you from the other side of that battle–never have I been so thrilled to see a bag of green beans in my life. That week of upheaval in my kitchen was a reminder for me of just how important it is to fuel both our bodies and our minds, especially in times of trauma. When so many factors in our lives are shifting, maintaining a level of nutritious eating can be an incredibly grounding practice, whether or not you generally prioritize a healthy diet. Not only that, but in the midst of a viral outbreak, supporting your immune system is particularly important! That’s why, when creating this recipe, I kept three things in mind:

  1. I wanted the recipe to be “healthy,” in the sense that it offered some sort of nutritional/energy value.
  2. I wanted the recipe to be accessible–I’ve been doing a “quarantine series” on my blog that revolves around ingredients most people always have on hand.
  3. I didn’t want the recipe to taste like a “healthy” recipe: dessert is my specialty, after all, and I know first hand the need to indulge! Especially when you’re tackling a new normal.

So, I immediately grabbed peanut butter and bananas: one of those food pairings that was, I think, unarguably meant to be. My initial recipe development was slow and, quite honestly, frustrating. Though it’s been over a month, I still sigh at the lack of variety in my cabinets: I absolutely love both peanut butter and bananas, but I felt like they were rather cliche among nutritious recipes. For a moment, I allowed my unattainable dreams of inventive, exotic flavors to stall my progress. And, as I always do when I’ve run into “baker’s block,” I called my mom. IMG_1953

Thankfully, my mother is the perfect deliverer of sympathy…when it’s due. In all other cases, she tells me exactly the harsh truth I need to hear, and she holds an impressive success rate of steering me back towards the task I’m aiming to complete. This was no exception. Upon listening to my whining about being forced to use bananas again, she replied with her characteristically precise advice: “So? Do something different. Your whole point of quarantine recipes is to reinvent things!”

Thanks, mom. I realized that I’d momentarily let this chaos of pandemic snatch the one thing it could never completely steal from me–my creativity. At once, the seemingly mundane task before me became a challenge (anyone who knows me also knows that the only thing I like more than peas and carrots is a challenge). With this competitive energy fueling me, I worked all day to develop a recipe, not hindered at all by the involvement of ingredients that I’d once considered overused.IMG_1869

That’s how I ended up with these bars. They’re partially inspired by my recent discovery of the magical taste of fried bananas. To make them, I decided to pan fry my bananas with maple syrup before baking them into the bars, a decision that added an especially powerful caramel sweetness. This flavor, along with the salty creaminess of peanut butter, provided a satisfying balance that I further nuanced with cinnamon and allspice. They even have protein powder in them for an extra nutrient boost. To finish them off, I handed off the apron to readers! You can pick from the list of toppings to add crunch and flair to your own batch.

I’ve come to a myriad of conclusions over the last few weeks, some more complicated than others. One of the most troubling dilemmas was learning how this pandemic would affect my identity as an artist. Through time, restlessness, phone calls with mom, and bananas, I’ve finally grasped at the answer: it doesn’t. An artist doesn’t ever stop being an artist. You can remove a dancer’s stage, an actor’s set, a vocalists’ studio, but–as we’ve all witnessed through daily inspiration like this magazine– they won’t stop creating. This pandemic has robbed the world of physical touch, millions of jobs, and a staggering number of lives. So, I encourage you to hold tight to what it can never infect. As we all endure this time of collective grief and turmoil, I hope you can devote time to allocate rest for your mind; to feed your body with what it needs; and to keep making art.  Sending love and prayers to everyone.

My heart, O God, is steadfast,
    my heart is steadfast;
    I will sing and make music.

Psalm 57: 7

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Fudgy Peanut Butter Banana Bars (V)

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup protein powder (vanilla or chocolate)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • about 3 medium bananas, sliced into about 1/2 inch slices
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup almond milk
  • 2 TBSP + 1 tsp maple syrup
  • 2 tsp oil (I used extra light olive oil)
  • Optional Add-Ons: toasted nuts, sea salt, toasted coconut, dark chocolate chips, banana/plantain chips, drizzled maple syrup, melted chocolate

Instructions

  1. Place oil and 1 TBSP maple syrup in a skillet over medium heat. When it starts sizzling, carefully place the banana slices in the pan (it may splatter).
  2. Cook until brown/caramelized on one side, and then flip to cook the other side. Remove from heat, mash in a bowl, and allow to cool.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F, and grease a square baking dish.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together almond milk, 1/4 cup peanut butter, and 1/4 cup mashed fried banana together.
  5. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, protein powder, baking powder, 1/4 salt, allspice, and cinnamon.
  6. Gradually add the flour mixture to the almond milk mixture, whisking after each addition, until it’s completely incorporated. Pour into the baking dish, and smooth the top with a spatula.
  7.  Bake until toothpick comes out clean, about 22-24 minutes. Allow to cool.
  8. While it bakes, make the topping: mix together remaining 3/4 cup mashed fried banana, 1/4 cup peanut butter, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 tsp syrup, and a pinch of cinnamon (Be sure the banana has cooled).
  9. Once the base is cool, spread the topping evenly over the base, covering it completely.
  10. Finish the bars with your choice of add-ons, and chill in the fridge before slicing. Enjoy!

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Peanut Butter Cookies (V)

IMG_0149It’s about time that I made peanut butter cookies! I wracked my brain for ways to make this recipe “different,” but in the end, I decided that you can’t go wrong with a classic cookie. Since moving to Pittsburgh, I learned about a cookie tradition here that’s been cherished among residents for years: the Pittsburgh cookie table. Basically, at weddings,  guests bring trays of homemade cookies, and they’re all set out on a designated reception table. There are often hundreds of cookies–some families end up with so many that it’s even common to hire someone with the sole job of arranging all of them. Naturally, I fell in love with the idea when it was explained to me.

This summer, I have the privilege of being involved with not just one, but TWO weddings! And, though I’ll surely be baking something for each of them–I’m also going to be a bridesmaid in both! As someone who is a major fan of seeing people get married (movies included) but is single and hasn’t been to a wedding in at least ten years, this is ridiculously exciting for me. Earlier this morning, I finished ordering my second bridal party dress, so I have weddings on the brain. 

Getting married is huge for everyone involved–the couple themselves, parents, siblings, and, of course, friends. That’s where I’ll be fitting in this year; both weddings are those of my closest friends. One of the two is going to be back home in South Carolina, and it’s for my friend Bethany. We grew up dancing under the same instructor for nine years, and after sticking together through new studios and cities and general milestones of growing up, we’ve remained close even though we’re now states apart. We have that special kind of relationship where we can be too busy to get in touch for months, but then as soon as we get that one reuniting phone call or visit, it’s like we’ve never left. I’m thrilled to be a part of her celebration. IMG_0133

The other, happening in May, is for one of my roommates, Allie. We met through ballet when I moved to Pittsburgh, and from our first conversation (during which we realized we had a shocking number of similarities beyond our first name), I think we both knew we’d become incredibly close. The two of us have endured countless highs and lows of dance and adulthood and relationships together–our friendship is one of the most beloved parts of my life here, and I have no doubt I’ll cherish it forever. I’m very thankful I managed to get one year of living with her before she decided to get hitched!

Weddings are, in a way, massive parties. We look forward to them with the excitement of the fun celebration to come, especially through the process of picking flowers, colors, outfits, venues, and all the other elements that personalize the event.  The day itself, however, is steeped with the less shallow elements of beautiful ceremony and fellowship and lots of tears; but the deeper emotions are something I didn’t quite expect to experience before that awaited day arrived. Boy, was I wrong.IMG_0199

Allie tried on her dress for me and our roommate Annie this week. We’d only seen pictures until then. She’d been nervous to take it out of the bag for fear of something happening to it, and we’d waited for weeks in anticipation until she found the opportune time to show it off. The day finally arrived, and we heard her call to us from down the hall asking if we’d like to see it, to which we screamed “YES!!” in unison and proceeded to awkwardly stumble towards her voice. I helped her zip it up, and when she turned around, our jaws dropped. Allie is absolutely stunning, and the dress was simply perfect for her. Annie and I could barely formulate words through our wonderment.

I expected to fall in love with that moment, with the image of my beautiful best friend in her beautiful dress in Annie’s bathroom on Saturday afternoon. What I didn’t expect, though, and what nearly kept me from holding it together as we all stood there, were the memories that suddenly came flooding into my mind. Memories of our first year together, when we were both single and inordinately obsessed with ballet; of the nights we shared in her apartment watching movies but never paying attention because we’d talk through them every time; of holding each other and crying through some of the toughest battles we’ve faced in life. I looked at this woman, this gorgeous, mature, soon to be Mrs., and I remembered giggling next to her on the carpet of her living room and offering ideas as she nervously typed a text to some guy named Kenny she really liked. In three months, I realized, she’s going to put on this dress and marry that guy.

Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. How amazing is it that: over just a few years, the subject of sleepover girl talk evolved into a devoted, lifelong commitment! And, I was there to see it all, from the very beginning. Life is crazy. I’m so thankful for Allie and Bethany and weddings and spontaneous bathroom fashion shows and memories that–excuse my cliche–hit you like a ton of bricks. And all it took was a peek at that dress. I better start stocking up on the tissues now.

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Peanut Butter Cookies (V)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 1/2 cup sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 1 1/2 flax eggs (mix 1 TBSP + 1 1/2 tsp flax seed with 4 TBSP + 1 1/2 tsp water, and let it thicken in the fridge for at least 5 minutes)
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven (see options below). Grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine peanut butter, shortening, and both sugars. Mix on low-medium speed until very smooth.
  3. Add in flax egg, and mix until incorporated.
  4. In a smaller bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.
  5. Gradually add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture, mixing on low-medium speed after each addition until it is all incorporated.
  6. Roll dough into balls about the size of a heaping tablespoon, and place them a couple of inches apart on the cookie sheet. Press down on each of them gently with your palm to flatten them slightly.
  7. Using a fork, press twice into each cookie, forming crossed line pattern.
  8. Choose one of the following baking options! With vegan dough, there’s no fear of raw eggs 🙂
  9. Option 1 (for a fudgy, “under-baked” cookie): Bake at 375°F for about 6-7 minutes.
  10. Option 2 (for a classic cookie with crisp edges and a slightly soft center): Bake at 375°F for 8-10 minutes.
  11. Option 3 (for a cookie that’s very browned on the bottom/outside but soft/fudgy in the center): Bake at 450°F for about 6 minutes, keeping a close watch on the bottoms since they’ll burn easily.
  12. Allow to cool on a cooling rack, and enjoy!

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Sandwiches (V)

IMG_8248To say a lot has happened in just one week would be dramatically understating the last seven days. This week was one of those occasions that suddenly makes it obvious just how inconsequential the many minute worries of daily life can be. I think you’ll agree, as much as I wish it wasn’t true, that it often takes a genuinely critical circumstance for people to remember how many reasons they have to give thanks–I know I’ve been particularly guilty of this lately. Last Sunday afternoon, like many Sunday afternoons, I was stressed. I was almost out of time to get my blog post ready; I still needed to make dinner; I hadn’t done the heaped pile of laundry in my room; I needed to ice my ankle; I still wasn’t back in rehearsals yet; the weather was about to get especially nasty. It’s incredible how heavily the weight of small grievances can fuel anxiety and stress. But what’s more incredible is how instantaneously they can be forgotten. At 7:14, my mind–was buzzing with concerns, as it had been for hours, and at 7:15, it was wiped completely of those thoughts when I picked up a call from my mom in the middle of Bible Study. My grandpa was in the hospital and was going to need heart surgery.

Suddenly, the spastic atmosphere of my brain came to a jolting halt. Many of you probably know the feeling, the numbness and fogginess that takes over reality in moments of that nature. I remember sitting through our study that night, physically present among our group but entirely disconnected mentally. I glanced at my Bible, not actually registering the text being read and instead staring at my phone screen, waiting for more messages or calls.

For my grandpa, the following three days brought a whirlwind of visits from cardiologists, hematologists, and surgeons. Details about the necessary surgery came gradually, evolving from whether his blood levels would even allow for it, to when and where it was to take place. By Monday, family members had already begun planning their trips to Charlotte, where he was being transferred for the operation. For me, the next few days were a constant period of waiting and a sharp reminder of how many hundreds of miles separated me from the events and how long it had been since I’d last been able to spend time with my grandpa. I don’t think I noticed my overflowing hamper of dirty laundry once.

The first, less invasive and less risk-filled part of the procedure was completed, and my grandpa felt excellent the day after it was done. I could feel the careful jubilation through the family group text (which was graciously formed by my aunt to keep all us long-distance folks aware of what was happenin

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g) –part one was a success, but in two days came the much riskier operation.

I think my family may have managed to get the entire United States of America praying that day. The only details most of us knew were that there were a significant number of stints being inserted, the entire process would take about 5-7 hours, and it was an extremely difficult surgery. My phone was constantly within eyesight: through class, physical therapy, a poetry reading at CMU that night. I think my ankle was hurting that morning, but I don’t remember much. I dropped glove walking from my car that night and couldn’t find it–didn’t phase me. The thought of dedicating any mental energy to a glove when I didn’t know whether I’d ever see my grandpa again was near abhorrent to me. The significance of any personal problems was rapidly dwindling to nothing as the time passed: by eight hours into surgery with no news, I probably could have been punched and not even cared enough to pull my eyes from my phone.

After a long, quiet car ride home, I felt a buzz in my pocket on my way up our steps. Without breathing, I yanked my phone from my pocket, totally numb to the frigid air that bit at my fingers and would have normally prompted a grumbling response. My tense body began to relax the moment I read the first words of the text. “Dr just came out- everything went well…” I whipped my head around to my roommate, who rushed in for a hug, knowing the situation and what this meant. My grandpa was alive. Our worst fears, major fears, even minor fears about the situation hadn’t occurred. I about floated inside, as stunned with the relief and joy as I’d been with fear just four days before. It was an overwhelming sensation, the realization that I could have lost someone incredibly meaningful to me that night–but didn’t.

I want to be careful not to make it sound as though there was any part of this experience that wasn’t absolutely excruciating–it was terrible, beginning to end. But in the moment the nine of us in that group text heard the news of success, each of us received a gift. The hollow pit of apprehension and dread and unknowing that had grown deep within our chests for those eight long hours was, in one second, flooded with the fullness of good news–unbelievably good news. We, all at once, in one second, felt the entire weight of the blessing that my grandpa is in each of our lives, felt it return.IMG_8274 (2)

I have a friend who, to my dismay, told me he refuses to put a phone case on his brand new smartphone. When I challenged the rationality of his decision, he explained that as he constantly fidgets with the phone in his hand without the case, he’s perpetually reminded of its value, of how important it is that he takes care not to drop it. This awareness of its fragility trains him to always handle it with care, care that may easily be abandoned with the security of a case.

As hesitant as I was to accept his logic (ok, so it’s more like I verbally abused his logic), it struck me in a different way today. Today, I respect the fact that it didn’t take a disastrous incident for him to establish the importance of acknowledging the worth of his phone. He knows the nature of human pride well enough to realize that people are shockingly talented at having meaningful things in their lives and then immediately taking them for granted. He’s training himself, on a small scale, to abstain from the dangerous complacency of being blessed with one of those things.

While I don’t particularly love the mechanical tone of the word train–especially when it’s being used in discussion of loving people–I can’t help but feel that the incidents of this week are prompting me to realize my need for exercise in gratitude. I’ve been reminded this week of how conditioned I am, in obsessing over tiny frustrations in my day, to completely deny the existence of amazing people and experiences and privileges in my life at the drop of a hat…or a glove. To really, truly, express appreciation for those constants, it often unfortunately takes a reminder that they’re not always guaranteed, a cracked phone screen, if you will. I’ve had an incredible grandpa (two, actually, and two grandmas too) for all 21 years of my life. I could really afford to bulk up on my appreciation of that.

I share this story not as a didactic means to make you feel guilty–I hope above all it keeps me accountable. I think I speak for my entire family when I say that we can’t give God enough thanks for the miracle of this surgery (there were multiple undoubtedly miraculous happenings through this process). As I move forward, though, I hope to make a habit, if habit-forming is what it takes, to give thanks before I realize I may not always get to. I’m clearly far from it now, but I’d love to shed that phone case one day.

Now, our God, we give you thanks,
    and praise your glorious name.

1 Chronicles 29:13

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Sandwiches (V)

**Makes about 12 sandwiches

Ingredients

PB CREAM

  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 3 cups powdered sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 6-8 TBSP almond milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp salt

COOKIES

  • 2 cups sugar (vegan if desired)
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 8 pieces of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate pound plus bar (just over 3oz. chocolate)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 6 TBSP cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt

TOPPING

  • more chocolate, melted in microwave with splash of almond milk
  • coarse/flaky salt

Instructions

PB CREAM

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place peanut butter and one cup of the powdered sugar. Mix on medium-low speed.
  2. Begin adding almond milk and powdered sugar, alternating between each and mixing until incorporated.
  3. When all the milk and sugar have been added, mix in both extracts and salt on low speed. Increase to medium speed, and mix until very smooth. Add more sugar/almond milk as needed to reach smooth but thick consistency.
  4. Set aside.

COOKIES

  1. Combine chocolate and almond milk in microwave-safe measuring cup or dish. Microwave for 20 second intervals, stirring well between, until chocolate is completely melted. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place sugar, butter, and shortening. Mix on low-medium speed until completely combined.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt.
  4. Add chocolate/milk mixture to the sugar/butter/shortening mixture, and mix on medium speed until smooth.
  5. Begin adding the dry ingredients gradually, mixing on medium-low speed after each addition until the whole bowl has been used.
  6. Cover bowl, and chill for fifteen minutes.
  7. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  8. Scoop balls of dough–little less than 1/4 cup each–and place on cookie sheet (I used an ice cream scoop). Flatten each slightly so that it forms a disc about 1/2 inch high.
  9. Bake cookies in the preheated oven for about 10-12 minutes, or until the edges just begin to get crisp.
  10. Allow to cool.

ASSEMBLY

  1. Using piping bag (only if you care about it being neat), pipe a round of PB cream onto half of the cookies.
  2. Place another cookie on top of each filled cookie.
  3. Drizzle tops of sandwiches with melted chocolate, and sprinkle with salt to finish.
  4. Enjoy!

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