Quick Breads for Gift Baskets

The holidays do strange things to us. I have friends who never bake – ever – any other time of year, but they feel the need to break out the flour sifter when Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and the Solstice roll around. If you, too, only bake as an annual ritual, you might be a bit rusty and want to warm up your baking muscles with something easy.

Quick breads are not only easy for novice (or occasional) bakers to master, but they have many qualities that make them ideal for the holidays. They can be held at room temperature for up to one week and most of them improve if allowed to sit for a day or two, so they make excellent gifts. They freeze beautifully and can be pulled out and thawed for surprise guests. If packed properly, they can even survive the mail service unscathed.

So, go ahead and wow your friends, family members, and co-workers. There are just a few things to keep in mind:

“Quick” breads are called quick because they are leavened with baking soda or baking powder, not yeast. If you bake infrequently, spring for a new tin of baking powder and a new box of baking soda. Old baking powder loses its power and can taste bitter. Old baking soda absorbs “off” odors.

Sift your flour, baking powder, and soda to avoid lumps of leavener in the finished product. If you’ve ever bitten into a lump of baking powder in a muffin, you’ll never forget this rule. Instead of a traditional sifter, however, I just use a large mesh strainer and shake the flour and leaveners though it – it’s easier than a crank sifter and does a great job.

Most quick bread recipes can be baked in either loaf form or as muffins. Because they are raised with quick leaveners, they need to be baked as soon as the batter is ready or they won’t rise properly. If you want to bake muffins first thing in the morning, you can mix the dry ingredients ahead of time and store them in a zippered plastic bag. Mix the wet ingredients and store them, tightly covered, in the refrigerator. Preheat your oven as soon as you get up. Mix and pan your muffins, and start your coffee or put the kettle on for tea. Twenty minutes later — domestic nirvana.

If you want to veganize an old family favorite quick bread recipe, use Ener-G egg replacer according to the package directions or, if the recipe calls for only one egg, you might try just leaving it out. Many recipes are fine this way.

Pre-heat your oven properly. If using a glass or dark-colored metal pan, lower your oven temperature by about 25 degrees F to avoid overbrowning your crust.

For smaller gift loaves, you can divide your batter into half-sized or smaller loaf pans. Just be sure to divide your batter evenly. It’s easiest to do this if you have a kitchen scale. Remember to reduce the baking time.

Don’t overmix your quick bread batters. Just mix the wet ingredients into the dry until the batter is fairly homogenous. Lumps are fine. If you over-mix the batter, your breads will be tough and rubbery. Sprinkle tops with streusel topping for a fancy touch.

Check for doneness a few minutes before your recipe indicates. If the loaves or muffins are starting to pull away from the sides of the pan, test them. Muffins and loaves are ready when a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Don’t overbake! You don’t want to open the oven too often, however, or you will let all the heat out. This not only leads to confusion about the timing of recipes, but can cause the bottoms of your breads to overbrown as the oven tries to get back up to temperature.

After removing your loaves from the oven, allow them to cool for about 10 minutes, and then turn them out onto a rack to cool thoroughly. Don’t let them cool in their pans or they will become soggy on the bottom.

Muffins can be served immediately (while hot), but if you are serving them later, cool them as you do the loaves so they won’t be soggy.

After your breads have cooled thoroughly, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap. For the prettiest presentation, place the plastic on a clean counter. Place the cooled loaf, top side down, on top of the plastic wrap. Overlap the excess plastic around to the bottom of the loaf to leave a smooth surface on top. A ribbon or bow is also a nice touch.

If mailing your creations, be sure to pack them in sturdy boxes with no room to shift or rattle around.

Banana (Bran) Bread of Kings
I found this recipe back when I followed a very low fat diet. It’s delicious and healthier than most banana breads.

Recipe adapted from Vegweb.com and Fatfree.com
Serves 16 (1 loaf)
Preparation Time: 20 minutes to mix, 45 minutes to bake

1 cup ready-to-eat bran cereal (bran flakes)
1 cup mashed ripe banana (2 or 3 average bananas)
3 tablespoons applesauce (or shortening – see note)
1/2 cup Sucanat or unbleached sugar
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoon boiling water
1 1/2 cups sifted unbleached all purpose flour
2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Pre-heat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9 X 5 inch loaf pan with pan spray.

Measure bran, banana, applesauce and sugar in a large bowl. Add the water and stir.

In another bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Add this to the banana mixture, stirring only until combined.

Pour into bread pan and bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Notes: If you don’t mind the extra fat and calories, use 3 tablespoons of Spectrum Organic Shortening instead of the applesauce.

Uncle Sam Cereal works nicely in this, as should any bran flake cereal.

Classic Cranberry Nut Bread
This is my husband’s favorite.

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett, adapted from Ocean Spray Cranberries
Serves 16 (1 loaf)
Preparation Time: 20 minutes to mix, 55 minutes to bake

2 cups flour (see note)
1 cup unbleached sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons Ener-G egg replacer powder (dry, no water)
3/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon grated orange peel (organic if possible)
2 tablespoons Spectrum Organic shortening
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

Mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and Ener-G egg replacer powder in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in orange juice, orange peel, and shortening. Mix until well blended. Stir in cranberries and nuts. Spread evenly in loaf pan.

Bake for 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Remove from pan; cool completely. Wrap and store overnight. Makes 1 loaf (16 slices).

Notes: Flour can be all-purpose unbleached or 1 cup all purpose unbleached and 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (my favorite). You can make it with 2 cups of whole wheat pastry flour, but it will probably be a little heavy.

Pear-Chai Loaf
My siste- in-law requests this one every year.

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett
Serves 32 (2 loaves)
Preparation Time: 20 minutes to mix, 1 hour to bake

1 cup canola oil
2 cups Sucanat (or unbleached sugar)
1 1/2 cups prepared chai concentrate without milk (see note)
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups pears, diced small

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Prepare two 9 X 5 inch loaf pans (grease and flour or use pan spray).

Whisk the oil, Sucanat, and chai mix together.

In a separate bowl, sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing quickly (lumps are OK). Stir in the pear pieces. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. (Fill the pans no more than 3/4 full. If you have extra batter, make muffins.) Add streusel topping if you like. Bake loaves at 350 F for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf tests clean.
Note: I like Oregon Chai’s Organic Original. Most of their other varieties have honey in them, so keep an eye out if this is a concern for you.

Streusel Topping

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett
Serves 16
Preparation Time: 5 minutes

2 tablespoons Earth Balance margarine, softened
2 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons Sucanat

Put all ingredients into a medium bowl and rub with your fingers until crumbly. Sprinkle lightly over muffins or loaf-style quick breads. Bake as per recipe.