Perk up cookies, muffins and savory dishes with espresso powder

In our family, coffee and sweet treats go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Of course, we all enjoy coffee without sweets, but rarely the other way around. We criticize fancy restaurants that bring dessert but don’t offer coffee until afterward.

Hot coffee proves the perfect beverage to counter sweet flavors and lubricate cakey textures and flaky-crusted pies. It soothes the chill of frosty ice cream concoctions and cuts the sweetness of candy bars.

My mom baked a homemade sweet nearly every day when the five children lived at home. She served the dessert right after dinner with percolator-hot coffee with a splash of cold milk. Family vacations always entailed midafternoon Konditorei (pastry shop) breaks — complete with indulgent pastries and specialty coffees. Today, the “Konditorei” almost always sits next to the electric coffee maker in my parents’ kitchen.

In my house, the workday starts with strong, black coffee and a banana. On the weekends, I crave that combination in a decadent muffin format. Think of all the specialty flavors of the local coffeehouse crammed into one handheld sweet — chocolate, toasted pecans, cinnamon, vanilla, cream — with a coffee backdrop thanks to espresso powder.

Espresso powder deserves a place in the pantry. I add a little to nearly every chocolate dessert I make — not necessarily to add coffee flavor, but to enrich the chocolatey-ness. Iced coffee and banana smoothies likewise benefit from the coffee boost. It’s useful in savory applications too. For example, a spoonful in a pot of chili somehow deepens the chile pepper flavor. Mole sauces like the dark bitterness as does a pot of rich beef stew.

Serviceable Italian brands of espresso powder can be found in most large supermarkets. My favorite espresso powder can be ordered online from thespicehouse.com. It has a rich, velvety, deeply coffee flavor. You can use instant coffee powders instead, but choose a dark roast. Store the powders in the freezer to keep the flavor bold all year long.

To ease my conscience a tad, I use whole grain flour when making breakfast muffins. But no fear, these muffins won’t taste like health food if you choose white whole wheat flour. Made from a variety of wheat that has a milder, less nutty flavor than regular whole wheat flour, white whole wheat flour has all the goodness without the heaviness. It is my preference when baking sweets, and is available from Gold Medal and King Arthur Flour in the supermarket aisle or online. I keep it in the freezer to prolong its shelf life.

If you like cinnamon in your coffee, boost the muffins with the addition of cinnamon chips. Otherwise omit them, and add more chocolate or peanut butter chips. White chocolate chips or small chunks taste great here, too.

My sister makes a quadruple batch of buttery shortbread logs, dunked in dark chocolate and pecans, for the holidays. To my mind, adding some coffee flavor notes makes them the perfect everyday cookie to enjoy with a cup of joe.

When you love coffee, it often makes sense to put some of those dark flavors into the main course. Espresso with chili powder combines two dark, bitter flavors into a sum that tastes better than the parts. I love a chile-forward version with plenty of sugar on pork ribs and brisket. For lamb chops or duck breast, I use a less sweet version enhanced with ancho chile and a bit of ginger and sesame. To cool the effect, a side dish of creamy cucumbers does the trick.

COFFEEHOUSE BANANA-NUT MUFFINS WITH CHOCOLATE AND CINNAMON

These are delicious served warm. Or, when cool, wrap them in foil and place in a sealed plastic bag for up to 2 days. The muffins freeze well, too. Makes 12 muffins. 

2 cups stone-ground, white whole wheat flour

3 tablespoons espresso powder

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon each: baking soda, cinnamon (optional)

2 large ripe bananas, peeled

2 large eggs

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

6 tablespoons safflower or sunflower oil

1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans

1/2 cup semisweet or dark chocolate chips

1/2 cup cinnamon chips, peanut butter chips, white chocolate chips or more chocolate chips

Espresso glaze, recipe follows

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 regular muffin tins with paper liners. Alternatively, line the tins with foil liners and spray the liners with nonstick spray.

2. Mix flour, espresso powder, baking powder, salt, baking soda and cinnamon in a medium bowl.

3. Put bananas in a separate bowl. Mash smooth with a potato masher or fork. Stir in eggs until smooth. Stir in sugar and vanilla. Stir in oil. Add flour mixture, and fold gently to moisten all the flour. Gently mix in pecans, chocolate chips and cinnamon chips, if using. (Do not overmix or muffins will be tough.)

4. Use a spoon to divide the mixture among the muffin tins filling them to the top. Tap the pan on the work surface to release any air pockets. Bake, turning pan once for even browning, until a wooden pick inserted comes out clean, 22 to 24 minutes. Cool in the pans. Glaze when barely warm. Best served the day baked.

Espresso cinnamon glaze: Mix 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 2 teaspoons espresso powder, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1 tablespoon half-and-half (or milk or cream) in a small bowl. Mix until smooth, adding a few drops of half-and-half if needed to make a pourable glaze.

Nutrition information per muffin (with the glaze): 323 calories, 15 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 31 mg cholesterol, 46 g carbohydrates, 27 g sugar, 6 g protein, 312 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

MOCHA SHORTBREAD LOGS

A chocolate espresso glaze coats shortbread cookies flavored with more espresso. They’re great with a cup of coffee.<br />(E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

To gild the lily, drizzle these with a little melted white chocolate after the dark chocolate is set. Makes: 28 cookies.

Dough:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons espresso powder, to taste

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

Glaze:

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 teaspoon espresso powder

1. Put all dough ingredients into the large bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on low speed until a smooth dough forms. Gather into a ball; wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or overnight.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

3. Pinch off a small nugget of the dough and roll in your hands to make a 2-inch log about 1/2-inch in diameter. Place on a prepared baking sheet. Repeat to form all the cookies placing them on the sheets about 2 inches apart.

4. Bake until the bottoms are barely golden, 10 to 13 minutes. Cool completely on wire racks.

5. For the glaze, put chocolate in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium (50 percent power) just until barely melted, 1 to 11/2 minutes. Stir in espresso powder until smooth.

6. Dunk one end of each shortbread log into the melted chocolate. Set dunked cookies on a wire rack over a piece of paper toweling, and let the chocolate firm. (They can be refrigerated if the kitchen is warm.) Store in a cookie tin for up to a week.

Nutrition information per cookie: 62 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 1 g protein, 6 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

ANCHO ESPRESSO LAMB CHOPS

Coffee goes into the rub for these lamb chops, in the form of espresso powdered mixed into the ground chile, sesame seeds, dried onion and spices. A simple side of cucumbers in sour cream dressing acts as cooling agent.<br />(E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Makes 3 servings.

6 loin lamb chops, each about 1 to 1 1/4 inches thick, total 1 3/4 pounds

3 tablespoons ancho espresso rub, see recipe

Creamy cucumbers and chives, see recipe

1 Pat lamb chops dry and place on a broiler pan or a shallow baking sheet with sides. Press some of the rub into all sides of the chops. Let stand, 30 minutes. Or refrigerate up to 1 day.

2 Position the rack 6 inches from the heat source; heat the broiler. Broil the lamb chops, 4 minutes. Flip the chops; continue broiling until meat feels nearly firm when pressed (medium-rare), 2 to 4 minutes more. Transfer chops to a serving platter. Serve chops with a side of the cucumbers.

Nutrition information per serving: 444 calories, 29 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 147 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 40 g protein, 887 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

ANCHO ESPRESSO RUB

If ancho chile powder is unavailable, you can substitute chili powder, but omit the cumin. Makes about 1/2 cup.

1/4 cup pure ancho chile powder

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1 tablespoon each: espresso powder, dried minced onion

2 teaspoons each: salt, sugar

1/4 teaspoon each: ground ginger, garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

Mix everything in a small bowl. Store in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 32 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 1 g protein, 767 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

CREAMY CUCUMBERS AND CHIVES

Makes 4 servings.

6 small pickling cucumbers or 2 small seedless cucumbers, trimmed

Salt

1/4 cup sour cream, plain Greek yogurt or store-bought ranch dressing

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives or green onion tops

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh mint, optional

1. Slice cucumbers very thinly; place in a colander. Sprinkle generously with salt; let stand over the sink, about 30 minutes. Squeeze the cucumbers lightly; pat them dry with paper toweling.

2. Put cucumbers into a bowl; stir in sour cream, yogurt or dressing, chives and mint. Refrigerate. Serve cold.

Nutrition information per serving: 40 calories, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 3 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 1 g protein, 24 mg sodium, 1 g fiber


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