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Muffins: The Tragically Unhip, Made Hip

Fresh blueberry muffins, dusted with icing sugar, on crystal plate. Image from Shutterstock.com.

Unlike its sugary sister, the cupcake, the muffin is unlikely to have its 15 minutes of fame. Nobody in foodieland is filling muffins with salted caramel or lavender essences.

There is nothing hip about the humble muffin. Unlike its sugary sister, the cupcake, the muffin is unlikely to have its 15 minutes of fame. The muffin is far too plebian for bakery display windows or breathless magazine write-ups. Nobody in foodieland is filling muffins with salted caramel or lavender essences. It's difficult to imagine a muffin pop-up or muffin food truck, parked proudly between the pork belly tacos and pho.

No, the muffin is either relegated to the puffy horrors of chain supermarket bakeries or the indigestibly fibrous offerings calling themselves health food.

Muffins are stodgy.

Muffins are square.

Muffins are also easy to bake, forgiving, and the perfect breakfast food for recalcitrant breakfasters. I speak from experience. Prior to stumbling upon muffins, the only food my spouse tolerated before noon was a plain donut. I was not thrilled with this, and began searching for better breakfast foods. Whatever it would be, it hmust be easily portable, impervious to temperature and, most challenging of all, appealing.

Enter the muffin.

In 2008 I subscribed to a weekly farm box of organic vegetables. This is marvelous during the summer, when we receive incomparable tomatoes, basil, peppers, zucchini, and greens. But come winter, we endure inordinate amounts of hard squashes---butternut, enormous Blue Kuris, Delicatas, Kabochas, and acorns. I baked, mashed, and fried these monsters and we ate and ate and ate them until we thought our skins would turn orange. Then I remembered pumpkin bread, that potluck standby. I paged through my four Joy of Cooking’s (Yes, four. You have a problem with that?), settled on the controversial 1997 edition’s recipe, nervously buttered my loaf pans, and got busy.

Notice the nervously up there. The world divides into cooks and bakers, though a talented few master both. Faced with baking’s precision and the need for specialized equipment, I flee into the world of savory cooking, where an extra quarter teaspoon of salt won’t ruin a dish and one can get by with just a couple pots.

My squash bread turned out nicely, if a little too sweet. I tucked it into my husband’s lunchbox. He ate it grudgingly until I landed on Joy of Cooking’s "About Muffins" section, which told me any quick bread—that is, unyeasted breads relying on some combination of baking soda, baking powder, and salt to rise—could easily be turned into muffins by dumping the batter into a muffin tin and cutting the baking time.

My initial forays were aimed at using up the acorn squashes accumulating in my fridge. I pierced the squash all over with a knife, then baked it in a 350 degree oven until said knife slid easily into the flesh (an hour to 90 minutes). Once the squash was cool enough, I halved and seeded it. One half of a medium acorn gives you a cup of squash. You can prepare the other half differently or, like me, bake a second batch. During the winter months I bake four dozen at a time and freeze them in Ziploc bags.

The muffins were a big hit. They were less inclined to crumbliness than the breads, compact yet durable, small enough to get down easily with several cups of coffee.

I began fiddling with the recipe. Joy of Cooking calls for one and one third cups of sugar, an amount that made my teeth hurt. I cut back to one scant cup. When a relative sent a gift of maple syrup from her trees, I used that instead of sugar, which gave the muffins a deeply autumnal flavor and a velvety texture (ye gods, I sound like a wine writer.... soon I’ll be writing about hints of oak and moss) . I grew bolder with the spices, upping the amounts of ginger and cloves—a quarter teaspoon--to a half teaspoon, adding a half teaspoon of allspice for good measure. I stopped measuring the quarter teaspoon of vanilla (made by dropping a vanilla bean into a cheap bottle of brandy), glugging some into the batter. When fresh walnuts came in, I tossed in a handful. What began as an overly sweet, bland muffin was now more like a spice cake. I’d found a likeable breakfast food and a way to use up all that damned squash.

***

Spring rolled around. The hard squashes mercifully gave way to a profusion of fruits. I’ve tried all kinds: oranges, lemons, apricots, the more conventional blueberries and strawberries. All are good for muffing making.

A few pointers when making the tragically unhip muffin:

-- Make sure your spices, baking powder, and baking soda are fresh, as they lose flavor and strength over time.

-- Nonstick muffin pans are the only way to fly. These may be had cheaply at hardware stores. Butter them lavishly, including the top of the pan, using the best unsalted butter you can afford. If you are lactose intolerant or keep kosher, SmartBalance makes an excellent butter substitute. Many cookbooks recommend paper muffin cups, which seem wasteful me. (Yeah, yeah. I live in Berkeley. I bring my own bags to the market, too. See my freak flag fly.)

-- Don’t tinker with salt, baking soda, or baking powder amounts. These are critical to the muffin’s rise and crumb structure. You want a nice, airy muffin, not a hockey puck.

-- Finally, don’t kid yourself. A muffin filled with sugar, dairy, and butter is not nutritionally equivalent to granola and berries. But it’s infinitely better than a doughnut, or worse, nothing at all.

Now you are a muffin mistress. Or master. Whichever way you lean when you bake. Breakfast has returned to your lexicon. You no longer purchase doughy, oversized muffins at that chain coffee shop on every American corner. To remain hip, you program your I-pod accordingly, or get another tattoo. Thus reassured, you are ready to branch out: the savory muffin calls. Specifically, Welsh-Rarebit muffins.

I happened on these in Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites. Nigella, in turn, cites The Joy of Muffins, by Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher. igella tweaked their recipe, and I tweaked hers, as the ingredient list daunted me. Self-rising flour, rye flour, powdered mustard, yogurt, and vegetable oil do not live in my kitchen. I didn’t want to blow money on food that would either lose its punch or spoil. I decided to combine Joy of Cooking’s basic muffins with milk or cream and Nigella’s Welsh-Rarebit muffins. I replaced the self-rising flour with two cups of unbleached white flour, ditched the rye flour entirely, and used a teaspoon of hot German Mustard in lieu of Coleman’s Powdered mustard. The recipe calls for a half-cup of grated cheese, which I did not measure. I mean, when is there too much cheese? Seriously, cook enough and you’ll quickly have a good idea of how much half a cup looks like.

I used a tablespoon of baking powder and teaspoon of salt. I was worried the muffins might be akin to the Bonneville Salt Flats, but decided I was doing enough improvisation for a maiden outing. Besides, food has to be eye-wateringly salty before complaints are heard in this house.

I blended wet ingredients in one bowl, dry in another, then folded them together gently—manhandle muffin batter and you get back tough muffins. Both recipes agreed on a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes. I baked. I called my husband to the table, where initial puzzlement rapidly gave way to scarfing. If you’re the type who cooks to impress, you can wow your guests, who will think these muffins ironically retro until they begin eating. At which time you’d best have a second batch handy.

I am happy to share recipes. Email me at Dianesleach@gmail.com

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