Archive for the ‘Muffins’ Category

Canelé…or can’t I?

Mini Pound Cakes

No. I didn't.

When I was a kid I had the most amazing wanderlust. This was, of course, in the days long before the internet, so I would buy pre-posted postcards at the Post Office and send them off to different companies requesting the most current brochures they offered. A few days later an envelope bearing my name would be on our doorstep. In those days travel brochures tended to be small tri-fold affairs, and I would voraciously unfold them like I was studying a map of buried treasure from a far-away island.

My favorites were ones from the steamship lines—in those days ships still looked like ships as opposed to the “hotel-with-a-smokestack” look they have now. I found it all endlessly entertaining.

I still do and evidently I’m not alone. There’s a thriving market for old ocean liner merch on ebay. A few years back I bought an enormous linen tea towel that had been sold as a souvenir on the famous liner “Queen of Bermuda.” I paid about three bucks for this pristine, colorful 1961 item, with the thought of having it framed to hang in my kitchen. The good news is that it hangs there as planned. The bad news is that it cost me an arm and a leg to have it framed. Add a couple of zeroes to the cost of the tea towel and you’ll get the idea. Oh well, I can honestly say that in all the years it has been hanging in my kitchen it has never lost its ability to make me smile.

My other passion as a kid was cars. This was during Detroit’s heyday. If you had money you lusted after names like Coupe de Ville and Corvette. A6? E300? Where’s the romance there? (Not that I’d turn my nose up at either of them, ahem.) New car showrooms always managed to stock enormous, glossy brochures, and if my little feet didn’t find me in a showroom, there was always the annual Auto Show.

The irony is that as an adult my travel wanderlust has all but evaporated, as has my interest in cars. There are probably multiple reasons why travel has lost its allure, not the least of which are: an ever more dangerous world, and the sheer discomfort of travel in the twenty-first century. For me the glamour of air travel is now all wrapped up in one question: does the airline have little seatback TV’s? Yes, that’s me. I’m the guy who goes on vacation to…watch TV.

Cars have lost their glamour because the air got polluted and gasoline got expensive, so the only guiltless pleasure behind the wheel is to drive an electric car or a hybrid. Zzzzzz.

My adult wanderlust is centered on food. This food wanderlust is, thankfully, easily explored within the walls of my own kitchen, and is at times, a bit silly. Let’s visit one of the sillier examples, shall we? (Grab your coffee: you’ll need the caffeine.)

I have no recollection of how the idea to make Canelés got into my head. Canelés are little pastries from Bordeaux that, like so many things in life, seem simple and straightforward, yet in truth require a strict observance of technique, timing, and practice. Also, the recipe requires the use of food-grade beeswax. Sans beeswax they are simply not the same thing, and disregarding the requirement is a little like saying that it doesn’t matter that Lucille Ball had red hair. No, wait, that’s a bad analogy. It’s a little bit like saying that it doesn’t matter if a Hershey Bar is made of chocolate. Okay, still not a great analogy, but you get my drift.

The beeswax in the Canelé is melted, often mixed with a bit of butter, and brushed into the Canelé mold. This serves to keep the batter from sticking, but also imparts a delicate flavor, a glossy sheen, a burnished warmth, and ever-so-slight crackle to the outside of the finished canelé.

The batter itself is a bit like a custard, and is definitely a close relative to the popover or the Yorkshire pudding. The common practice is to mix the batter, then allow it to rest for 24 to 48 hours. Here, unfortunately, are the shoals upon which my attempts to make Canelés have foundered. I never think to plan ahead. The sitting time is considered as essential as the beeswax.

I’ve been very motivated to try baking these, and even invested in a special silicone Canelé mold. It sat in my kitchen, in its box, in its Sur la Table shopping bag for weeks as I would trip over it, each time cursing it for being in the way, and myself for not having tried to bake Canelés yet.

Finally, I took the mold out of the bag and out of its box and declared that this would be the weekend when I would finally bake Canelés. And then I didn’t. But knowing that once unboxed a cake pan must be used (a cardinal rule in my kitchen), I decided to bake something a bit simpler, just to test the mold. Welcome, friends, to the department of reduced expectations.

My first thought was to bake Petit Fours. My second thought was that they are too icky, jammy, and sweet. What about something simpler…a l’il something to have with coffee. A nibble.

The result is a yummy little cake, dispatched with two or three bites. To give them a bit of finish, the little cakes are turned out of the canelé mold as soon as they are removed from the oven and dredged in superfine sugar mixed with just a hint of cinnamon. The silicone canelé mold gives them just a bit of crust and the sugar a sandy crunch. They’ll remind you of little raised doughnuts from some groovy country bakery.

Yeah, go ahead. Dunk them.


Here’s the Mini Pound Cake recipe. (I’ve also included information on buying the Canelé mold.)


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Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

I bake at least once a week. The evidence is that I usually write about it on this blog. The upside is that any skill, be it golf, tennis, dance, or archery (!) is honed by this kind of repeated activity. Practice, practice, practice…

The downside is that you may find yourself becoming complacent about your ever increasing level of skill. Or is it arrogant? Invincible, eh?

Runners can experience physical setbacks—shin splints, and various muscle aches or injuries come to mind. These kinds of injuries can often be a good reminder to check your technique, or even just to slow down a bit.

But bakers really don’t run the hazard of more than an occasional minor burn. In my case though, I sustained a minor psychic burn that reminded me that I wasn’t listening to my own advice, or that my advice was contradictory.

My shabby tale starts innocently enough: I baked some corn muffins for a business meeting. Ah, the humble corn muffin…a simple morning treat, and, this time, my wake up call. You see, I decided that because the corn muffin was so straight forward that I would arrogantly put my own spin on it, kind of like a city slicker moving to the country and deciding he could build a better barn than the locals.

I’m so ashamed. Yes, I should have known better.

If you have ever read my recipes you know that I avoid using real butter in many things because it can upset my stomach. Advice #1: this is fine when the taste of butter will not be “front and center”. A good example of this would be butter cookies. If butter is in the title accept no substitutes. By the same token, I am not an absolutist about this. Even if I didn’t use butter in a recipe, you should feel free to use it. No judgmental gaze down my nose, I promise.

Well anyway, back to the corn muffins. I decided that I wanted to make a big, fluffy, kinda-sweet-but-not-too, Northeastern Corn Muffin, not to be confused with the savory, toasty Southern-style. The fluffy, sweet Corn Muffin is what I grew up eating; if you’re from New England, chances are your old Auntie or Grandmother used to buy these at Jordan Marsh or Dorothy Muriel’s (a/k/a Brigham’s). Here’s a rhetorical question you never hear Ina Garten pose: “How hard can that be?”

Ugh. You’d be surprised.

The truth is that Corn Muffin beauty is in the eye of the beholder / taster / dunker. I wanted to brighten them up a bit, avoid making them too damp, and therefore too heavy, and give them a touch of complexity. Most of those functional specs I achieved, but I made two fatal mistakes.

First, here’s what I did right. I started with a good basic muffin recipe that I’ve had for years. Anyone who bakes muffins knows that you start with a plain recipe and all the variations are due to what you add, whether you add fruit, nuts, crumb topping, or spices.  I added just a touch of grated orange zest which I thought would complement the sunny toasty flavor of the corn.

Where I went wrong was using the wrong amount of cornmeal so the muffins were a bit too grainy or crumbly. Even worse, I made the crumb topping without real butter. Uh-oh.

Yeah, sure, for most of the people the muffins—just out of the oven, mind you—were a treat. They liked them a lot. Loved them? That’s a stretch.

But there’s always one in every crowd. The one person whose opinion I know is truly important gave them a thumbs down. This wasn’t done in a malicious way, but with the knowledge that whether I recognized it or not I wanted—needed—to know the truth. She said, “Too dry, and whatever spray you used to keep them from sticking to the pan smells funny.”

I’m only human. So, it took me a while to make peace with her terse criticism. I hadn’t used any spray to keep them from sticking.

But some hours later I took the last surviving muffin home, opened the Tupperware, and put the muffin to my nose. It smelled…greasy. Damn if she wasn’t right on the money. Back to the drawing board.

The dryness of the muffin was a delicate problem. I knew the answer wasn’t more liquid; rather, it was reducing the cornmeal vs. flour ratio. The greasy smell needed a little thought, but not much. I just needed a light bulb moment to realize that I had made the crumb topping with my favorite butter substitute. Clearly it was the real turtle soup I craved, and not the mock. (For the uninitiated, the latter is a play on a Cole Porter song lyric. Jeez, don’t you ever listen to Tony Bennett?)

Two tablespoons of butter distributed amongst six muffins? Clearly my stomach had nothing to worry about, and using butter meant the muffins had a sweet, clean, corn smell: that corn muffin smell we all love.

Some times it pays to stop and smell the grease.


Click here for the recipe for Crunch-top Corn Muffins


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Summer Morning Mourning

Upside Down Muffins

Upside Down Muffins

It has happened. The yearly rite of passage. The arrival of the first Christmas catalogue. This year Harry & David were the first to show their collective faces.  How restrained of them to wait until after Labor Day! (I’m sad to report that Oprah’s favorite Chicken Pie is no longer available.) Running alongside this arrival was the first cool weather of the fall. (Or is it the last cool weather of summer?) Every year when this happens I breathe a small sigh of relief: I survived the summer. I know there are people mourning the end of summer just now, so I’ll be quiet and respectful in my celebrations.

Somehow the heat and humidity of summer dampen my breakfast yearnings. I’m not sure if it is the cool mornings or that I have been watching too many episodes of Barefoot Contessa, but lately my mind has been on breakfast. Actually, some vague concept of “country breakfast.” I have no idea that means other than there is foliage in the background.

I should explain that while I love breakfast and consider it my favorite meal, my breakfast habits are a bit peculiar. Monday through Friday breakfast is broken into two acts. I wake up early and have a protein shake. That holds me until about 10:00 AM when I have breakfast #2: Two slices of seven grain toast (dry), coffee (black), Rice Krispies (no milk, and I wish they’d take out the High Fructose Corn Syrup too. Kellogg’s are you listening?). There may be a prune or two(!), or a banana thrown in there every now and then. My menu appears a bit ascetic, but what I lack in inspiration I make up for in consistency. (The latter is thanks to the prunes, and yes, I know what you’re thinking: cereal without milk? Started as a kid. I always thought the milk was intrusive.)

I only mention my normal breakfast habits to give you some context; it’s not all pancakes and waffles every day for me either, bub. But when I make a fuss over breakfast, I really make a fuss. I should also explain that in spite of having what can best be described as a Roaring Sweet Tooth, my breakfast yearnings don’t generally lean towards the icky sweet. I’ll take a pass on the Sticky Danish in favor of something more restrained with a little cinnamon, maybe some walnuts, and a little brown sugar. Catch my drift?

My avoidance of icky sweet in the morning includes muffins which tend to be dense, and either too dry or too moist, and too big. But I think this preference is related to my love for pancakes and waffles. They tend to be not-so-sweet, and even when I find myself surrounded by diner Formica at dinner time I forgo the Souvlaki in favor of a short stack.

Muffins, of course, are big business now. Muffin baskets are the coin of the realm at the moment for Hollywood “thank-yous”. Last year I wrote about the Jordan Marsh Blueberry muffin—legendary in New England. They were known for their sugar-crusted top, but truth be told these jumbos weren’t all that sweet on the inside. I don’t think I am alone in the belief that muffins are too sweet, and the popularity of muffin tops—the edible kind, not the kind that happens because of tight denim—bears this out.

This made me wonder: Were muffins always the blobs they are now?

I went to my bible of mid-twentieth century cooking, The New York Times Cookbook by the late Craig Claiborne, published in 1961. Old but still relevant, this book remains one of my touchstones in the kitchen. As I scanned the index in search of muffins my eye fell on the words, “Upside Down Muffins” which triggered the immediate response from the voice in my head, “What’s that?”

Yes, they are exactly what their name implies. You put something in the bottom of the muffin cup, then fill the rest of the muffin cup with batter and bake. Whatever is put in the bottom of the cup caramelizes as the muffins bake.

The other great find was the book’s basic muffin recipe. More like a simple quick bread, it is presented plain with a list of suggested add-ins, and seemed like the answer to my not-icky-sweet breakfast prayers. I have exchanged canola oil for the butter called for in the original recipe, and increased the sugar a bit just for these muffins. I took even greater liberties with the mixture that would be placed in the bottom of each cup. The book says to add butter and brown sugar to each cup. I made a mixture of brown sugar, butter substitute, cinnamon, cocoa powder, quick cooking oats, and walnuts and placed that in each cup. While the book doesn’t mention it, I lined the muffin tin with paper muffin cups, imagining the frustration I’d have if my mixture cooked to the pan.

The result is exactly what I wanted. The basic batter puffed up into little brown Everests, and my magic mixture was crumbly and sweet without being icky. Folks who enjoy dunking in their coffee will be very happy. (I was right about the paper liners too, as the upside down mixture sticks a bit. You’d likely need a crow bar to pry them out of an unlined tin.)

Now I just have to sit back and wait for the leaves to change color.


Click here for my Upside Down Muffins.


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