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Posts Tagged ‘muffin’

I’ve been eating strawberries close to three meals a day for the past week. This time of year we must, and must not apologize, because winter is long, my friends. Often enough it’s berries in a bowl with plain yogurt, but I also made two recipes to take me through breakfast with aplomb.

The top is a Martha recipe, originally written to accompany late-season summer fruits (which it does very well), but it sure doesn’t hurt with June’s best, either. This is a nubbly, buttery, tender pound cake that calls for semolina flour, ground almonds, and my favorite spice, cardamom. I didn’t slice the berries because I’m a heathen, but you could. Someday I’ll try the cake toasted with butter, but for now, it’s been soaking up berries and some of that plain yogurt, making it lovely and pink and damp.

Then there’s my never-miss, never fail traditional strawberry shortcake. The recipe is from my 1968 Time-Life cookbook, American Cooking. It’s the author’s grandmother’s, and she used to make it with woodland strawberries that grew in the brambles on her farm in upstate New York. I try not to think about how deliriously good it would be with wild strawberries and just take what I have, which is fine enough indeed. (Though I can’t lie: when I someday get my hands on woodland strawberries, their fate is sealed with this recipe.)

Take a hot, fresh, homemade buttermilk biscuit. Split it with two forks, butter the fluffy insides, close it back up, set it in a bowl, and top with sugared strawberries and cold fresh cream. Sweet fancy Moses, but that’s a good breakfast.

Okay, the below isn’t a strawberry recipe or any recipe for that matter, but I thought you’d dig it. In fact, disclaimer: all but the very top pastry (a chocolate-covered cream puff) are pretend. I made this tray last week for a production of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ carried by the goofbally Gangster Bakers. They say stuff like ‘You biscotti be kidding me,’ ‘You’re really in truffle!’ and ‘One cannoli hope.’ I could go on, but I don’t want to lose readers. There are fortune cookies, too, containing theatre platitudes I made up like ‘Cold free pizza is still pizza.’

Made of craft foam, white Model Magic, homemade play dough, glue, gel paste, paper, and paint. I guess technically that’s a recipe. Got a bang out of making this, and there’s muffin you can do about it. 🙂

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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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I’ve spent the past five days in the house with a skin infection, slipping out when the sun goes down to breathe fresh air and wander under cover of darkness. It sounds more superhero cool than it actually is.

Still…I’ve been worn out from the inside out for a long while, and needed some down time. It’s probably good that I was forced to stop. And there have been some happy by-products: I revisited some of my vintage cookbooks and baked new stuff.

With the contents of my larder reducing each day, especially fruits and vegetables, I opened up the last of the mulberry-Petit Syrah compote that I made last June. Then I pulled out The Food Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, clearly titled by someone paid by the word, and looked for a muffin recipe I could use with the mulberries.

I found one from The Crescent Hotel in Arkansas, which is still in operation (and apparently is haunted. Someday I am going out there to eat their ghost cookies and to go on their ghost tour.). Their huckleberry muffins looked easy. I followed the recipe to the letter, except I used butter for the fat instead of shortening; and I live in New Jersey, and hence don’t have any huckleberries lying around. I love that it says to bake the muffins in ‘a moderate oven’ (350 F), plus this mid-century charm: ‘Pop a batch into the oven for a Sunday morning breakfast surprise.’

Verdict: They could have used another egg or two; the recipe called for just one. As pretty as they are (see above), they’re so heavy that when I put them on a plate you could actually hear them land. I probably chipped half my counter. Hope I didn’t lose my security deposit.

Oddly, and also, the recipe also didn’t call for sugar. (Maybe huckleberries are very sweet?) But this I didn’t mind; my compote was made with brown sugar and wine, which came through like little troupers. Unless something I make is completely burned*, I can always salvage it. Treated the muffins the same way as I did my mattress-like chocolate sponge cake in April: I cut a couple of muffins into pieces, tossed them in a bowl, chipped the other half of the counter, and doused them with plain yogurt. It was a great, if chewy, breakfast.

Today I climbed down from the walls long enough to leaf through The Williamsburg Cookbook (1975) that I dug out from under a folding table at the Ocean Grove Ladies’ Auxiliary book sale a few years ago, and made a loaf of something called manchet bread. It dates back to 14th-century England, so they say, because it calls for unbleached flour. Back in 1975 that wasn’t very easy to come by, is my bet. Today, thank goodness, it’s fairly commonplace. I used a mixture of unbleached all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flour. This recipe maker also had the sense to use butter. No salt, though.

Verdict: It mixed up easily; and baked, has a crusty crust and nubbly, tender insides. Despite the sunken center. And it needed salt. So I buttered some slices and sprinkled on some dukka, an Egyptian spice mix I made of cumin seeds, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, hazelnuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and salt, all toasted and ground up with a mortar and pestle. On the bread, it was freaking glorious.

So here’s what I learned this week: 1) Resourcefulness is key, even when you’re tired and worn out and moderately itchy 2) There are times when the present becomes just too darned much, and the past offers a sweet refuge. Even if your muffins end up like Timberlands and your bread shows signs of economic collapse, it’s kind of heartening.

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*If you burn a slice of toast, grab a butter knife. Hold the toast over the garbage bin and use the knife to scrape off the top burnt layer. It’s golden underneath. Little trick I learned from reading Louise Fitzhugh’s 1970s comic jewel, Sport. Go Young Adult lit!

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Seaweed on coral, Tortola

The recent warm days are making me think of barbecue season and the best barbecue I ever ate. Is it treason against the U.S. if I said it was on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands?

Right, we’ll come back to that. First let’s establish setting.

Tortola and Peter Island are two of the delicious Caribbean islands which we visited in early 2008. I was coming out of the throes of a years-long illness which led, at different points, to assorted travel whims. At this point in my recovery, I needed a change of scenery, just for a long weekend. And if it included pale turquoise water sliced with royal blue and had a view of hazy green islands, the kind Peter Pan and Wendy flew across, all the better.

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Tortola isn’t really remote, but it feels as if it is. The customs office is the size of a two-car garage. Chickens run around like squirrels everywhere you go; one of our taxi drivers waited to let a mommy and her seven tawny-colored chicks cross the road.* And a rooster was our 5am wake-up call.**

Our hotel, Long Bay Beach, is the kind of place where the cooking staff picks guava off the tree growing outside your window, every suite has its own hammock, and dawn comes up pink over the water. One whole wall of our room, the one that faced the water, was a sliding screen door, some ten feet long. We left it open whenever we were in the room, loving the balmy wind so much that we even put shells and rocks on anything likely to blow away. One morning on our way to breakfast, a blue macaw flew right over our heads.

Dawn, Long Bay Beach, Tortola

Sand crab, Tortola

A very, very shy sand crab taken with a very, very good zoom.

Pelican, Tortola

A pelican we watched from our balcony as he dove up and down in the water, looking for fish.

Breakfast at the hotel was just my bag: fresh pineapple, banana, guava juice, cereal, yogurt and perfect homemade lemon poppy seed muffins.

First we took a day trip to Peter Island, population 1, because we planned to kayak from there to Dead Chest. This was the place where folklore says Blackbeard marooned 15 men–that’s a one-way island vacation in the middle of bloody nowhere—with just a bottle of rum between them. Everyone we spoke with on Peter Island told us it was nothing more than a giant rock, and dissuaded us from going.

Dead Chest Island, from Peter Island

There it is, across Deadman’s Bay–the appropriately dark island at left.

So we didn’t. Next time. But no worries; instead we hiked the island, which was all at once a glorious tropical Eden…

Peter Island, B.V.I.

Peter Island

and the American southwest, featuring spiky vegetation…

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…and spikier animals.

Sunning iguana, Peter Island

He didn’t budge in the 20 minutes we spent admiring him and his comrades on the rocks. Showboat.

The hills along the three-mile path we hiked were also home to mountain goats, skittish things that would tiptoe near you to get a better look, then would scamper away through the trees.

One more detail about the day trip to Peter Island is worth noting, and that’s the ferry ride. No sitting in the lower cabin and looking through the fogged-over windows for me. I only like ferries if they move at a really good clip and if I can stand right on the bow, letting the sea spray wash over my face and hair and dew-dropping the outermost layer of my clothes.*** This one did. And the view of the islands we passed was hypnotic.

On the way back from Peter Island to Tortola we shared the ferry with several locals returning home for the night. And we witnessed something so charming that it has stayed with me. Up on deck one of the gentlemen broke out some Dominoes and set them on a table. I deducted that this game was played on the ferry every night because other men fell in very smoothly, in a loose and easy choreography. Empty five-gallon buckets were upended for seats, and players joined and left from time to time, including a uniformed kid in charge of the ferry and a grizzled older sailor, an American ex-pat who now lived on Tortola. ‘I haven’t played in 25 years, but what the hell,’ he said, and stayed in for the rest of the ride back. What struck me most was how relaxed and comfortable everyone was with each other, and it was a reminder of how much joy is accessible in the simple. I could see why one would want to slide out of an old life, as if out of a jacket worn too thin at the elbows, and sink happily into a life like this.

Time to eat.

We asked our cabbie about the Bomba Shack, which Frommer’s listed as the ticket for barbecue in this part of the Caribbean. And apparently on Wednesdays and Sundays they offered all you can eat for $10/plate. Hello.

He stopped next to a set of shacks that looked as if they’d been decorated by a group of pre-teen surfers after a ten-box Mallomar binge.

Bomba Shack, Tortola

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How to explain this place? Here’s one way: The owners apparently have created a god of sorts called Bomba whose nature isn’t clear, and Google was no help. But you’re encouraged to offer sacrifices to it (note underwear, above).

Here’s another way: The Bomba Shack serves shroom-spiked tea when the moon is full.****And they give it to you for free because they aren’t allowed to sell it. The menu is scrawled onto plywood out front. Music—emanating from speakers taller than me—is cranked up to levels that could orbit Jupiter, and grill smoke and customers alike float between the shacks. We paid the cabbie right in the middle of the street and went looking for dinner.

The party is on one side of the street. There, to a very friendly American woman behind a counter, we shrieked that we wanted two plates’ worth; she grinned, took our money and gave us tickets. The cook (a single woman) and picnic tables are on the other side of the street.

You have a choice of barbecued chicken or ribs. Both come with corn on the cob and red beans with rice, and I’ll stop here to bring up a concern that I’m sure is swimming through your logic-loving minds: Exactly what kind of lunatics eat at an open-air shack on a dirt road, one whose owners hand out drugs and worship a deity with a preference for women’s panties?

I’m not saying you don’t have a point. But we did it. One bite of that meal and all sense floated out to sea with the grill smoke. The barbecue sauce had a no-BS kick, and the meat from the chicken and the ribs slid off the bone with no embarrassment whatsoever. It was delectable—one of the great meals of our lives. We shared a table with some amiable Australians, licked our fingers and grinned at each other. Lunacy loves company.

Then we crossed the street to watch the surfers cut through waves shimmering from the apricot-colored sunset, soaking even further into a place where the night wind smells like earth and salt water.

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*For the obvious reason.

**Click the rooster link. Long Bay Beach is yellow–but a muted yellow. Not a biggie.

***My first name comes from the Latin word for ‘sea’ (mars). The genitive is ‘maris’ (of the sea). Put an ‘a’ on the end and you make it feminine: Girl of the sea. Yes, I’m a mermaid. My parents didn’t do this intentionally, but there it is.

****No, we didn’t. The moon wasn’t full, anyway.

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About a week ago at the farm I bought the last of the freshly-dug carrots. And instead of just snacking on them bunny-rabbit style as always, I got curious (as bunny rabbits are also wont to do) and wondered how they would taste grated up inside a carrot muffin. I’ve always been a nut for carrot cake,* with extra cream cheese frosting (priorities first), and of morning glories and basic carrot muffins, but have never tried making them with anything other than store bought carrots.

At the farm I pulled off most of the carrot tops and brought them out to the goats, who predictably acted like goats with them. If you ever find carrots with the tops still attached and don’t know an obliging goat, chop the tops off as soon as you get home. Keeping them on sucks the life out of the carrots and makes them limp and wibbly-wobbly.**

I found a recipe online that called for yogurt in the batter, which delivers tenderness, and no raisins. I love them, but didn’t want anything to distract from the flavor of the carrots. Baked up the muffins. Verdict: just as you’re imagining. The fresh carrots packed more intense flavor, noticeably different from those that were picked in Iowa and have been sitting on a shelf playing the harmonica for two weeks until purchase. And I was lucky to find small ones, which were really wonderfully sweet. No dryness or bitterness at all, which can often happen in store bought carrots. The muffins pulled apart like the softest ever angel food cake.

It’s so much easier to make the transition from summer to fall when it can taste as good as this.

*Course there was a pun intended.

**For all of you Dr. Who fans.

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There are times during this chronicling that I play the arrogant card and tell you I have a recipe that trumps whatever it is others are making. I’m afraid this is another one of those times.

I grew up eating banana bread. It’s one of my mom’s specialties, but it’s not her own recipe or a family one, either. It’s Lady Bird Johnson’s. Mom clipped it from our local paper, The Asbury Park Press, sometime in the 196os. I like to picture old Lyndon padding downstairs to the White House kitchen in his jammies on sleepless nights during Vietnam to have a slice of this. Any port in a storm, I guess. I imagine the bread also made a nice dessert if Lady Bird’s guests still had an appetite after all of that barbecue.

While pregnant with my brother, my mother had a nauseous reaction to the smell of fresh bananas. Some forty years later, the smell still turns her stomach; but she can eat banana bread, and was always able to make this as long as she added the bananas to the batter quickly enough. Which she did, and often, for which I’m grateful.

The bread cooled on the kitchen island and there it stayed, still in its loaf pan, with a piece of Saran Wrap over it. We ate it all week for breakfast or for a snack. It was probably the first thing I ever baked. Once I got cocky and added toasted walnuts to the batter and made it into muffins, much to my dad’s delight (and indeed, I was not allowed to make ordinary banana bread ever again). Toasted walnuts, as opposed to those just shaken out of their bag into the batter, make a marked difference in flavor, by the way.

This banana bread recipe is the best because unlike others, which are simply generic batter with chunks of banana here and there, this batter is permeated with banana. Your taste buds don’t have to hunt for bits and pieces of it as you go, which is a sorry way to eat anything.

I substitute whole wheat pastry flour for some or all of the flour it calls for (all-purpose works well) and cut back the sugar. Can’t taste the difference. The recipe calls for sour milk, a quaint addition that hearkens back to when people used everything, even milk that had naturally gone a little sour. (Regular milk, what we buy today at Shop-Rite, was called ‘sweet milk’.) You can use buttermilk or plain yogurt instead of sour milk if you like. Mom used regular whole milk.

The recipe calls for soda. This means baking soda.* It also says a ‘moderate oven’; 350 degrees works fine. (People also used to describe oven temperatures as low, slow, moderate, hot or fast. One imagines chasing their giggling ovens down the street, swearing and balancing a pan full of batter.)

As far as bananas go, the recipe is extremely forgiving; fresh yellow bananas work fine, spotty old bananas even better. Or you can be lazy and put them, in any state, right in the freezer until you want to make banana bread. They’ll turn the color of your bedroom armoire, but that’s okay. When you’re ready, put them on a plate on your counter and let them defrost for an hour or so. Now this is fun: Just tear open one end of each banana, hold it upside down over the bowl, and it will slide right in with a satisfying sploop, just like a boat on the Log Flume.

Here’s the yellowing, stained original recipe Mom cut out of the paper. Note the word written at top, in caps, lest we forget to add them.

This is a wet batter, so it takes a while to bake in a loaf pan. Use a tester to be sure it’s fully cooked. If you don’t feel like waiting, bake it in a shallower brownie pan or make muffins. Bake for 20 minutes to half an hour. Just like cupcakes, they’re ready when you can smell them, when they’re a little golden around the edges, and when they spring back when gently pressed in the middle.

A final note: Adding great-quality semisweet or dark chocolate chips to the bread makes a perfect house gift for people you really, really like or a luxurious treat for you should you not be able to part with it after all.

Here’s the bread the way my mom used to slice it, when we ate it for breakfast on school mornings.

* My cousin once passed along a cake recipe to an aunt who apparently wasn’t much of a cook. The aunt called her and asked, “It calls for soda. Do they mean…like…Coke?’

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