Thursday, March 17, 2005

Muffin mishaps

My love for muffins started when I was in university in Nottingham, and would grab a chocolate chip orange muffin, thinking that by choosing it over a chocolate bar, i had made the right choice. This muffin had the perfect combination of the tangy sweetness of oranges, and the deep richness of dark chocolate. There was undoubtedly a muffin factory churning these out, because they came in their celophane wrappings that looked exactly like the muffins i saw in every other sweet shop in the UK. Clearly, i was not a muffin conniseur at this juncture in my life ( it was during a time when i would toss myself a bowl of spaghetti with baked beans and pesto sauce and call it a real attempt at a home made banquet)!
Perhaps if i had tried the same muffin today, i would poo poo it for it's 'mass produced' flavour and it's lack of real ingredients.

A brief History
English Muffins are not the same as the more popular 'American' muffins. Legend has it that an English baker named Samuel B. Thomas started making English muffins in the 10th or 11th Century. These were best described as flat chewy things that were yeast raised and baked on a griddle. Crunchy when toasted, English muffins were often eaten with a generous glob of butter.

The American version are also often referred to as 'quick breads'. I expect they are called as such because they are not raised by yeast, but by egg and baking powder (chemically leavened as opposed to yeast leavened). Apparently these muffins were not developed until the end of the 18th Century, after which a ton of them must have been imported into Europe. (Trivia: baking powder was not developed commercially until 1857)

My intimate relationship with Muffins
Post university, i would ocassionally grab a muffin with a coffee. I didn't give it much thought, apart from the fact that it seemed like a pretty nice snack - not as bad as grabbing that cheesecake. But here's the truth of the matter -it must've been someone's brilliant marketing campaign to call muffins 'muffins' to make people feel better about the fact that they weren't ordering themselves a piece of cake for breakfast. But face it - muffins ARE cakes. They use the same ingredients, with some minor tweaks (sieve the flour for the more 'cakey' texture, ) but change the shape - and it's a cake! So for those of you who grab a muffin every morning for breakfast - you're having CAKE to start your day. But hey - certainly nothing wrong with that!

My intimate relationship with muffins started like this - i would order a cake (masquerading as a muffin) occassionally at one of my favourite cafe's in Singapore. One day - the cafe owner told me she didn't sell muffins anymore because the girl who used to sell them had left. So 2 weeks later, as i was sipping on a tea, muffinless - i went up to the cafe owner and proposed that i bake a batch and bring if over to see if she could sell them. i was all braced for rejection, but to my surprise she said 'why not'
and so a muffin baking frenzy was born.

Muffin frenzy
I had baked muffins in the past, but very non committally and with often varying results. Some had turned out well, some were hard as rubber. i did not have a fool proof method. I had one muffin recipe in my donna hay cookbook - the rest were print outs from the website. The first step was clear - to buy an entire book on muffins! The one i finally picked had a wide variety of recipes listed in alphabetical order. The author's foreword suggested that they had experimented on different versions a million times over and had finally published the ones they felt were sure winners. I was ready to go!
My first experiment (the night before my first Sunday delivery) was the safe and sure win -choc chip muffins. The first batch were a disaster. They didn't rise, and came out textured like scones. Edible, but not a muffin. I brought them to a dinner party anyway, and everyone ate them (chocolate chip scones aren't bad) but concluded that they certainly didn't look like or taste like muffins.
Hurrying home after dinner (at midnight) i quickly read in my muffin book that baking powder didn't last beyond 3 months - mine had been sitting in my cupboard for 9 months. i opened up my new bottle of baking powder and tried the 'fail or die' batch early Sunday morning. They rose - looked like muffins, albeit small because the only muffin tin i had were small sized muffin. Cafe owner looked pleased - but said they needed to be twice their size - and proceeded to serve two muffins per order. i had made 6 muffins - all of 3 people ordered them and they were gone in a flash! I was encouraged! it was a sell out!

Twice their size
Logic would have it that bigger muffin tins make bigger muffins. And so they do. i bought a 'jumbo sized' muffin tin - that certainly got the job done. But my next challenge was: how do those bakeries get muffins that seem to 'explode' over the top with mushroom shaped heads? Trick is: Fill it up to the top of the muffin hole. Most recipes tell you to fill up 3/4 of the way - just be generous and fill it up to the top. they spill over the top and mushroom out in billowing glory - and look like the real deal.
Note: It might seem obvious, but bigger muffin tins mean longer baking times - so give it more time or the centre will end up soggy.

The following week, i went into a frenzy, experimenting with banana muffins, oatmeal raisin muffins, oatmeal raisin and choc chip muffins (latter doesn't work - simply too many ingredients in the batter - weighs it down and makes it taste stodgy) - muffin holes filled all the way to the top , filled 3/4 full, with nut crunch topping, with oatmeal topping, without topping.
I had to find a container that was quickly labeled 'where muffins go to die' . My boyfriend and i were opening them up to look at how 'porous' they were (some of them came out dense - some came out with just the right number of air bubbles).

I concluded that i didn't want muffins with the mushroom heads after all. They came out far too heavy and big for Singaporean sensibilities (i suspect some might very well know that a muffin is actually a cake), and have since settled on the jumbo tins, filled 3/4 of the way.

After 3 days of experimentation, i decided i was ready. The cafe owner finally called me on Saturday to say she'd be happy for me to make 12 muffins for Sunday. So my mission was clear - one batch would be oatmeal and raisin (with walnut topping), the other banana with choc chip topping. Unfortunately, the Oatmeal and raisin came out looking burned, which mystified me. I had a brand new oven temperature gauge - everything had been the same as the last successful attempt, so why did it end up burned this time round?

The banana muffins came out of the oven looking glorious. Sturdy and golden, with large domed tops. I had only six to deliver the next day, but i had my boyfriend trying to convince me the entire night that it was not safe to deliver all six without at least trying one. ('i know it looks good, but what if the texture is really dense? or if it's wet on the inside? if it tastes bad, no one will ever order a muffin from the cafe again and there goes your business. really! don't take the risk! you must try it! ' - imagine this speech on repeat for the duration of 30 mins - i am not kidding, he was convinced on this risk averse strategy) I dismissed his theory, convinced it was his sly scheme to have a bite of my most succesful creation so far. But the next morning - i decided that maybe it was best to try. I broke one in half and savoured it. it was perfect, with moist crumbly texture, made even more tender by the bananas. i was ready to go! I whisked them away to the cafe - with only 5 muffins in hand!

They were once again sold out (not hard i guess!) and the cafe owner presented me with a huge plastic storage container - 'so you don't have to bring it on a plate the next time'. The next time! she told me both Saturdays and Sundays were good for muffin orders - 12 muffins per day was the magic number. I had secured a business! (at about $9 profit per day) .

I suppose this is first and foremost a passion. and the next time i deliver them, i'm going to sit at the cafe and watch people ordering and savouring them bite by bite. It will be my week's delivery of satisfaction. The muffin voyeur.


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