I came late to the American muffin. It was too close to the cupcake for comfort, architecturally at least. And the last shop-bought muffin I tried was like eating my own washcloth. There was also a disconcerting bounce to it, no doubt the result of all the preservatives required to keep it ‘fresh’.
The craggily homemade version is much nicer; unprecious, easy, malleable. It’s a great one for using up left-overs, marmalade bits, old cranberries, stewed this and that, collapsed bananas and it’s good for experimenting. I like the deliberate under-mixing, and then watching it rise into smooth little balls through the smoky glass. It also absorbs and holds onto the essential flavour of things in interesting ways, like ginger nubbins, dates, vanilla and cinnamon. The botanically named ‘flavedo’ of citrus zest comes through startling well. It’s honest fare; simple, good, true, the workhorse of the kitchen. Wet into dry is the only rule, and then it likes to be left alone. But breaking it open, and getting a headful of that steamy, sweet interior, the texture reminiscent of soft, hot bread is lovely. And it has that essential lick-the-bowl-clean component, central to all great baking expeditions.
Muffins are what is known in the trade as ‘quick bread.’ Bread that uses yeast – ‘slow bread,’ you could say – has a long fermentation period, whereas quick breads use chemical leaveners such as bicarbonate of soda and baking powder and need to go straight in the oven. Muffins favour the casual, almost sloppy cook. A few desultory swipes with a spatula is all you need for the mixture to be ready – any more and the gluten will start to work, and the result will be tough and dense. Keeping a light hand also creates all the nooks and crannies for the butter and jam to fall into later, and hopefully – if the muffin is still warm – liquefy and dance around your mouth in a delightful way.
This recipe can be made as a loaf or as individual muffins, and you can substitute the raisins for a cup of something else (prunes would be nice). Fennel is an acquired taste, I admit, being the Marmite of flavourings, but the liquorice warmth balances the sweetness here. Play around with spices though, and see what takes your fancy. I have added ground almonds to the mix because I believe that the muffin’s downfall is its tendency to dryness which almonds will mitigate. If you are less catholic in your muffin persuasion, and want to keep things simple, stick to two cups (250g) of flour.
Fennel, orange and raisin quick bread
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s The Modern Baker
1 cup (160g) raisins
1¼ cups (150g) plain flour
¾ cup (90g) ground almonds
⅔ cup (130g) sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tbs fennel seeds
Pinch of salt
¾ stick (6 tbs/3 oz) butter
Finely grated zest of 2 oranges
⅔ cup (160 ml) buttermilk
(or make up 1 cup/250 ml of milk and add 1 tbs of lemon juice. Let this stand for 5 minutes and use the required amount)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Put the raisins and about 75 ml (5 tbs) of water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, cover, and leave until the raisins have absorbed most of the liquid. You don’t have to do this but it makes the raisins very plump and juicy. Drain and leave to one side. Heat a dry frying pan/skillet over a medium heat and add the fennel seeds, shaking the pan so they toast evenly. They are ready when they start to release their fragrance and are beginning to brown; then whizz them in a spice or coffee grinder for a few seconds.
Preheat the oven to 400F. Lightly coat the muffin pan or loaf tin with butter. Put the flour, ground almonds, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, blitzed fennel seeds and salt in a medium-sized bowl and combine well. In a saucepan, melt the butter gently with the orange zest. Turn off the heat and add the buttermilk to the melted butter and let it sit for a few minutes, until it’s tepid. Pour the melted butter mixture into a bowl and add the eggs and whisk until well blended.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir gently with a wooden spoon or spatula. Mix until just blended. Gently fold in the raisins. Use an ice cream scoop or a spoon to pile the batter into the muffin cups (fill to the top if you want a billowing ‘crown’), or simply pour into the loaf tin. Bake the individual muffins for 18 – 20 minutes and the loaf for about 35 – 40 minutes. The top should feel firm and a skewer will come out cleanish when it’s ready. Leave the tin to cool for five minutes and then prise the loaf/muffins out using a thin knife and leave on the rack until okay to handle, but still tender and steaming. Eat very soon.
Some things to remember: All the liquid ingredients must be brought to room temperature before beginning. If, when you whisk the milk, eggs and butter together, the milk or the eggs are chilled, the butter will congeal and won’t blend well. Always add any zest to the melted butter rather than to the dry ingredients, as this releases the essential oils. Stop mixing the batter as soon as you can see no streaks of flour or liquid; don’t worry about lumps, they’ll even out during baking. Just get the darn thing in the oven.
These muffins, unlike their commercial counterparts, have a shorter shelf-life. After a day, they need a zap in the oven to bring them back to life, but by day three it’s all over. Freeze them once they’ve cooled on the rack, if you want to keep them for a while; they freeze for up to a month, wrapped and sealed in a freezer bag. When you’re ready to eat them, thaw for 30 minutes and then reheat. Alternatively, prepare the dry and wet ingredients, cover and store them separately until the morning (keep the wet in the fridge), and then whip them together and bung in the oven.
You can put the batter into squares of parchment paper, which then sit in the muffin tray, as pictured below. Though it looks quite pretty, the downside is the paper’s tendency to cling to the muffin, thus tearing it asunder. This makes it easier to eat though – doing the job of fingers.