April 5, 2016 · 10:57 pm
Is it weird to say that bran muffins are my favorite muffins? Because it’s true. I have no problem with a lemon-poppyseed muffin, or a blueberry muffin, or a banana-nut muffin, or even a chocolate chip muffin. But to me, a muffin is meant for breakfast or snack, and those are basically dessert. They’re halfway down the road to cake. A bran muffin, on the other hand, has plausible deniability. It’s damn near health food. And there’s nothing else in the baked good kingdom quite like it.
Of course, most bran muffins aren’t actually health food. They’re stealth sugar bombs, and for a while I had to go cold turkey on them. But recently I found a recipe that’s let bran muffins back into my life. It’s built entirely on whole wheat flour, and sweetened with molasses and a touch of honey. I still wouldn’t call them health food, but they’re substantial and slow-burning enough that I can have one in the morning and stay satisfied for hours. The molasses makes these wonderfully dark and damp and bittersweet. The whole wheat makes them extra-earthy and amps up the spongy-grainy texture. They’re my perfect bran muffin.
I like to pack these muffins full of fruit, nuts, and seeds, so that they can stand on their own as a light breakfast or afternoon snack. The muffin pictured below has raisins, sunflower seeds, and blanched slivered almonds. Really, just about anything is fair game. I know lots of people hate raisins, but I love them, and for me a bran muffin isn’t a bran muffin without them. That said, any dried fruit will do just fine, or even no fruit at all. And although I’m normally not a big fan of nuts in baked goods, they’re really lovely here, adding crunch and a wonderfully unpredictable texture.
There’s another reason I love this recipe: it produces those wonderful overhanging dome-tops that are my favorite part of a bran muffin. The key is to fill the muffin cups all the way to the top; if you do, there should be exactly enough batter for 12 perfectly domed muffins. As the muffins bake, the tops rise up out of the cups, nudging right up against each other. My favorite way to eat these is to carefully separate the spongy bottom from the chewy top, then eat the bottom first and save the top for last.
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November 11, 2013 · 8:29 pm
My office shares a small kitchen with the other offices on our floor. It’s a tiny but magical place, where drinks and snacks and sandwich fixings are free, plentiful, and replenished every week. There are always several different kinds of fresh fruit, including a basket of bananas. Recently, I started noticing something: even if there are old spotty bananas left on Friday afternoon, the basket is always filled with flawless yellow bananas come Monday morning. So where do the Friday bananas go?
In the compost bin, that’s where. Every week, the ugly but still perfectly edible bananas are thrown out to make way for the pretty new ones. I found this out myself on a recent Monday, when the admin who normally stocks the kitchen was a little late making the rounds. I went into the kitchen to turn on the electric kettle, and there was a bunch of brown bananas in the basket. I came back in two minutes later for my tea, and they were in the bin.
Well, no more. I am the banana rescuer. Whenever there are leftover bananas on Friday, I’ve started bundling them up and taking them home with me. Some of them get eaten as-is, but the majority get tossed in the freezer, peel and all, for a day when I feel like making banana bread.
There are approximately 2.6 bazillion banana bread recipes in the universe. I’m not pretending to break new ground here. But I have learned, from hard experience, that there are two things that make for really good banana bread: use the squishiest, ripest bananas you can find, and a lot of them. When I bring my already-splotchy bananas home from the office, I’ll leave them in a paper bag over the weekend, until their peels are almost completely brown, before freezing them. My friend Shaw swears that the best banana bread he ever made was with a bunch of forgotten bananas that were so ripe, their skins turned black and they started to ferment. Shaw also doubles the amount of banana in any banana bread recipe; I don’t go quite to his extreme, but I’ve found that using 5 bananas in a recipe that calls for 4 only makes it better.
The benefit of using so many ripe bananas is that you can then dial way back on the added sugar. Over the past couple years, I’ve found myself wanting less and less sweetness in my baked goods, and using pungently sugary bananas is a great way to compensate. To use up my most recent banana windfall, I made two banana loaves: a whole wheat loaf sweetened with just a touch of maple syrup, and a chocolate loaf fortified with cocoa and sweetened with brown sugar. I was lazy about mixing, so that the breads came out with large yellow pockets of banana throughout. I didn’t have a problem with this, but if you do, just mash your bananas into oblivion.
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October 22, 2012 · 6:53 pm
I’m not a big bread baker. It just doesn’t tickle my fancy much. But last weekend I tried my hand at Irish soda bread, and now I’m on my second loaf in seven days. This is serious business.
I love a good whole-wheat loaf, and this one might be my favorite yet. It’s dense and chewy, with just enough white flour to give it a soft fluffy crumb.The sturdy crust growls oh-so-satisfyingly under a bread knife, revealing a plush, almost cakelike interior. The flavor is deep and gruff and wheaty, shot through with flax and oats and the licorice tang of whole caraway seeds. It really makes anything you’re eating with it feel like a good square meal. And since it’s a quickbread, there’s no kneading or rising involved–the dough comes together in minutes, and goes from mixing bowl to cutting board in under an hour.
There are two options for baking this bread: in a loaf pan, or rounded on a baking sheet. I’ve tried them both; the spongy middle turns out identical, but the crust is astonishingly different. The loaf pan produces a lighter bread, with a crackly-crisp crust on the top only. This would be a terrific breakfast bread, ideal for slathering with butter and jam. The round loaf, meanwhile, is crusty all around: the top is jagged and crunchy, and the bottom is solid like an artisan loaf. I’ve never had a crust this solid and satisfying on a whole wheat bread before. As an accompaniment to a thick winter stew or a hearty vegetable soup, I’m not sure it can be beat.
This bread is at its absolute best warm from the oven. As it cools, it loses a lot of its belly-warming charm. Once that happens, the only fix is the toaster oven–but it’s a good one. Toasting this bread restores some of that wonderful all-over crispness, and heightens the nuttiness and sweetness of the bread itself. A toasted slice of this bread is almost as satisfying as an oven-fresh one, with a thin shaggy crunch giving way to fluffy insides. My personal favorite M.O.? Freeze leftover slices–no more than an inch thick, please–and toast them straight from the freezer.
Oh, and though I’m not a beer drinker, I have it on good authority that this bread is The Thing to have with a glass of Irish stout. If you try it, please report back.
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November 17, 2011 · 8:50 pm
I have to tell you something.
I made you a cookie…but I eated it.
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October 4, 2011 · 9:48 pm
This is probably a first for this lil’ blog here: a recipe that’s longer than the post that leads it in.
Fear not–it also takes more time to read than it does to make.
And it proves a great point: you do not need expensive specialized equipment to make restaurant-style foods at home. In particular, you don’t need a pizza stone to make terrific pizza–beautifully blistered and crackly-crisp on the bottom.
Once again, it’s cast iron to the rescue.
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