I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I actually spent part of my time making muffins last summer for a baking and catering company called Art to Eat. We would supply local coffee shops with their fix of buttery goods, and it definitely taught me a few lessons about making muffins and baking in general. First off, never over-mix the batter. This will result in a flat muffin, which will therefore be denser, which isn’t a good descriptive word for a muffin. Second, uniformity is very important, especially when adding things like nuts, dried fruits, and berries. No one wants the muffin with one berry, covered with hardly any topping, that is half the size of its neighbor. Third, topping is not something that should be skimped. So many people put a nice little dash on top of their muffins, but as that muffin rises and expands that dash turns into a tiny dot on the very peak of the muffin. Cover the whole top of the muffin with a generous amount, and it will thin out to an attractive evenly sprinkled top. I had to watch for all these things while I worked (in the sweltering heat beside two gigantic ovens), but I never had to worry about amounts. I had memorized the recipes designed by the owner, and simply followed them verbatim. After a while you get a feel for what consistencies you like better, and what flavours you want to see more of. So, this summer, I decided to branch out and make my own recipe. Ten minutes into making it, however, I was nearly positive that it was never, ever going to make it onto this blog.
It was about 9 o’clock at night when I decided that what I was craving was a crumbly, moist muffin made from the berries we had picked from our garden bushes. I figured it takes me about ten minutes to whip up a batter, then 20 minutes to bake, so a half hour from that thought bubble I could be enjoying a warm, buttery pre-bed snack. Mistake number one- I didn’t get that snack for an hour, by which time I had heated our kitchen to a nice swelter, which made getting to bed a little stickier and sweatier than I had previously imagined. I also decided that I was really going to wing this recipe, flying on a whim, to see if I really had a chops to create a baking recipe with my minimal experience. Mistake number two- if you are getting ready to attack a creative endeavor, I recommend taking a moment to come up with a solid direction, then checking to see that you have ALL OF the supplies you need. You will see why. So there I was sashaying around the kitchen, pulling out bowls and whisks as arcade fire played at an appropriately obnoxious level, totally blissful and unaware of the future. I decided that this was going to be a brown butter batter with sour cream, the two things that we never did at my work that I’ve always adored. The first step towards my muffin was making the brown butter, something that I have done before, but not in a while. I eyeballed a half-cup and tossed it in my pot, turning up the temp and throwing on the lid. Looking around I realized that my camera had migrated back to my bedroom, so I pranced down to grab it, finding time while I was in my room to rearrange some things on my desk, highlight a recent parking ticket, and turn on my computer. Then I realized, oh man that butter is on high heat and I’m checking out my room with the high speed of a lame donkey. After scrambling up the stairs with camera around neck, I came just in time to pull the butter off the heat. Not too bad- after clearing the foam I recognize that it is a) not burnt and b) there’s funny stuff floating in it. Some of the milk solids had darkened considerably and separated from the fat, but after pulling one out and giving it a taste and finding it to be not unpleasant in taste, simply appearance, I shrugged. It was a compromise, but the butter still smelled fantastically hazelnut-y, so I deemed it useable (actually I don’t think this hindered the product in any way, so don’t fear if you make the same mistake!). Incident saved! Next step: combine the dry. I reached for the crumpled bag of flour that is kept on the bottom shelf, not really able to see it, and…it was not there. We had no flour. I was caught aback- I cannot remember EVER being out of flour! It is just one of those things that I’ve never had to replenish, it just always magically appears in abundance from the storage room. Okay, time to regroup. We have no flour. I look further into the cupboard and find a questionable substitute: cake flour. Definitely better than combining all the odds and ends of slightly stale, often off tasting gluten free varieties we keep for when Grandma comes around, but not completely ideal because cake flour basically contains very little gluten as well. I figured a fine crumb to the muffin is better then no muffin at all, so out came the measuring cup. The other dry ingredients popped in the bowl with no qualms. The wet came together well too, until I reached for the egg carton and smashed the top of the shelf with it. Too light! There were no eggs. A bummer, but not the end of the world, my dad is an egg white man so I just borrowed a good few spoonfuls of those. With the milk, the same thing happened. Too light! There was no milk. Substituted with almond milk, we have been saved again. At this point, though, I was looking at a lumpy pile of compromises, unsure whether I should bother spooning them into the trays. At this point, however, I was hot, tired, and not quite defeated, so I mixed in the berries, spooned out, and topped those muffins. I sat down at the counter and thought “What have I done?”
The first thing I noticed about the finished product was the smell. Hazelnuts were toasting away on the topping, and the air was full of the sweet, spicy scents of cinnamon and nutmeg. It smelt, well, quite fantastic. They were rising into nice little domes, the topping was spreading out nicely, and they didn’t look all that much like the freaks they were. When it came to tasting them, I was slow to. So, of course, I got my dad to have a piece. He told me that they were very good, but I’m thinking, hey, he’s my dad, I think he has to say that. Then I tried one for myself. Surprise! Flavourful, moist, and a little decadent, they were like an individual bloom of coffee cake because of that sour cream addition. The brown butter taste was fantastic, and the berries popped right out of the crumb into your mouth. All those little shortcomings disappeared into the final product, and had I not known any better, I would have said they were made the same as any of the other muffins I’ve sold. So, after that tale of multiple disasters, I present to you, a muffin that is actually (believe me) worth trying.
Little Berry Browns
These muffins are not a nuts-and-granola variety; they actually come from the land of give-me-cake.
½ c butter
1 c sour cream
2 tsp vanilla
¼ c milk
2 large eggs
1 c sugar
2 ½ c flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 c berries (I did 50/50 blackberries and blueberries)
¼ c hazelnuts
4 Tbsp oats
4 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp butter
½ tsp cinnamon
approx. ¼ tsp fresh ground nutmeg
small pinch of salt
1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Select a small saucepan and shave (cut into small pieces so that it will melt faster) all your butter into it. Put it over medium-high heat, allowing it to melt down completely and bubble until it turns a rich brown colour. Pull it off and check it if you can’t see through the foam that may form, to make sure you don’t burn it. When the colour is right and you can smell a hazelnut-like nutty scent (this is the easiest characteristic to look for), pull it off the heat and set aside to cool.
2) Meanwhile, stir together the eggs, milk, vanilla, and sour cream in a medium sized bowl. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon, sifting or whisking so everything is well combined.
3) While the butter is still cooling, mix together the topping in yet another bowl, this time just a small one. First, chop the hazelnuts to your desired consistency- I created a mix of relatively large chunks and small slivers so that the hazelnut flavour was spread around, but there was still a nice bite every once in a while. Toast in a dry pan over high heat for just a few minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Throw into bowl, and add the brown sugar, oats, and spices, mixing with your fingers to combine (careful the nuts aren’t too hot!). Set aside.
4) When the butter is slightly cooled, slowly whisk it into the wet ingredients with a small, steady stream. With a spatula, drizzle all of your wet mix onto your dry mix. Fold very gently with your spatula, until all the dry ingredients are almost moistened, then add the berries. Fold a few more times until you can’t see any more flour pocket and the berries are well distributed. The key to a good muffin is a gentle hand when mixing- the batter shouldn’t be smooth.
5) Grease your muffin tins, or position your paper/silicon liners. Spoon the batter, putting a bit in each tin, and then top them all up until they are even. Sprinkle on the topping, making sure you use all of it so that as the muffins expand they still have a nice coating. Fill any empty tins with a bit of water to prevent warping.
6) Place in the oven for 20-25 minutes, checking for a toothpick to come clean when it is placed in the thickest part of the muffin. This batch made 16 muffins that taste best when they are fresh out of the oven!