When asked what the most universal language is, I think most people would come up with “food”, “love”, or possibly “music”. For me, food is the language of festival, normalcy, and condolence. Every time anyone near and dear to my family loses someone, I am used to the immediate hustle and bustle of preparing casseroles and cookies to have in hand for the first visit. In this past year a few of my closest friends have had to experience losses, and those have highlighted the difficulty of offering support and condolence from a distance. Because it is usually impossible to turn the comforting thought of homemade food into words worthy of expression, at least for me, I thought I’d offer a recipe to two of my friends I have been close with since elementary and middle school, and who both experienced the loss of a family member in this past year.
Not many people are lucky enough to hang on to their high school friends. Maybe lucky isn’t the right word- plenty of people can’t wait to leave the awkward, transitional teenage years behind, including the people that were there to witness every folly. On the other hand, the people who saw you during that state know the rawest form of you- the half-baked, still experimenting, stumbling, eyes-closed version of you. They understood the wristband phase, and moved past it alongside you. They totally got the near heart attacks that academics inspired, where surely a poor grade would jeopardize your whole future. They broke the rules with you, stood with you, and felt the consequences with you. They remembered your birthday most of the time. They stayed in your car and talked for a long time before walking the 6 feet to their front door, even though they were just going to see you in the morning.
There is a group of girls- we literally still refer to each other as “the girls”- I am lucky enough to maintain a relationship with past high school. Our history goes way back, and includes crying, camping, concerts, comedy, and philosophical conundrums. It has been highlighted with fighting, fits, and feelings hurt. I wouldn’t trade any of our experiences for the world, including the most cringeworthy, the least sensitive, and the ultimately embarrassing.
I mentioned camping above- that we knew how to do. We continue to have sleepovers whenever the opportunity arises, even though our age no longer contains the suffix “teen”. We have spent many a night crammed into a too-small tent, going to sleep freezing and waking up steaming, and in my case, eyes swollen shut from allergies. We did the west coast trail together in grade 12, adding whole new dimension to our shared camping experiences, and contributing to the list of “the best things I’ve ever done” for each of us. When we camped in civilization however, we frequented a member of the group’s house who coincidentally had a mom that woke up super early and baked. Baked fresh muffins. Baked fresh muffins with cream cheese embedded in the centre. I can’t speak for the other members of the group, but whenever I see a recipe or illusion to the combination of cream cheese and muffins, I automatically think of the morning after sleepovers and those wonderfully fresh muffins.
I have, over the past few years, created many of my own muffin recipes. This is mostly attributed to the fact that I used to have a job that exclusively included baking muffins. Most of the muffins I make again and can’t stop thinking of are NOT I repeat NOT healthy granola-and-nuts muffins. Even my granola-and-nuts muffins lean hard to cakes and pastry. Sure, I have a few carrot, pumpkin, and squash puree based muffins…but honestly, you’re still eating a mini-cake that somehow slid into the breakfast category. And that, for special occasions, is a glorious thing.
This muffin features brown butter, a creation so simple and fantastic, I can’t believe I have yet to incorporate it into all of my baking endeavors. Not only for baking, I may possibly have maybe once served a filet of sole drenched in brown butter sauce to guests. We spent the meal talking about the health benefits of fish, so I thought I’d keep it on the down low what the sauce consisted of. Hey, they said it was the best fish they ever ate! No need to bring in the ingredients. Because brown butter is just butter. That is it. You put butter in a pot, you melt it down over low heat then let it start to foam and turn a beautiful hazel colour. It will smell very similar to hazelnuts and caramel (swoon). Little bits of milk solids in the butter will brown much faster than the liquid, but if you are baking and not concerned with the aesthetics of the sauce, these little crunchy bits add great flavour, so scrape them all out and use them!
This muffin, as I mentioned, also has the famous cream-cheese center. Maybe not that famous actually, unless you are an active member of “the girls” and a regular sleepover participant. It is a simple but splendid addition, just a little spoonful of cream cheese tucked into the batter before baking. It will change your whole experience with muffins, however. You will refer to all other muffins as “center-less muffins”, and may become so fanatical as to eventually move on to calling them “soul-less muffins”. Also, if it’s a Friday night and you’ve got a jones for baking…and you’re down half a bottle of wine since the beginning of the evening…equal parts cream cheese and nutella. Just saying. Combine the cream cheese with the nutella. You will be so glad you did.
Alright, without any further ado, here are the banana cream cheese muffins, dedicated to the girls and filled with wishes of condolences.
Banana Cream Cheese Muffins
As you can see, this muffin contains a lot of “optional”‘s. You can add any number of the optionals in any combination, depending on your pantry/fondness for your waistline. If you choose to add them all, feel free to insert the phrase “pimped-out” in front of the title above.
1/3 c unsalted butter butter
3-4 bananas (old and spotty ones)
1 c brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c all purpose flour
3/4 c whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cardamom (optional)
1/4-1/2 c shredded coconut (optional)
2 Tbsp high quality cocoa powder (optional)
1/4 c pecans, chopped (optional)
1 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp oats
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp shredded coconut
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Cream cheese for filling
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. First of all, the brown butter. Place the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and cook it until the colour turns brown and it smells amazing. Make sure you keep an eye on it so it doesn’t go black (that will be unusable), but don’t worry if you think it’s a little on the dark side, it will taste amazing when baked.
2) When the butter has browned, pull it off the heat. Un-peel your overripe bananas and slice them into the butter mixture. It will sizzle and smell even more wonderful. The hot butter will soften the bananas making them easier to mash into little pieces, and the bananas will cool down the butter.
3) When the banana-butter mixture is cool enough that you can put your finger in it without wanting to remove it quickly, add the brown sugar, egg, and salt. Stir well.
4) In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. Make a well in the dry ingredients, and add the wet ingredients. Gently fold to combine the wet and the dry, being careful not to over-mix. Once you think the batter is uniformly mixed, stop and mix no more!
5) In a small bowl, combine all the topping ingredients. You don’t have to use melted butter, I just gently work it into a crumb with my fingers.
6) Prepare your muffin tins with paper/silicon liners or grease. Spoon the batter evenly between 6 jumbo muffin cups or 12 medium muffin cups.
7) For the cream cheese: I find 1 tsp for medium muffins is the perfect amount, and about 2 tsp for jumbo muffins. I don’t worry too much about precise measurement though- I cut little pieces of cream cheese off the brick of cream cheese and roll them into balls, combining pieces until I get 1-2 tsp of cream cheese. I then gently press the cream cheese into the muffin, pushing the batter onto it so it is enveloped in the muffin. Repeat until all the muffins have cream cheese centers.
8) Cover the muffins with the topping. Place in the oven, and bake for 30-45 minutes depending on your muffin size and oven character. Check the muffins after 25 minutes by touching the top gently and quickly (no burnt fingers!) to see if its set. If it appears to have set, insert a clean butter knife into the edge (not the cream cheese center) of the muffin and see if it comes out clean. Continue to bake until a clean butter knife (read: not the one you used for the previous test that would now have batter on it) comes out clean.