Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Everyday Blueberry Muffins

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I was looking for the "perfect" blueberry muffin recipe. I should probably have said that I was looking for a recipe for a particular type of blueberry muffin. What I had in mind was an exceptional example of a muffin made with the traditional quick mixing method called (surprisingly) the "muffin method".

There are many different methods for mixing up baked goods. All of them have been designed to help the baker create the proper amount of gluten to obtain the best result for the baked good in question. For quick breads (muffins, scones, tea breads, etc.) and cakes—baked goods leavened with baking soda or baking powder—too much gluten development will produce hard, tough and dry results. This over-development of gluten is a result of too much mixing. An experienced and talented baker is adept at judging when to stop mixing.  In reference to this, you will often hear a fine baker described as having a light hand or a deft touch.

There are two primary methods for mixing up muffin batters. The aforementioned muffin method consists of mixing all of the dry ingredients in one bowl and all of the wet ingredients in another. The two are then combined using a few brief strokes.  Most recipes will even tell you that it's OK if the batter is still lumpy or if there are traces of flour still visible in the batter. The muffin method is simultaneously one of the easiest methods and one of the most difficult. Easy, because it is fast. Difficult, because the temptation to over mix is great.

The second type of muffin is made with the creaming method. The butter is beaten together with the sugar until it is fluffy, then the eggs are beaten in and finally the dry ingredients are added alternately with any remaining liquids. This is the classic mixing method for American-style butter cakes. When well-made, a creaming method muffin is fine-grained and tender—just like a creaming method cake. There is more protection built into this method of mixing as far as gluten development is concerned. The batter can still be over mixed, but it isn't nearly as easy to do.

Most muffin recipes in popular circulation today are creaming method. As anecdotal proof of this, when I posted that I was looking for a perfect blueberry muffin recipe I received a number of messages from readers providing me with links to their favorite blueberry muffin recipes. All but one were creaming method recipes.

You might wonder why I particularly want a muffin method recipe since the creaming method produces such good results. For me, it has to do with the place a muffin holds in my "sweets" repertoire. I think that a muffin should truly be a quick bread. I want to be able to make them on the spur of the moment for an impromptu breakfast or a surprise visit from a friend. Muffins made using the muffin method can be measured, mixed and baked in about a half hour.

If I am going to go to the trouble to make a creaming method muffin—soften butter, bring eggs to room temperature, get out my mixer, beat the butter and sugar for 3 or 4 minutes, etc.—I would rather just make a coffee cake. A creaming method muffin is really just a miniature coffee or tea cake—called a muffin because it's baked in a muffin pan. By baking a coffee cake, I give myself more control over the portion size (one muffin is kind of a small portion—but two is probably too much.)

What I really want in a blueberry muffin is the best of both worlds—fast, but with a more fine-grained and tender result than is normally found in a traditional muffin. Several years ago I happened upon a blueberry muffin recipe (in a book called Morning Food by Margaret Fox) that used all heavy cream for the liquid. This made some pretty wonderful muffins--just like using all heavy cream makes really great scones. But unlike my cream scone recipe, these all-cream muffins were a little too rich for me. I adjusted the recipe over the years to use less cream and more milk, but whenever you start to tinker with a recipe, you find that it is rarely just one thing that needs adjusting. I have continued to play around with the recipe and when I made the blueberry muffins that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I felt like I was getting pretty close to the muffin I wanted.

I am pleased with my most recent result. It is sweet, tender and has a finer grain than most muffin method muffins.  It is also substantial enough not to become damp and soggy with the blueberries. I made a second batch with peaches (topped with sliced almonds) and they were good too. I expect I would be happy with raspberries as well.

Everyday Blueberry Muffins

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour (9 oz.)
2 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. granulated sugar
6 T. light brown sugar (packed) 
1 large egg
8 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. almond extract (optional)
1 1/2 c. blueberries, washed and dried
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling (see note)

Preheat the oven to 375°. Grease and flour or line with muffin-liners, a 12-cup muffin tin. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the first five ingredients; set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the melted butter into the egg until smooth. Whisk in the cream, milk and extracts.

Add the blueberries to the dry ingredients and toss to coat. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry and stir until just combined—this will only take a few strokes. A few clumps of flour will be visible in the batter—this is as it should be (do not over mix!).

Divide the batter into the prepared muffin cups—a 1/4 cup ice cream scoop works perfectly for this. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with some turbinado sugar, if you like.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes--until the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 12 muffins.

Note:  Instead of Turbinado sugar feel free to use coarse decorator sugars or plain cinnamon-sugar.  You could also top the muffins with a simple butter/sugar streusel or some sliced almonds (as I did for my peach version):

Variation (18 April 2011):  I wanted to make an impromptu batch of these and discovered I didn't have any heavy cream in the house.  I did have sour cream, so I substituted sour cream for heavy cream and increased the milk to 1/2 cup.  Because of the added liquid, I increased the baking powder to 1 T. 


Katrina said...

I definitely like the kind of muffins you can mix right up in no time without a mixer better than the butter creaming kind.

Unknown said...

That one recipe was mine, right? :) Love these informative posts. Muffins look delicious!!

Paige said...

Oops! There were two muffin method muffins (not one as I wrote) in all the ones that came my way (there were a lot)--and yours was one of the two. I was so touched at all the recipes that people sent. The food blogging community has so many generous people!

Unknown said...

Just last week my mother and I had a long discussion about blueberry muffins and then we found this post. Perfect timing -- thank you! These muffins look terrific + the idea of muffins as a quick breakfast bread is such a good idea, especially for someone who doesn't plan well in advance! Also, love your glass bowls. Are they "vintage" or more readily available?

Paige said...

The clear glass bowls with the white daisy pattern are a pyrex set of 4. They are at least 17 years old--I don't know if that counts as vintage or not. I checked on ebay and saw that someone had a set of 3 for sale there.

Thanks for your comments--if you try the muffins I would love to know what you think!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the pointer to eBay (a good excuse to spend time on that site, too!). Kathy