Monday, July 21, 2008

Muffin, I presume?

Recently, my daughter the make-up artist has called me twice for my muffin recipe. This recipe I obtained when I was a mere slip of a girl at age 18, when my mother sent me off to my sophomore year in college and my first experience of apartment living. I used to make these muffins for breakfast for me and my roommate, when we could roust ourselves from bed to make and/or eat them. The recipe--back to the recipe--comes from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, the one I recently recovered, and therefore I was able to go to the source for the recipe when my daughter asked for it.

Trouble was, for her the recipe didn't work. The batter seemed too dense, like the proportions of liquid and dry ingredients were radically off. She ended up adding a lot more milk, after which the muffins came out fine. I tasted one. They were good, with a refined crumb, a balanced flavor, and a judicious dollop of blueberries. The troubles she had, however, troubled me, so this morning, I made the recipe myself, just as I did when I was a mere slip of a girl at 18.

I said to the historian that I feared perhaps the recipe would not stand up to my memory of it, which was an absurd thing to say, since I've been using this recipe for about 30 years now, varying this and that but basically keeping the gist the same: 2 c. flour, 1/4 c. or a little more sugar, depending on how sweet you like them, 2-3 t. baking powder, a little salt; an egg, a quarter cup of canola oil or melted butter, depending on if you like things buttery, and a cup of milk. Mix quickly, but don't mix until there are no more lumps--there should be lumps. Bake in buttered muffin tins at 400 degrees until they're brown on top, and you'll have a dozen delightful muffins. You can add all manner of whatnot to these--cut up fruit, blueberries, even chocolate chips if you must.

Well, the muffins came out just fine and the historian and I wolfed several of them down for breakfast.

Perhaps what we are seeing here is evidence of a philosophical controversy: what is a muffin (ontology)? and how do we know the muffin when we see it (epistemology)? Moreover, what is the nature of beauty in the form of a muffin (aesthetics)? In general, I believe that the mass marketing of muffin-shaped items as muffins has confused us all, leading to general uncertainty among the people as to what we mean, exactly, when we say "muffin."

This state of affairs led me to reflect, during my morning walk with Bruiser, and thus and herewith, my Muffin Manifesto:

The Muffin Manifesto.

A muffin is not a cupcake. It is a quick bread, which means that, categorically, it has more in common with the scone, the biscuit, the rusk, than it does with any form of cake. It is a wholesome food, falling on the plain side of the plain/fancy spectrum.

The batter of the muffin is a pebbled batter, and the crumb of the muffin is a coarse crumb. The flavor of the muffin should be on the sweet side of the sweet/savory divide, but only barely.

Muffins should be consumed, if at all possible, when they are fresh from the oven. By their nature, they are not keepers. Cake keeps because there is more fat in cake, whereas muffins must be eaten or they decline.

Those items, known as muffins and sold by the giant dozen at CostCo and other supermarkets, are not in fact muffins. They are, however, cake. The acid test: can you put butter on these items? You might be able to, but you wouldn't want to, because who butters a cupcake? No one. A muffin can be gussied up with butter and jam, and be the better for it.

The true muffin needs no cupcake liner. The true muffin, in fact, will be diminished by the cupcake liner, because it doesn't have enough fat in it to pull cleanly away from the paper, and hence, you lose a good quarter of the muffin as it clings for dear life to the paper it has baked itself to. No, a true muffin falls like a champ from the buttered muffin tin.

The plain and unvarnished muffin: none dare call it cake, but cake better not call itself muffin, either, or there'll be hell to pay.

I feel quite a bit better now.


  1. This is an excellent manifesto! I've always known this, but you've managed to articulate the important/essential difference between the muffin and the cupcake. It's almost midnight. I want a muffin.

    Jim Gaffigan, however, defines the muffin as a "bald cupcake."

  2. Hilar. Makes me want to cook muffins... maybe tomorrow.

  3. I am trying to resolve whether there is any connection between being the minimalist/maximalist split and the muffin/cupcake connection--I being a minimalist (real) muffin eater and my children being total maximalist cupcake eaters (although truth be told they will eat anything that remotely resembles cake). Perhaps it is just that a minimalist would desire to choose, that is narrow the choices, whereas a maximalist would never think of choosing--why limit the options?

  4. Where does pound cake--utterly delicious toasted and buttered, yes, buttered--fall in this spectrum?

  5. You, my dear Francesca, are the only person I have ever heard of who toasts and butters pound cake, which makes it and you, as ever, the exception that proves the rule!

  6. I feel wonderfully schooled. I know now more than I ever did about muffins. Or cake for that matter.

  7. i want your muffins...mean post...very mean. :( just kidding. now it just makes me want to make them! if only the Gorski's had a muffin tin...

  8. I didn't taste a muffin until well into my 20s. It was hard growing up in Scotland you know...

  9. Amen to the magnificent muffin manifesto.

    I received that same cookbook (the cookbook) as a graduation gift from my parents (in addition to a Kenmore sewing machine). I have made that muffin recipe many times and shared it with Jake who now makes them with blueberries. He also makes a mean applesauce oatmeal muffin. Another of his many talents.



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