Mmmmmuffins, Mmmmmed School
Muffins of Yore, Recipes for Chocolate Chocolate Chip Muffins and Whole-Grain Chocolate Cake, plus Thoughts about Metric Weights for Baking
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Although my husband Nate and I have enjoyed a variety of home-cooked breakfasts together every day for most of our 15-year relationship, it was only a few weeks ago that I learned that while he was in med school in NYC he had a large chocolate chocolate chip muffin and iced coffee from a neighborhood deli on the Upper East Side of Manhattan every day for years. I’ve been trying to find some new things to put into our breakfast rotation, which is why the subject came up. Unlike most people, who research shows prefer to have the same breakfast day in and day out, I’m happiest when I eat something different every day—happier still when it’s more savory than sweet. I particularly love breakfast when I’m traveling in Asia, where the variety of the morning meal and my taste preferences are well aligned. We have a friend who has eaten oatmeal every morning for decades. I would die. Nate, however, doesn’t mind a breakfast routine, especially when that routine includes chocolate.
With this new knowledge, I set out to find a good chocolate chocolate chip muffin recipe to call our own.
1980s Muffin Madness
Muffins are a bit of a mystery to me. During high school I lived through a muffin craze in Toronto. It was the 1980s and muffin shops competed with donut shops for prime retail real estate. Chains like Mmmuffins, The Muffin Break, and Cultures—The Better Bacteria (I’m not kidding, that was their tag line) were famous for their wide selection of muffins, most of which were built on one or two commercial bases with different mix-ins. Even Canada’s beloved donut shops had to get into the muffin game, often devoting as much as half of their display shelves to mediocre muffins during the craze. Somehow people were convinced that these oversized muffins with their domed tops and crisp edges were healthful. In reality they were just calorie bombs full of fat and sugar, mostly white flour, and often bits of chocolate, nuts and other caloric things. Considering how often they were overbaked, dry, and insipid—which might be one reason people believed they were healthful—everyone probably should have just had a donut or a piece of cake for breakfast, instead.
Muffins are less pervasive these days. But every once in a while a muffin is what you crave. Few recipes I’ve ever tried at home have produced the kind of big, bulbous muffins of my youth, surely because most of those muffins were made from mixes engineered for height, texture, flavor, and consistency.
My sister Carrie worked in quality control at the bacterially better Cultures back during the muffin’s heyday. Once, when someone wrote into a newspaper column that promised to track down recipes for readers’ favorite restaurant dishes, Cultures was contacted to provide the recipe for their signature carrot muffin studded with raisins and nuts. The only problem was that the muffin was made from a ready-to-bake mix. Carrie’s job was to create a recipe that looked and tasted like the original. No easy task. It’s no wonder I can’t find many recipes to replicate a 1980s muffin.
Anyway, I poked around the internet to find a double chocolate chip muffin to make for Nate for breakfast. Long out of med school, he was excited to eat the experiments. This recipe on Sugar Spun Run, made with sour cream, cocoa, and chocolate chips, seemed close to what we had in mind. After a couple of bakes, I tweaked the recipe, halving it so it doesn’t produce more than we could eat in a couple of days (see comments above about breakfast variety). I used olive oil, which my friend Bonnie once told me to use in all baked goods because it gives the best flavor and texture, as well as its healthful fat structure. (She was right, as usual. And now I bake almost exclusively with olive oil.) I added some brewed coffee for a boost of flavor and some whole-grain flour for a boost of nutrition. (Whole grain flour can absorb more moisture than plain white flour so the addition of coffee didn’t require any increase in flour.) I’ve used whole wheat, white and red, einkorn, emmer, barley, and oat flour with success. I also made my muffins considerably bigger so they would expand over the tops and edges of the pan to look like those muffins of the 1980s, getting six muffins out of half a batch instead of the suggested nine.
In case you are wondering, Who has time to bake muffins in the morning? here’s my approach. I like to separately mix the wet and dry ingredients the night before, but I don’t combine them. I cover each bowl and refrigerate the wet ingredients overnight. When I wake up in the morning, I preheat the oven, prepare the pan, combine the wet and dry ingredients (don’t over mix!), and by the time everyone’s showered and dressed for work we have delicious muffins for breakfast.
RECIPE: Double Chocolate Chip Muffins
60 g all-purpose flour (1/2 cup)
60 g whole-grain flour (1/2 cup), such as wheat, spelt, emmer, einkorn, barley, or oat
25 g Dutch-process cocoa powder (1/4 cup) (I use Valrhona)
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
65 g olive oil (1/4 cup)
100 g sugar (1/2 cup)
60 g whole milk (1/4 cup)
1 large egg
1 tablespoon cold, strong coffee
½ teaspoon vanilla extract or paste
75 g sour cream or plain whole Greek yogurt (1/3 cup)
170 g chocolate chips (I like to mix sizes, regular and mini)
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Grease a six-muffin tin with pan spray or line with paper cups. To prevent the tops from sticking, be sure to grease the flat part between the cups, whether or not you are using paper liners.
In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose and whole-grain flours, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to combine and break up any lumps. If the lumps persist, you may need to sift. Set aside. In a separate medium bowl, combine the olive oil, sugar, milk, egg, coffee, vanilla, and sour cream, and whisk until blended.
If you are mixing these up the night before so you can bake them in the morning, at this point you should stop. Cover the bowls. Refrigerate the wet mixture. (Make sure the oven is off. And don’t forget to preheat it when you get up.)
Dump the dry ingredients into the wet and, using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir just until almost combined. Do not overmix. Add all but a couple of tablespoons of the chocolate chips, reserving what’s left for the tops, and stir until incorporated. Again, don’t over mix or you muffins will be tough. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins, filling them until even with the top. Wipe off any drips on the pan. Divide the reserved chocolate chips among the muffins, sprinkling them evenly on top.
Set the filled muffin tin in the preheated oven. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, until the muffins have risen and are firm to the touch. It’s a little hard to tell if they are done because the melted chips are gooey. But it’s also easy to over bake them because the dark color doesn’t reveal how browned they are around the edges. I wait until the batter on top looks set and dry, there is no movement when you jiggle the pan, and they smell like chocolate cake. Remember, muffins are really just an excuse to eat cake for breakfast.
Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack for 10 minutes to set before removing the muffins from the tin to cool on the rack completely. (This is less important if you’ve used paper cups.) There’s a temptation to eat the muffins warm, but I think they are better when they are closer to room temperature. In fact, I think the chocolate flavor is actually better the next day. My husband disagrees.
While I’m at It: Whole-Grain Chocolate Cake
After tweaking that recipe, I stumbled on this chocolate cake made with whole grain. I can take no credit for this recipe. I saw it on the Serious Eats Instagram feed, the source of many of my favorite recipes. It was developed by @bravetart, whose book and recipes I love. I made it because the only cake my husband ever really wants is chocolate cake and I want to get something besides white flour into his body. Anyway, this cake is also dairy free, for anyone lactose intolerant, and pareve, for kosher-observant Jews. (I didn’t try it with a gluten-free flour, but I bet it works fine.) No matter why you are eating it, it’s delicious. It has the flavor and dark crumb of other cocoa-baking-soda cakes, which is a category of chocolate cake unto itself (think Devil’s Food). Since it is an oil cake, it requires no forethought to soften butter, nor a mixer for creaming. (In my mind oil cakes are the easiest to make.) I’ve made it a few times now. I scaled the recipe up to fit a 9-inch round pan. Like most chocolate cakes, you should make it a day in advance and let it sit, covered overnight before serving. This week I dusted it with icing sugar, whipped some heavy cream, and served it with a sauce of cherries cooked in caramel. (More on that technique, which I use for making almost all of my fruit sauces in a future newsletter.)
RECIPE: @bravetart’s Whole-Grain Chocolate Cake
170 g light or dark brown sugar (about 3/4 cup)
64 g Dutch-process cocoa powder (3/4 cup) (I use Valrhona)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
190 g extra-virgin olive oil (1 cup)
170 g strong, brewed coffee (3/4 cup)
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste
105 g whole wheat flour (7/8 cup)
Powdered sugar and fruit for garnish.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 9-inch round pan with non-stick coating and line with a round of parchment, if you have it. Spray the parchment, too.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, cocoa, salt, and baking soda and whisk together to blend. If your cocoa or brown sugar have lumps that won’t break up, you may have to pass this whole mixture through a sieve. Whisk in the olive oil, coffee, eggs, and vanilla. Blend well. Add the whole wheat flour and stir just until combined. Don’t over mix once the flour is in or the cake will become rubbery. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Use a rubber spatula to scrape out every last drop from the bowl. (I’m a stickler for this.)
Bake in the middle of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until set. The edges will pull away from the pan and the center will rise and firm up. Don’t over bake. It can be hard to tell what stage it’s in because of the dark color. Better to err on the side of slightly underdone as the cake will continue to finish baking for a few minutes after you remove it from the oven.
Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for an hour or so and then run a knife around the edge, invert, remove the pan, peel off the parchment, if using, and return the cake right side up on the rack to finish cooling. I like to transfer the cake at this point to a plate, covered stand, or tin, wrap or seal it tight, and leave it at room temperature overnight before dusting with powdered sugar to serve.
A note on the metric weights and measures in my baking recipes. I grew up in Canada in a household of Americans. This means when it comes to measurements, I’m equally comfortable in metric and imperial units. I learned metric in school, but at home I had to translate everything for my mother. She lived in Canada for more than 30 years, but she never understood what the weather was in Celsius. Still, it wasn’t until I started baking sourdough bread regularly about a year ago that I began to appreciate how easy and helpful metric measurements are in the kitchen, especially weights, and especially for baking. (Note, I realize that professional bakers have known this for a long time.) Both for accuracy, but even more for ease, I now translate all of my baking recipes into metric, and I work with a scale as much as I can. This allows me to adapt recipes easily to different pan sizes (the differential in surface area of the pans becomes the multiplier I use to scale the ingredients), and it means I don’t have to keep cleaning out measuring cups and spoons when I bake. Here’s a tip that was a revelation to my husband, whom I’ll note is trained as a scientist: if you set a mixing bowl on your digital scale, and you tare the scale after each addition of an ingredient, you can just keep adding the ingredients in the recipe without having to do any additional math. Magic.