There's a lot of enthusiastic chatter in the food-blog world lately about cherries. After all, they're in season right now; have you noticed? Because if you haven't, you'd better take heed--those little beauties won't be around long. I'm talkin' fresh sweet cherries. You know, the kind that grow on real trees.
Gosh, I love 'em. You too? Yeah, I can see that you do. Besides eating cherries, I also love picking them, in part because the trees themselves are so exceptionally pretty. They're kind of small and their diminutive nature seems to invite one to come closer.
They endear themselves by being so approachable, and cater even to little kids in this respect. Could they be any more charming if they tried? I think not.
A few days ago, my family and I went picking in a northwestern Michigan orchard, while visiting my in-laws' cottage on Torch Lake. A huge inland lake, it's in one of the most beautiful areas in the state.
It's also in the middle of cherry country, which spreads out for miles around. I'm always kind of thrilled whenever our visits up north coincide with cherry season and, this summer, fortunately for us, the crop ripened a little earlier than usual. It made the picking almost too easy.
Lush branches, heavily laden, leaned down to accommodate even the most minimal effort. In some spots, the cherries clustered into big shiny bunches, mimicking grapes. Standing beneath the branches and gazing up, with a hazy sun poking through the almond-shaped leaves, was a delightful thing.
If you ever get the chance to pick them, you should jump at the chance. There's nothing in the world like the taste of a really fresh cherry just plucked from the tree, wiped clean, and popped into your mouth.
Of course, after picking the cherries, I longed to bake with them sooner rather than later, but because of the alarming heat wave sweeping this part of the country, I couldn't contemplate it seriously until we got back home into air conditioning. So, I tucked a few pounds of the cherries, unwashed, into the fruit drawer of the fridge where they were likely to be undisturbed, and on the day we left they were carefully packed into a cooler with ice for the journey home. They arrived here in very good shape, thankfully.
Now, though I know it's not original in the least, I decided I had to use some of the cherries to make muffins yet again. (Yes, I know. It seems I'm on a major muffin binge this year. Can't help myself, I guess.) Specifically, I needed to bake these muffins.
About this recipe . . .
A splendid vehicle for the combo of sweet black cherries and the lighter, milder Queen Anne cherries. these jumbo muffins are substantial and flavorful. Who knew that brown sugar and buttermilk could complement fresh sweet cherries so completely?
Adapted from Peter Reinhart's book, Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers, I adjusted the spices (added in a pinch of cinnamon and of nutmeg) and the flavorings (instead of using all vanilla extract, I used half as much vanilla as indicated, and added in a small amount of almond extract). Instead of using dried fruit in these muffins I used only fresh fruit, and I chose canola oil instead of melted butter. I left the base of the muffin essentially alone because, I figured, why tamper too much with perfection? (I was about to substitute in some whole wheat flour, but held back at the last minute.) And, predictably, I reworked/reworded the instructions a bit to reflect exactly what I did.
I've mentioned Peter Reinhart before, in a post on challah bread, and I have to reiterate here that I think his recipes are exceptionally reliable, and the books of his that I've spent any time with are remarkably well worth reading. (This may make me sound like a groupie or something, but I must admit I feel profoundly lucky as a baker to have easy access to his knowledge, experience, and overall philosophy through his writing. This guy knows what's what, and he clearly loves sharing what he's learned. Valuable stuff.)
These muffins are jumbos because the recipe seemed to merit that kind of heft. But large or small, I think you'll like them. From this recipe I got nine jumbos, but if you don't want the huge guys, I assume you could easily get 18 modest regular-size muffins out of this batter.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line muffin pans with paper liners and spray the inside of the liners with baking spray. This recipe will make 9 jumbo muffins, 12 generous regular size, or 18 smallish regulars.
3 and 1/2 cups unbleached All-Purpose flour
1 and 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt (I actually used 1 scant tsp. kosher salt)
2/3 cup canola oil
1 and 1/2 cups brown sugar, tightly packed (I used light brown)
2 large eggs
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1 pinch ground nutmeg
1 and 1/4 cups buttermilk (I used regular buttermilk, not low fat)
2 cups of pitted, coarsely chopped, sweet cherries (I used half black cherries and half Queen Anne)
coarse, or granulated, sugar (optional)
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a medium size bowl. Add the brown sugar and whisk it in thoroughly.
In a large bowl, mix together the oil, eggs, vanilla extract, almond extract, and buttermilk. (I did this by hand, and my muffins turned out great, but Reinhart instructs doing this part in your mixer. You decide!)
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir just until the dry ingredients are absorbed.
With a portion scoop, fill the muffin cups about halfway full. Using your hands, sprinkle on that a couple tablespoons worth of the chopped fruit and gently pat it down into the batter. Scoop another glob of batter atop that. Sprinkle the remainder of the fruit over that. If any batter remains in the bowl, dab it equally over the top of the muffins. It's fine if some of the fruit is exposed and not buried in batter.
Sprinkle the tops with coarse sugar or granulated sugar if you like.
Place the muffin pan on top of a baking sheet, and bake for 10 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 375 and bake for 10 minutes more. Check the muffins to see if they're browning too quickly; if they are, cover them lightly with foil. Bake the muffins until golden brown, and until the tops spring back when lightly touched. Mine took barely 30 minutes to bake. I also checked them with a toothpick inserted in the center to ensure they were fully done.
Let them cool in the pan, on a rack, for a few minutes before attempting to remove to the rack to finish cooling.
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Jane's Sweets & Baking Journalwas born of my ever increasing desire to learn more about the baking and pastry arts, and of my love for anything and everything related to baking. Just as food is meant to be shared, so is knowledge among bakers and among those who enjoy delicious foods prepared from scratch. So, please partake, and feel free to share your thoughts and comments. I'd love to hear from you.
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JANE'S FAVORITE BAKING BOOKS
About Professional Baking: The Essentials, by Gail Sokol. This is a textbook, but not one that's intimidating. It contains lots of useful info, including interesting personal profiles of professional chefs.
All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett. Another winner of the IACP award. Loads of good looking cookie recipes with lots of very appetizing photos. (Don't you love cookbooks with tons of pictures? I do.)
All-American Dessert Book, by Nancy Baggett. Wonderfully detailed, with very reliable recipes, Baggett does it again in this valuable cookbook. Definitely worth your time!
Art & Soul of Baking, by Cindy Mushet. This large Gourmet Cook Book Club Selection is a feast for the eyes. I love the page layout, the photos, and the author's reassuring tone. Recipes range from the quotidian ("classic sugar cookies") to the ridiculous ("Moroccan-spiced sweet-potato tiropetes") to the absolute sublime ("duo-tone chocolate pots de creme"). Worth acquiring.
Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft, by the Culinary Institute of America. This is a heavy duty textbook, not for the faint of heart. Intimidating, sure, but also kind of fascinating if you're an obsessive bake-a-holic like me.
Baking with Julia, written by Dorie Greenspan and based on the PBS series hosted by Julia Child. Yet another hefty and dazzling coffee-table-worthy cookbook. Wonderful to have around. (My copy was autographed by Julia herself!)
Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, published in 1950 and available in a facsimile edition, holds a special place in my heart. This is the book my mom primarily used, or so it seemed, when I was a kid. The photos are such period pieces, and the little notations that accompany recipes are pricelessly cute and corny. I have an ancient copy that I still use. Every girl needs a copy of this in her house, for good karma if nothing else.
Bitter Sweet -- Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate, by Alice Medrich. Much more than just a cookbook with a focus on fine dark chocolate, this is also a memoir of sorts from a legendary chocolate-dessert creator. Medrich is often credited with awakening American tastes to the finest aspects of superior chocolate. Very interesting read!
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes,by Jeffrey Hamelman. An indispensable book for anyone who is seriously interested in learning to make fine yeast breads, Hamelman shares far more than just technical knowledge. Like fellow bread guru Peter Reinhart, his warmth of spirit and deep love for the tradition of bread baking shines through on every page.
Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. Not to be confused with the character of the mom on Happy Days, the real Marion Cunningham has a long list of writing accomplishments, the most well known being that she completely revised The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. A contemporary of the late James Beard's, she is still held in high esteem.
Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Rose is really into the science of baking, which can be helpful in some respects and off-putting in others. Like gardeners who talk mostly about soil components without conveying their joy in the plants themselves. Maybe I'm too sensitive? Probably so, as many consider this to be an invaluable classic. Despite my reservations, I wouldn't part with my copy. One of several highly detailed books by Rose. Her latest book, Heavenly Cakes, is much more down to earth, loaded with photos, and truly beautiful.
Cake Book, by Tish Boyle. I've called it a treasure trove before and please allow me to say it again here. This book is jam packed with wonderful stuff that's well explained. I used the Sacher-torte recipe in the fall of '09 for a culinary school project and it didn't let me down. I can endorse this book without reservation. I love it.
Complete Book of Pastry Sweet & Savory, by Bernard Clayton, Jr. When this book appeared in 1981, famed food editor Craig Claiborne praised it in the NYT as "one of the most important cookbooks of this year, if not of this decade." No photos, but don't let that dissuade you.
Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco & Mindy Fox. In 2009, some great new cookbooks were published and this was one of them. Down to earth, straightforward without being condescending, this smart guide offers creative and simple twists on dozens of diverse and well-proven "cakes, cookies, and other sweets."
Dessert University, by Roland Mesnier. As the White House executive pastry chef for over two decades, Mesnier has a lot of wisdom to impart. He does so well in this book, which is designed specifically for home bakers. A good book!
Grand Central Baking Book, by Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson. Readers are welcomed into these pages with a tone of warmth and familiarity. The photos alone will have you scribbling a grocery list. Try the berry kuchen recipe--simple and scrumptious.
Hershey's Chocolate Treasury, published in 1984 by Hershey Foods and chock full of old reliables. The recipe for Black Magic cake is one I've used again and again--invaluable!
How to Bake, by Nick Malgieri. The writing style is matter of fact and fairly informal. That's one of my favorite things about Malgieri's books.
Magical Art of Cake Decorating, by Carole Collier. Sometimes at a used book sale you find an old gem like this. Published in '84, I found it very encouraging when I first began decorating cakes. The recipes are rock solid reliable.
Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, by Maida Heatter. Famed baker (apparently her "Palm Beach Brownies" are known far and wide), whose work has centered on wondrous chocolate desserts, Heatter received a James Beard award for this book, one of many she's published over several active decades.
Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, by Martha Stewart. Beautiful photos, but I must admit I've come to have reservations about the reliability of some of the recipes. Is it just me? Though I love flipping through the book for ideas, I'm a bit on the fence with this one when it comes to actual usage.
Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes by Martha Stewart. Talk about a stunning and inspiring book! Chances are you may never decide to actually make one of the cakes from this glorious volume, but it's enough just to page through the gorgeous pictures and interesting recipes. Expensive? For sure, but worth it.
Passion for Baking, A by Marcy Goldman. If you're curious about how professional bakers manage to make things come out nicely every time, you'll appreciate this book. Goldman, in her highly approachable style, divulges many of their simple--but enormously helpful--tricks and techniques, and shows readers how to implement them throughout the wondrous array of down-to-earth recipes that pack this great book. Loads of enticing photos, too! I love this book!
Perfect Cakes, by Nick Malgieri. Can't say enough about Malgieri's books. Absolutely worth using, versus just reading! The white and dark chocolate cheesecake is to die for; I've made it a few times, along with many other recipes from this book, and it is superb.
Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Everyday, by Peter Reinhart. This book is a revelation for anyone who approaches yeast recipes like a vampire approaches the dawn. Talk about down to earth, encouraging, and flexible! This guy knows how to talk to rookie breadmakers. Well worth reading, and using, this volume will find a comfy place in your cookbook collection--a worthwhile purchase, undoubtedly!
Professional Cake Decorating, by Toba Garrett. I get the impression that this book is perceived as the most thorough and comprehensive text available for serious students of cake decorating. This is the text that we used for my culinary school Beginning Cake Decorarting class (which means I finally own my own copy!).
Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, by Sarabeth Levine. Almost too pretty to use, but use it anyway! This big book is so appealing, and the photos so remarkably enticing, you'll want to pick it up like a sandwich and bite right into it. Fine recipes for updated classics, well explained, from the famous Manhattan bakery. Worth buying. (You'll love it!)
Secrets of Baking, by Sherry Yard. A must have, bakers! This cookbook's forte is the way it's organized; master recipes are presented with full explanations of how they can be used, and related recipes follow, section by section. An exceptional manual to refer to. Get your own copy!
Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne. Huntsman is the professional pastry chef behind this beautiful book, filled with many tempting recipes, all designed specifically and scaled perfectly for three layers. I've made the Devil's food cake thus far, and it was exceptional--it rose well, was very moist, and had great depth of flavor. I'll be using this book more in the future, without a doubt. Love the photos also!
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. . . to never endorse a product of any kind on Jane's Sweets & Baking Journal that I do not believe in. I've never done so thus far, and I vow never to do so. If I tell you I think something is great, or that I think it is worth spending real money on, then I mean it, rest assured. I promise. And, if I ever talk about a product that I've been given to review or try out, I will disclose that in the post.
I'm a mom with two great sons (both now in college), and a really nice husband. I left a long editorial career in reference publishing a few years ago and I've had nary a regret. I recently finished (after four part-time years!) a Baking & Pastry Arts Certificate program in the Culinary Studies Institute at a local community college. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and I am so glad I did it. These days, I do a lot of freelance editorial work, something that I really enjoy.
"Jane's Sweets" was the name of a very small baking enterprise that I started in late 2007. It bloomed a bit, for a little while, with encouragement from my husband, my aunt, and my first cake decorating teacher, Cindy. Because my Aunt Lydia was my most ardent female supporter in this baking endeavor (she was a lifelong independent business owner herself), this blog is dedicated to her memory. If heaven is real, then I know she's there with my mom, baking up a storm. Like Lydia said one day, just before her 80th birthday, while she and my mom and I were baking in my mom's kitchen, "It's been a fun ride. I'd do it all over again!"
If my house were on fire, I'd grab my family, then I'd grab my KitchenAid mixer.
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