My younger son, Nathan, has a ukulele. He procured it with his own money just after Christmas, and he's been teaching himself to play. The instrument's maker is a company called Lanikai, and their slogan is, "Lanikai . . . Makes Me Happy!" (Click that if you want to hear their perky little ditty.) That motto sums up how I feel about homemade muffins--they make me happy. From their simplicity to their diminutive size, I like them. They're so approachable, and unpretentious in the extreme. In the same way that anyone can learn to play the ukulele, anyone can produce a fine muffin.
I'm developing a similar fondness for that ukulele. It's not loud or showy, and I'll bet it weighs in at a whopping 12 ounces, if that. It's subdued tinkling reminds me of wind chimes. Maybe my affection stems, in part, from the fact that my kid seems so enamored with it. He'll pick it up in a quiet room and gently pluck away, quite unselfconsciously, in a manner that's not typical for him. The ukulele's peaceful appeal is completely unlike that of any electronic device that competes for his teenage attention. I find it reassuring that Nathan appreciates that. Lanikai picked a very appropriate slogan, it seems to me, and I can just imagine how happy I'd be if I nibbled a nice muffin while listening to Nathan pluck away on that thing. Pretty darn happy, probably. :)
About this recipe . . .
This recipe adaptation brings together ingredients I am perennially crazy about--brown sugar, buttermilk, Marcona almonds (softer and sweeter than regular almonds), dried cherries, and plump, dried apricots. It's an adaptation, I suppose, of several muffin recipes that have wandered into my life over the past year or two, but I think it harkens back most directly to this recipe that I adapted from a Peter Reinhart muffin last summer.
This new muffin's differences include a focus on almonds (including the nuts themselves, along with almond extract, and a small amount of almond meal in place of some of the flour); the addition of sweet, dried, Michigan cherries, and dried apricots; and, some whole wheat flour standing in for a portion of the white flour. These bake up nicely and, when broken open, reveal a tender crumb that's soft without being cakey. The moisture from the buttermilk and brown sugar really give these a longevity that most muffins can't boast. Not too bland, nor too sweet, they're just right. I love them.
Brown Sugar Buttermilk Muffins with Marcona Almonds, Dried Cherries, and Dried Apricots
Yield: 18 regular size muffins (or, at least 9 jumbos or 36 minis)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Use baking spray liberally on 18 regular size muffin cups, or use paper liners. (Actually, if I were you, I'd use some baking spray even if I were using liners at the same time. Overkill? Maybe. But why take the chance? I spray the stuff on the top of the pan too, before filling the cups with batter, so any overflowing batter doesn't have a chance to glue the muffins to the pan's surface. Let's just say I've learned my muffin lesson in the past.)
2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached
1/2 whole wheat flour
1/2 almond meal (This means finely ground almonds. I buy this stuff, inexpensively, at Trader Joe's or make it myself in the food processor from whole or blanched almonds. Just don't over grind the almonds accidentally into paste!) 1 cup light brown sugar 1/2 cup dark brown sugar 1 and 1/2 tsp. baking powder 1/2 tsp. baking soda 1 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher salt; if you use regular salt, you might want to decrease this measurement slightly.) 1 small pinch of ground nutmeg (I like to use fresh and grate it myself. Much nicer smell and fuller flavor. I buy whole nutmeg from Penzey's, and I use a tiny little hand-grater that I found at Bed Bath and Beyond.)
1 and 1/4 cup buttermilk (I'd suggest you keep a couple of extra tablespoons on hand to mix in just case the batter seems unusually thick to you.) 2/3 cup canola oil 2 eggs, large 1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract 1/2 tsp. almond extract
1/2 to 3/4 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped 1/2 cup Marcona almonds, roughly chopped (I buy these at Trader Joe's, too. They come in small plastic containers, salted and roasted, and packed in a small amount of oil. They're extremely tasty, but not cheap.) 1/4 moist, plump, dried apricots, roughly chopped (The softer and moister the better. Super leathery apricots are not so good in a muffin.)
In a large bowl, evenly combine all of the nine dry ingredients (not including the fruit and nuts) with a whisk.
In a small bowl, mix together all of the chopped fruits and nuts. Remove about 1/4 cup of this mixture and set it aside; you'll use this to sprinkle on the top of the unbaked muffins.
In a medium size bowl, whisk the eggs lightly, then add in the buttermilk, oil, and extracts. Whisk until well combined.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour all of the liquid into it. Stir just until no big streaks of dry ingredients are evident. Use care not to over mix.
Sprinkle in the fruit and nuts and stir gently just to distribute them fairly evenly.
Using a portion scoop, if possible, put the batter into the muffin cups. My regular size cups were pretty full, as the photos show. Sprinkle a pinch of the fruit and nut mix that you set aside onto the top of each one.
Bake the muffins in the center of the oven for about 15 -20 minutes, or until nicely golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (If you tend to have trouble with your muffin bottoms burning, set the muffin pan on top of a cookie sheet when you put it in the oven.) Let the muffins cool in their pan, on a rack, for no more than a few minutes, then carefully remove them from the pan to cool the rest of the way on the rack.
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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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