Everyone has a pet peeve. Some people are sticklers for grammar, while others can’t bear their food touching. These minor aggravations seem silly, but we all know how infuriating a pet peeve can be. I, too, have a pet peeve, but mine is serious. I’m confronted by it so often — almost on a daily basis — that I’m close to my breaking point. From my neighborhood coffee shop to the supermarket, I can’t escape it: the muffcake. Like when someone uses the wrong “there” or slurps their soup, my blood boils when I see a cupcake being advertised as a muffin.
Allow me to fill you in on a little secret: the muffin at your coffee spot is probably a cupcake. The dozen you can buy at the grocery store? Yeah, those are cupcakes, too. In my opinion, there are probably few muffins in this world that aren’t actually cupcakes.
So what’s the difference? The fundamental divide between these similarly looking pastries lies in their preparation. Cupcakes, and cakes in general, can be divided into two categories: high fat and egg foam cakes. High fat cakes, which are the majority of American cakes and cupcakes, rely on their high fat ratios for structure and usually involve creaming solid fats with sugar. The process of making a cake from scratch involves mixing in almost every step — mixing the softened fat and sugar, mixing flour and leaveners, whipping eggs or oils, and beating it all until smooth and thick. This method of preparation produces the characteristically fine grain and moist crumb of a cupcake.
Muffins, on the other hand, are a completely different story. They have a specific mixing method which is unlike the one used for cupcakes. The muffin mixing method, in fact, barely involves mixing at all. Unlike high fat cakes like cupcakes, muffins are made by keeping the wet and dry ingredients separate and then combining them with only a few strokes of a wooden spoon. Muffin batter should be ugly and lumpy, not thick and velvety smooth like cake batter. As a result of this different preparation, muffins are supposed to be grainier than the average cupcake, with a less delicate crumb.
Have you started making the realization yet that your morning muffin may be a little too decadent? Is it only a dollop of frosting away from truly being a cupcake? If so, you’ve more than likely been eating muffcakes. And unfortunately, in today’s muffin-confused world, your best chance at finding a genuine muffin may have to come from your kitchen. Luckily, since muffins barely involve mixing, I find them easier to make than cupcakes. But to ensure everyone can make an authentic muffin, I’ve included some tips, as well as my favorite muffin recipes.
The first tip for making muffins is to keep everything separate. Separate your wet ingredients from your dry ingredients and only mix them right before you’re going to bake. Thoroughly mix all the dry ingredients (I usually use a whisk, or even sift them) to avoid clumps of baking soda winding up in your muffins. Similarly, in their own bowl, thoroughly mix all the wet ingredients together. Keeping your ingredients separate will ensure that you don’t wind up over-mixing the batter while you incorporate more ingredients. Also, preparing the batter right before baking will yield the tallest possible muffins as the chemical leavening agents will be most potent right after mixing.
Another essential trick is to make sure you don’t over-mix the batter. After taking care to keep your wet and dry ingredients separate, don’t go stir crazy with your spoon and ruin the batter. Muffin batter should be fairly lumpy, sometimes even with small streaks of flour still present. Just a few rotations with a wooden spoon should be enough to incorporate the wet and dry ingredients. Over-mixing the muffin batter can result in tunneling. As if gophers had invaded your muffins, over-mixing creates large air pockets, or holes, within the baked muffins. These holes make the muffin tough and chewy, as well as give an uneven rise so that the muffin lacks its characteristic domed top. Therefore, it is vital to gently mix the batter just to incorporate the ingredients.
Following these two simple rules, any home cook should be able to create real muffins. Although it enrages me to see cupcakes labeled as muffins, I am in no way anti-cupcake. As a baker I love muffins and cupcakes, but like yams and sweet potatoes, they cannot — and should not — be interchangeable! Both are delicious, portable, personalized pastries, but with their own distinctive qualities and preparations. I have included two of my favorite muffin recipes below, as well as my absolutely favorite muffcake. Yes, I even featured a recipe for the thing I despise the most, but it is delicious enough that I can see past its false label. With these recipes, along with my tips, making your own authentic muffins should be a piece of cake (but not actually)!
Caramelized Banana Nut Muffins
This is my spin on a classic banana nut muffin. By caramelizing banana slices, this classic muffin gets a makeover from its usual incorporation of plain mashed bananas.
2 cups flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup buttermilk
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup crushed or chopped walnuts
For caramelized bananas:
2-3 overripe bananas
¼ cup white sugar
1-2 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 375°F.
To caramelize the bananas, heat sugar in a sauté pan until liquid and light brown in color. Remove from heat and add butter. Stir in butter and return to heat. Add bananas. Handle gently until bananas are covered in thick caramel.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.
In a separate bowl, whisk buttermilk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla.
Add wet ingredients into flour mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon until ingredients are partially combined.
Add caramelized bananas and crushed walnuts. Continue to mix just until ingredients are combined.
Fill buttered and floured muffin pan with batter using an ice scream scoop. Bake for 20 minutes at 375°F.
Cranberry Orange Muffins
Cranberry orange is a classic muffin combination. The fresh, bursting flavor of orange from this recipe makes it a tasty breakfast treat.
¼ cup orange juice
Zest from one orange
¾ cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons honey
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 ½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup dried cranberries
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Mix orange juice, buttermilk, eggs, honey, and butter. In a separate large bowl, rub the sugar and orange zest together with your fingers until the sugar is moistened and fragrant. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into the sugar.
Pour the liquid ingredients over the flour mixture. Gently mix until just blended. Fold in the cranberries.
Fill muffin pan with batter and bake for 22 to 25 minutes or until muffin tops are golden.
Recipe by Brown Eyed Baker
Jordan Marsh Blueberry Muffins
Jordan Marsh was a famous retail department store in New England. Interestingly, the store was known for their irresistible blueberry muffins which were sold in a bakery on the first floor of the flagship store in Boston. Although all Jordan Marsh stores have been converted into Macy’s, they are still lovingly remembered for these muffcakes.
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 ¼ cups sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup buttermilk
2 cups fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 375°F.
In a bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl or using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light. Beat the eggs one at a time until the batter is smooth. Blend in the vanilla. Alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk to the creamed sugar beginning and ending with flour. Fold in the blueberries.
Scoop the batter into a buttered muffin pan. Sprinkle tops with sugar. Bake muffins for 30 minutes or until risen and golden.
Recipe adapted from Nick Malgieri’s How to Bake
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski