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Apple Maple Ricotta Muffins

15 Nov

These muffins make me want to cozy up in front of a crackling fire, coffee cup in hand, with no immediate plans in my future. This is notable, because most muffins make me want to brush my teeth and drink a gallon of water to offset all of the sugary cake I just ate for breakfast. Sugary cake that, disguised as a passable breakfast food, is going to make me feel nothing but remorse as the day unfolds before me.

To anyone who has been reading this site for even a short amount of time, it should be obvious that I am no stranger to the joys of sugar. However, longtime readers will also know that I am a stickler when it comes to how much sugar I like in my treats, and when I like those treats to enter my day. Whereas there was once a time (age 25) when I could spend the morning grazing on sweet, sticky muffins and never encounter a hint of unpleasantness, I am now fully enmeshed in a different time of life (age 35), when eating traditional muffins for breakfast causes me to suffer a double-punch of migraine plus malaise. The process of aging is so cruel.

These muffins are a perfect example of how my tastes have changed over the years, and how I have gently altered my cooking habits to suit those tastes. Chunks of apple are folded into a lightly maple-sweetened batter that has been plumped up with creamy ricotta cheese and a scoop of whole wheat flour. A sprinkling of cinnamon sugar dusts the top of each muffin, and a crunchy pecan half completes the package. Perfectly toothsome, delicately sweetened, and studded with little surprises of apple in every bite, it’s the perfect muffin to start your day off right, with no lingering regrets.

Last Year: Salsa Roja

Apple Maple Ricotta Muffins Recipe

1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup pure maple syrup (preferably grade B)

2/3 cup milk

1 large egg

½ cup ricotta cheese

¼ cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 large tart or semi-tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch chunks (you should end up with about 1 ½ cups chopped apple pieces)

Topping:

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

heaping ½ teaspoon cinnamon

12 pecan halves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease the cups of a 12-cup muffin tin, or line the tin with muffin papers.

In a large bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, baking powder, and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, milk, egg, ricotta, vegetable oil, and vanilla. Stir the apple chunks into the liquid mixture.

Gently stir and fold the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing only until the two are just combined (the batter should still appear slightly lumpy). Over-mixing the batter will result in a tough and chewy muffin.

Evenly divide the matter amongst the 12 muffin cups. Mix together the granulated sugar and cinnamon, then sprinkle the top of each muffin with a dusting of cinnamon sugar (you don’t need to use all of the cinnamon sugar; you may have some left over). Place a pecan half on top of each muffin. Bake in the center of the oven for 18 to 20 minutes, until the tops of the muffins are rounded and a toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin emerges with just a few moist crumbs attached.

Remove from oven, and allow muffins to cool in tin for at least 10 minutes. Remove muffins to a wire rack to further cool. Best when eaten only slightly warm, or at room temperature.

Makes 12 muffins.

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Nun’s Puffs

6 Nov

Let’s start with the name, shall we? After much searching, I am still completely clueless as to how these delightful little pastries came to gain their rather fetching name. We can speculate, of course, but that’s all we’d be doing, and it seems almost beside the point to try and create a juicy backstory for these little numbers. Especially when, instead of looking around for naming clues, you should be spending your time baking up a batch of nun’s puffs. No, like right now.

With a texture poised somewhere between a choux pastry puff and a popover, only less crisply dry and more eggy in the middle, the nun’s puff might be my new favorite breakfast treat. Because of their relative simplicity, ingredient-wise, they are prime candidates for dressing up in any manner you choose. The richness of the butter, combined with the slight custardy flavor of the eggs, is the prefect backdrop for both savory and sweet applications. The outsides, so crisp and light, mingle delightfully with the airy and soft middle, because of the relative hollowness of the pastry’s middle, you can fill them with any number of things. I stuffed my serving with scrambled eggs, topped with a nice scoop of fried apples’n’onions (thank you, Almanzo Wilder), while my son slathered his with raspberry preserves. Both were absolutely delicious. I also sprinkled half of the puffs with cinnamon sugar before I baked them, and the resulting puffs emerged with a lovely lid of cinnamon crunch perched on top.

For as splendid as these puffs look, they are a cinch to make. Because they are baked in a common muffin pan, you don’t need a special pan, as you do with popovers, and you don’t need to fuss around with the oven, as you do with cream puffs. You mix, portion out, then bake. What greets you after 30 minutes is a dozen of the most spectacular baked goods you’ve ever seen straight from the oven, craggly, tall, and light as a feather.

Last Year: Sweet and Spicy Popcorn

Nun’s Puffs Recipe

From Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup milk

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

optional: 2 teaspoons sugar mixed with ½ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly butter a 12-portion muffin pan, being sure to butter the edges of the cups and around the top.

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. When butter had melted, stir in milk and raise heat to medium.. Bring the mixture to a light boil, then add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously. Continue to cook and stir the mixture until it comes together in a cohesive ball. Remove from heat, transfer dough to a mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes.

When dough has cooled a bit, add the eggs, one at a time, beating for about a minute after each addition. You can beat the egg into the dough with a wooden spoon, a handheld mixer on medium speed, or a stand mixer fitted with the flat beater attachment on medium-low speed. After the last egg has been beaten in, the mixture should resemble an extremely thick, stiff cake or muffin batter.

Divide the dough evenly among the prepared muffin cups, filling each cup about 2/3 full. If using, sprinkle the tops of the dough with cinnamon sugar.

Bake in center of oven for about 30 minutes, or until the puffs are tall, golden brown, craggly on top, and very puffy. Remove each puff from the pan immediately, and allow to cool slightly on a wire rack. Serve while still hot or warm.

Mexican Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

14 May

Today, for the second day in a row, my son went to school wearing shorts.  This has not happened since September.  That’s the way the weather works here, the warm days bookending the beginning and ending of the school year, never to be seen in between.  The school year is drawing to a close, and that means that summer is approaching.  Though it tends to happen rather slowly around here, it does eventually happen.

Summer, to me, means taking trips.  They don’t have to be long trips, but if I can find a way to pack traveling food to take along with us, the trip is, in my mind, complete.  Last summer we took day-long bike rides, me pulling my son in a bike trailer that was nearly too small for him (his helmeted head forming a dome under the trailer’s netting while he slouched in his seat and read books about whales); we took our annual 12-hour road trip to San Francisco to watch some baseball games and visit my family; and we made a few expeditions to the beach, where we sat in the sand and constructed cities with my son’s dump trucks and sand castle toys.  For every excursion, we packed what I like to think of as a prolonged picnic mea: a bit of bread, a bit of cheese, plenty of crunchy vegetables, some sweets, some nuts, and a ration of fruit.  This summer, when our garden is bursting with summer squash, I will definitely find a way to fit these fantastic muffins into the picnic/road trip mix.

We come again to that shadowy place where a cake meets a bread, a bread meets a muffin.  The lines long blurred between the three, it is oftentimes difficult to tell where one might be inclined to be identified as something else.  Not so much a cake, but also not entirely a bread, these are a lovely little snack to take in on an afternoon trip.  They make great traveling companions, and they can survive for several days in an airtight container (presuming that one can resist eating them for that long—we did not, in all honesty, so I suppose I should admit here that my statement on the longevity of these muffins is pure, unadulterated speculation).  Though they boast a great deal of dark chocolate flavor and comforting cinnamon and almond tones, the sweetness factor is at a minimum, and a nice combination of shredded zucchini, applesauce, and vegetable oil in the batter keeps the muffins wonderfully moist without ever devolving into heaviness.  A stop in a grassy place to stretch one’s legs in the midst of a prolonged car ride would be made several worlds nicer with a bit of this satisfying, not-to-sweet treat to go along with it.  All we need now is a destination, and we’re all set.

Mexican Chocolate Zucchini Muffins Recipe

1 2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs, at room temperature

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsweetened applesauce

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon almond extract

1 heaping cup shredded zucchini (from about 1 large zucchini), squeezed of its liquid

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line a 12-count muffin tin with paper liners, or grease the tin with vegetable oil.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and instant espresso, and whisk to combine.

In a medium bowl, combine the vegetable oil, eggs, sugar, applesauce, vanilla, almond extract, and shredded zucchini, and whisk to combine.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir until just combined.  The batter will not be completely smooth, but there should be no streaks of flour remaining.  Be careful to not overstir, as that will make your muffins quite tough.

Evenly portion out the batter in the muffin tin.  Bake the muffins in the center of the oven for 20 to 22 minutes, until the tops of the muffins appear firm and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin emerges with just a few moist crumbs attached.  Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for just a couple of minutes, then turn muffins out onto a wire rack to finish cooling completely.

Makes 12 muffins.

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