Dan Lepard extols
the beauty of a richly
flavoured muffin and
shows us how to make
a moist chocolate
version to woo
There was a time, 50 years ago, when asking for a muffin in a bakery would have got you a disk of dough cooked that morning on a hotplate, ready for splitting and toasting over the fire. And, believe me, I wish that time of well-made hot-plate goods, fresh from the bakers, would come back. But today, ask for a muffin and there’s only one sort to expect: a soft cake, bursting out of a tall paper case and as richly flavoured and varied as cupcakes.
Where the muffin differs from the cupcake is in its simple appearance, even if that hides a huge amount of preparation and effort in making them. Generally although this isn’t a strict rule the muffin has a bare, just-baked appearance, whereas the cupcake is always topped thickly with icing. The mixture used for the muffin batter is usually all mixed together at once, and often far lighter in fat than a cupcake.
Sit them side by side and most shoppers will think that the muffin is the healthier option of the two and often the ingredients used to make the muffin play up to this opinion: brown sugar, sunflower oil, some bran or wholewheat flour, oats, fresh fruit and nuts are all ingredients you might find in a top-class muffin. But these ingredients mask the overall richness of most muffins and there may not be that much difference in calories between the two.
The savoury route
Then there are savoury muffins not as common in UK bakeries, but very fashionable if the flavours are interesting and contemporary. Cornmeal muffins can be enhanced with chorizo (pronounced ’chor-reeth-oh’), a cured red Spanish sausage with a spicy flavour, that can be chopped and mixed in with shreds of spring onion and cheddar or blue cheese. You could add chopped jalapeno (’ha-lah-pen-yo’) peppers to make it a little Mexican. Or replace the chorizo with chopped red pepper and use rennet-free cheese to make it vegetarian.
Toppings on muffins have become "the big thing" in contemporary baking, as has varying the look and shape of the muffin. Crumble or streusel toppings, simply made by rubbing enough butter through flour and sugar to achieve a crumbly texture, can be flavoured with spices like cinnamon or ginger, or made savoury with grated parmesan, chilli or dried herbs and these help to give height to the muffins, or make the mushroom top more bold-looking and crisp.
The height and shape can be altered by the containers you bake the muffins in. Typically, muffins are baked in deep-pocketed metal muffin trays, but bakers are finding that other bits of kit can be used instead. Dariole moulds, very deep and round, can be greased and used, with the muffin paper in the base, and this gives a very chunky bulging muffin which is great if you want to add testosterone to the appearance. One of the most impressive I’ve seen was an idea years ago from Australian cook Donna Hay, who used strips of brown baking paper rolled into cylinders, tied around the middle with string and placed upright in the muffin pockets before carefully filling them from a piping bag with the muffin mixture. The string was left on to serve them and the look combined a homespun but urban feel.
The key thing, therefore, is to use your imagination and ensure that your muffins really inspire customers when they come into your bakery or café. You want to wow customers, to the point where they have to buy your muffins because of their appearance and flavour and then they have to tell their friends about them. Get that combination right and you’ll be winning.
Stay-soft chocolate muffins
It is the tapioca starch that gives these muffins an extra soft and moist texture for at least a few days after baking, particularly if they are wrapped as soon as they are cool. The starch swells with moisture many times more than its weight, and much more than any other starch, and this traps moisture in the crumb. The slight downside is that they’re best baked in a deck oven, as they rise unevenly in a fan oven. But to counteract that I’ve added a rich oat crumble topping, which adds extra height and masks any unevenness. You can buy tapioca starch from Asian supermarkets such as Wing Yip.
For the pictures here I used FWP Matthews heat-treated cake flour, a flour that tolerates mixtures with a high sugar and fat content better than plain flour. It’s worth getting some in to use on muffin and pound cake recipes, as you’ll get a better rise and texture, especially if you use American recipes that specify cake flour.
You’ll see that the melted chocolate or butter is optional, and if you need to watch the pennies, then you can leave it out, but it improves the flavour hugely and for me it’s always a winner to see a label say that the muffins contain chocolate or butter. Here I’ve used a new range of organic commercial chocolate from Green & Black’s which has an intense flavour that makes the taste very luxurious while costing very little to achieve it. This is especially good if you’re using organic or speciality flours and you want to make a strong sales story about the ingredients. For the dry mix
Soft brown sugar275g
Heat-treated cake flour or plain flour200g
For the liquid mix
Dark chocolate or butter, melted (optional)75g
For the chocolate oat crumble topping
Jumbo rolled oats75g
1. Stir the dry mix together in a bowl. Beat together the liquid mix in a jug. Place the dry ingredients for the crumble topping in another bowl, rub in the butter then stir in the oats.
2. Whisk the dry and liquid mixes together until smooth, then place muffin papers in the pockets of a muffin tray and 3/4 fill each with the batter. Sprinkle the crumble mixture heavily over each muffin.
3. Bake at 180°C for 20-25 minutes until risen and lightly coloured, and barely set when you poke a skewer inside. Remove from the tins after they have sat cooling for a few minutes, and the crumb is delicate when first baked. If selling fresh from the bakery without wrapping, dust with icing sugar lightly.
1. Dried sour cherries, about 200g, added to the batter after whisking, will create a Black Forest-type muffin. Leave the oats out of the crumble and replace with chocolate chips.
2. Bake-stable toffee pieces mixed with the finely grated zest of one or two oranges gives a caramel jaffa flavour. Replace the oats with toffee pieces as well.
3. Add some instant coffee to the milk before beating it with the other ingredients to give the muffins a mocha flavour. Replace the caster sugar in the crumble with Demerara sugar stirred through after the butter has been rubbed through. Rather than dusting with icing sugar, drizzle a little simple coffee water icing over the top of the oat crumble after baking.
Getting the extra height on the muffins
A strip of non-stick paper, about 8cm high and just long enough to do a single loop around the muffin pocket, can be tucked around the outside of the muffin paper against the tin to allow the muffin to rise higher than it normally would. These strips can be reused three or four times and help to make the muffin look much more impressive with little added cost as you only need to add a spoonful more batter to the case than usual in order to gain much more height.