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Suffolk food writer Nicola Miller of Bury St Edmunds on the Robert Redford of muffins





Do you remember the Muffin Man? The one who lived on Drury Lane and went from door-to-door selling freshly made muffins? The nursery rhyme used to drive me around the bend because my young daughter listened to it all the time, and now it’s an earworm keeping me company as I research and write this column. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The muffin man in question did not sell American-style muffins because they simply weren’t a thing for customers in 1820s Covent Garden. This came as a shock to my daughter. The muffin man sold the English kind, although the word muffin comes from either the low German ‘muffen’, which translates as ‘little cakes’ or the Old French ‘moflet’, a type of bread. Go back in time and you’ll find the American muffin used to be leavened by yeast until chemical-raising agents were invented, and the original method evolved into two slightly different techniques, of which more later. I love both English and American muffins, but for the sake of clarity, I should make it clear that today, we’re talking about the latter and - If I am being honest - it is the American muffin and not its English cousin that springs to mind whenever I hear that nursery rhyme.

I bake my own muffins because, on the whole, store-bought versions in the UK and USA are little more than a nondescript mass of sticky sweetness. They have become the Kens of the cake world. In a 2012 interview with the Boston Globe, the American food historian Betty Fussell blamed this on the food industry’s increased reliance on sugar as a cheap way to mitigate the naturally drier texture of low-fat baked goods stripped of most of their butter or oil. Demand for low-fat muffins soared in the early eighties as the (erroneous) ‘fat is bad’ message percolated through the population. Effective advertising and the lobbying of policymakers by the sugar industry who commissioned and paid scientists in the 1960s to denounce saturated fat as the primary cause of cardiovascular disease and play down the links between it and sugar drove this change in consumer appetite. “The story of what's happened to the American muffin over the last 20 years is really the history of sugar,” said Fussell. And where the USA goes, the UK tends to follow.

Food writer Nicola Miller's orange drizzle plum muffins with toasted hazelnuts
Food writer Nicola Miller's orange drizzle plum muffins with toasted hazelnuts

The American Joy of Baking tells us that there are two types of muffins: bread-like and cake-like. “Each type has its own technique for mixing the batter. Less sugar and butter makes a bread-like muffin. A higher sugar and butter content makes a cake-like muffin,” they say. The former relies on a technique where the wet ingredients are added to the dry and barely mixed, and the latter uses the classic creaming method.

I prefer a rugged, hearty bread-like muffin that looks handmade, and these plum muffins with toasted hazelnuts and an orange glaze certainly do. Remember, a sleek, smooth, flat appearance is not what we’re after here; instead, aim for the cake equivalent of Robert Redford at his most golden. Muffins made in this way make me think of old wooden tables and stone hearths, forest floors, orchards and prairies, days spent berrying, scrambling over rocks or swimming in rivers and coffee breaks in the local café where everyone knows your name. They are ridiculously and unabashedly wholesome.

Notes on technique:

My tin is 35 x 27 x 3 cm, and this recipe makes 12 muffins.

Unlike many other muffin recipes, these are not the work of a minute. You’ll have to make the plum compote and toast the hazelnuts, but it all comes together reasonably swiftly once you've done this.

To get that homespun look, there are a few key things you need to do. This batter feels antithetical to conventional wisdom when it comes to technique, but it is essential that you don’t overmix it after adding the wet batter to the dry ingredients. We’re conditioned to mix our batters until all the lumps have gone, leaving a smooth, aerated mixture. With bread-like muffins, you do not want the batter to become too aerated nor over-develop the gluten in the flour to the degree that you end up with a flattened, stodgy and inflexible crumb and what the professionals call ‘tunnels’ which form when the air in the batter makes its way to the surface during cooking, permanently displacing the gluten. They remind me of the magma conduits inside a volcano.

The Joy of Baking recommends only ‘ten to fifteen strokes’ (of a spoon) when you’re mixing and says not to worry if flour streaks can still be seen when you are done. For this reason, I make these muffins by hand rather than using a stand mixer. Lastly, I don’t use muffin cases or wraps because I prefer the slightly glazed crumb that results when the sides of your rising muffins come into direct contact with the hot tin, so I spoon the batter straight into the greased tin.

ORANGE DRIZZLE PLUM MUFFINS WITH TOASTED HAZELNUTS

Simple plum compote (make this in advance):

350g very ripe Victoria plums

50g light brown soft sugar

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

70ml water

Method:

Wash the plums and pat them dry, then cut them into quarters and discard the stones. Add the sugar, water and vanilla to a heavy pan and place over low-medium heat. When the sugar is dissolved and the mixture comes to a boil, lower the plums into it and keep them at a simmer for 6-10 minutes until they are soft but retain their shape. Remove from the heat and strain the juice into a bowl (save this for eating with yoghurt or ice cream.). Let the plums cool down before you add them to the muffin mixture.

To prepare the hazelnuts in advance:

20g whole hazelnuts, skins removed

Method:

Using the end of a rolling pin or the blunt object of your choice, bash the nuts into a chunky rubble. Heat a heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Add the nuts and, stirring continuously, fry them until they smell strongly of toasted hazelnut and start to colour. Set aside to cool.

To prepare the glaze:

60g icing sugar

Orange juice (a few teaspoons)

Place the icing sugar in a bowl and slowly add orange juice by the teaspoon, stirring well after each addition, until you have a smooth, slightly runny glaze.

To make the muffins:

200g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

I tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

170g light soft brown sugar

50g porridge oats

One medium egg, beaten

300ml buttermilk

1 tsp vanilla extract

55ml vegetable oil

Plum compote

1 tbsp orange zest (optional)

Butter for greasing

Method:

Heat the oven to 170°C / 375F/ gas mark 3. Grease your muffin tin with butter and set aside.

Sieve the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl, then add the sugar and oats. Stir to combine them well.

In another bowl, whisk the egg and add the buttermilk, vanilla, and oil. Lightly whisk until they are combined.

Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and gently mix until it finally comes together. I don’t use a whisk at this stage, but you may wish to. I prefer a spoon. Now add the plums and gently fold them in. Don’t overmix.

Fill each hole in your muffin tin with batter until ½ - ⅔ full. Bake the muffins on the middle shelf for approximately 20 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into their centre comes out clean with no uncooked batter clinging to it. Keep an eye on them because ovens vary. Leave the muffins to cool in the tin before turning them out to be drizzled with orange glaze and showered in orange zest and toasted hazelnuts.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022