Thursday, August 15, 2013

Alton Brown's Blueberry Muffins

As I mentioned in a recent post, the niece recently visited foggy California from muggy Illinois, and kid loves her blueberry muffins.  Thus, we decided to have a taste test of two different blueberry muffins.  This time around, we tried Alton Brown's method.

Now Alton Brown, Food Network star, is a master of the science of cooking for a popular audience.  Further, his approach is often humorous, and his written voice is quite distinct and quite funny.  I recommend his cookbooks for their science and their irreverence.  A fine combination.

The husband, admittedly, made these; I did not.  He woke up early one morning before the niece and I were awake.  He padded around the kitchen, mixing and measuring. He reported that the recipe was a snap and that he followed it basically to a t.  He did have to make a decision regarding the amount of blueberries to include, given that Brown suggests 1-2 cups of the "extras."  The husband chose 1.5 cups, and we believe he chose wisely.

According to Brown, a true muffin should have a coarse crumb (or texture) rather than a tender cake texture.  There should be an unevenness to that very texture, and the bubbles created by your leavening agents (in this case the baking powder and baking soda) should be haphazard and varied in size.  However, if you over mix, you get tunnels in your muffins, and who wants that?  I mean, really.  But how do you know if you have over mixed?  Alton Brown suggests you stop mixing 10 seconds before you think you should.  You want there to be small lumps in the batter and even little streaks of flour.  These are all aspects of the muffin I can get behind, especially when the husband is the one doing the mixing.

Finally, given that this was a taste test, you may be interested in the results.  The niece and I both preferred this blueberry muffin to the Cook's Illustrated (which is actually America's Test Kitchen, who are the editors of Cook's Illustrated) version.  We found that version to be a little bit dry and not sweet enough.  Despite having a full 1/2 cup less sugar, Alton Brown's version seemed sweeter to us.  Perhaps it was the use of yogurt instead of sour cream?  And these seemed much more moist.  I am going to attribute that to the extra egg yolk, but I may be just making stuff up now.  Or as my father-in-law calls it: floating one of my bogus theories (of which I have many).  I just don't know why these tasted better, but they did.  Maybe it was the cook.
Sempervirens Falls

Our campsite

Anyway, these muffins came with us on a camping trip with the niece to Big Basin, a wonderful state park about two hours away (with a long, windy road not conducive to those (like the husband) who get a little car sick).  I love the quiet of this redwood park, even though it is well-used and you certainly will never feel fully alone.  Generally, though, you can find some secluded campsites in Wastahi and Huckleberry, and those fellow campers around us were super friendly, including our campsite neighbor who offered to loan us his little red wagon to carry in our supplies.  

We settled into our campsite, ringed by massive redwoods, and spent three days sitting by the fire, taking afternoon naps, reading good books.  During the second day, we took an easy hike along Shadowbrook Trail to see Sempervirens Falls.  As we were walking on the trail, we could hear the water, and we slipped ourselves down some stairs to a solid platform overlooking this little basin. Oh, the falls were lovely, with its sparse July trickle of water coming down.  Many others swear by the Berry Creek Falls trail, which is indeed a beautiful 10-mile hike; however, this time around, we wanted a simple hiking experience.  I recommend this trail for those who are more interested in lounging their afternoons away around a too-early-in-the-day fire (which would be me).  Indeed, we got back to camp well in time for a snack of blueberry muffins and Honey Nut Cheerios (I don't judge the niece's snack combinations and neither should you) and a good hour of reading.

And at night, we ate smores and laughed.  And laughed and laughed.  So much so that in the middle of the first night while tightly rolled in our separate sleeping bags, the niece, the husband and I were gasping for breath in the pitch dark, trying not to disturb our camp neighbors.  It was good, so good to laugh so hard.   

I think it's clear that I miss the niece, who is safely ensconced back in Illinois and about to start 8th grade.  Luckily, I now know which blueberry muffin recipe I prefer, thanks to her love of the blueberry muffin and our willingness to indulge in a little taste test.

Winner:  Alton Brown

One Year Ago: Zuni Fideus with Wild Mushrooms and Peas
Two Years Ago: Devil's Food Cake
Three Years Ago: Peach Cobbler

Blueberry Muffins
Adapted from  I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking

12 Muffins

Dry Ingredients
1/2 cup sugar (or 3 3/4 ounces)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 cup plain yogurt

1 1/2 cups blueberries

Wet Ingredients
2 1/4 cup flour (or 11 ounces)
2 teaspoons baking powder (or 1/4 ounce)
1 teaspoon baking soda (or less than 1/4 ounce)
Pinch of salt


1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2.  Prepare a muffin tin by using non-stick spray and set aside.  (Brown recommends Baker's Joy or AB's Kustom Kitchen Lube (his own recipe).  We use Pam, but it's made by ConAgra, so there's that.)

3.  Assemble the dry ingredients by pulsing them together in a food processor for 5 seconds.  (You want to sift these ingredients because during storage, the dry ingredients compact.  You want your dry ingredients to be aerated to assist in the leavening process.)  Add the blueberries to the dry ingredients.

4.  Whisk together the wet ingredients in a separate bowl.

5.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until the batter comes together.  Do not mix smooth.

6.  Spoon the batter into the prepared tins.  The cups should be full.

7.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted all the way to the bottom of the muffin comes out clean.

8.  Remove the muffins from the oven and immediately turn the muffins on their sides so that steam can escape the pan.  (This prevents your muffins from becoming soggy and heavy at the bottom.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cook's Illustrated's Blueberry Muffins

The niece, who came to visit for two weeks in July, is a blueberry muffin hound.  Consequently, we made two batches of blueberry muffins.  One set was for the beach.  The other set was for camping.  

Having her visit was so delightful.  She is almost 14 years old now, and she is funny, sassy, and a bit ridiculous: meaning that she fits in right here.  There was much singing (our operatic renditions of our daily activities were something to behold) and much face making and the occasional need to "dance it out" in the car when I grew frustrated by my belief that I had donated an unyet worn pair of shoes to Goodwill (which turned out not to be the case).  There was a trip to Romeo and Juliet.  There was shopping for the latest in teen wear (turns out to be the same thing I wore in 1992 (who knew flannels and combat boots were making such a strong comeback?)).  There were many beaches. 

As in, a lot of beaches.

Ocean Beach (San Francisco)
Drake's Beach (Point Reyes)
There's just something about the beach that calls to her (and my) Midwestern heart, and she poked sea anemones, collected shells, wrote her name in the sand, waded out into the surf, prodded beached jelly fish, pointed out sea lions and otters, and sat by herself for an hour and a half, watching the sun go down and turning all of Monterey that beautiful shade of blue.  Something happens to her at the beach, and I like being able to see it.  She is all long legs akimbo and wide smiles.  Occasionally, she even lets me put my arm around her.

Perkins Park (Pacific Grove)

Hopkins Marine Station (Monterey)
Upon arrival in California, she requested blueberry muffins.  Well, I can provide, for I love me some muffins of the blueberry sort (the other thing she requested was no baseball games, and sadly, I acquiesced on that one, too).

We decided we would try two different versions of the blueberry muffin and conduct our own little taste test.

We began our experiment with the Cook's Illustrated The New Best Recipe Cookbook version.  In general I would argue that you cannot go wrong with this cookbook.  Around these here parts, we refer to the cookbook as the science cookbook or the geek cookbook, as this cookbook loves its science-y explanations and its multiple versions until it hits on just the right recipe.

As expected, this recipe spent some time trying to find the proper flour (bleached flour lacked the flavor they wanted and cake flour was too light for the heavy blueberries), just the right wet ingredients (they settled on sour cream to play off of the berries) and the perfect blueberries (they recommend wild blueberries, as they are smaller and, thus, less likely to take over the muffin.  I used fresh, regular-sized berries, and they were fine).  They adjusted leaveners and instructed one to be vigorous in the whisking of the wet ingredients to produce the lift needed in the muffin but cautioned not to overmix (a simple folding of the wet ingredients into the dry ones, leaving sprays (but not pockets) of flour).  In short, they did their homework.

Not surprisingly then, the niece and I gobbled these up, some on the beach, others in the kitchen.  They were lovely with melted butter, and even better with a tiny grit of sand and the salt air.

However, our final verdict was that while these were solid blueberry muffins, they could have been sweeter and were just a scotch dry (hence the melted butter).  The lack of sweetness is a bit odd, as I will soon be posting the Alton Brown version which has 1/2 the sugar and we liked his version a little better, but both of us agreed this version should have been sweeter.

Nonetheless, in the end, these blueberry muffins displayed a lovely crumbly, lumpy top and a nice texture.  We approve.  

Now I just need to fly her back to California, for I miss her already.  We need to go back to the beach.

One Year Ago: Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango
Two Years Ago: Mussels Linguica
Three Years Ago: Peach Cobbler

Blueberry Muffins
Adapted from  I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking

12 Muffins

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) sour cream
1 1/2 cups blueberries (recommended: smaller wild blueberries)--fresh or frozen


1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a standard, 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.

2.  Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl until combined.

3.  Whisk the egg in a second medium bowl until well combined and light colored, about 20 seconds.  Add the sugar and whisk vigorously until thick and homogeneous, about 30 seconds.  Add the melted butter in 2-3 additions, whisking after each addition to combine.  Add the sour cream in 2 additions, whisking just to combine.

4.  Add the berries to the dry ingredients and gently toss just to combine. (If you are using frozen blueberries, add them frozen (not thawed) to the flour mix.) Add the sour cream mixture and fold carefully with a rubber spatula until the batter comes together and the berries are evenly distributed, about 25-30 seconds.  Do not over mix.

5.  Divide the batter among the greased muffin cups.  

6.  Bake until the muffins are light golden brown and until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through the baking time.

7.  Invert the muffin tin over a wire rack, stand the muffins upright, and cool 5 minutes.