Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

Community News Network

January 22, 2013

How to write a muffin recipe in the Smitten Kitchen

On "Smitten Kitchen," her 5-year-old food blog, Deb Perelman often writes about cooking recipes from cookbooks and other blogs. Even when she adjusts ingredients or methods, Perelman is punctilious about crediting her sources - recipe titles on the blog are often followed by lines like "Adapted from several places, but my favorite version is Alton Brown's," "Inspired by the Tasting Table Test Kitchens," and "Recipe adapted from Ottolenghi's stunning new dream of a book." (That would be London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi's "Jerusalem: A Cookbook.")

When she set out to write her own cookbook, though, Perelman decided borrowing wouldn't fly. "I wanted it to be mine and mine alone," she says of "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook," which has spent nine weeks on the New York Times best-seller list since its release at the end of October.

So how does a food blogger who has an enormous following but "who never trained as a chef or even worked in a restaurant" (as the Times Dining section tsk-tsked last month) set about creating an original recipe? Food writing, and particularly recipe writing, can feel like proof positive of the axiom that there's nothing new under the sun. But Perelman's enthusiasm for trying new things is matched only by her perfectionist nature. Here's how she invented the plum poppy seed muffins that ended up gracing Pages 12 and 13 of "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook."

First came an overarching muffin philosophy: Muffins are not cake. "I have a lot of opinions about breakfast baked goods. And I feel like although muffins are pretty much cake that we pretend is OK to eat for breakfast, I insist that this good is on the breakfast side of the line, I feel like it should have breakfast ingredients in it and it should be lower in sugar and . . . it shouldn't be as buttery as a cake."

Based on this philosophy, and years of baking experience, Perelman already had a vague muffin formula. "I've been making muffins since I was like in high school," she said. (I count 10 muffin recipes on "Smitten Kitchen," plus several other quick breads.) "There's only so many ways to make muffins."

She began rattling off the basic formula off the top of her head: For a dozen muffins, you'll need 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/3 to 3/4 cup sugar, 2/3 to 1 cup milk or yogurt, 5 to 8 tablespoons of oil or butter, and an egg, plus baking powder and/or baking soda, depending on how acidic that dairy is. Then Perelman began extemporizing: You can replace some of the oil and sugar with mashed banana, and the milk or yogurt with fruit juice. "You might want a sturdier muffin or a richer muffin, you might add another egg or an extra egg yolk. You might want to have a fluffier muffin and you'll do two egg whites and whip it up," she mentioned. "You can change everything. But I feel like those are the numbers that I come back to more and more."

Despite knowing how to make basic muffins in her sleep, and how to achieve variations with subtle tweaks to her formula, Perelman wanted her muffin recipe in "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" to be new and exciting. "Let's not just make blueberry muffins," she said, "unless I'm doing something with blueberry muffins that nobody in the history of mankind has ever done before, and the likelihood of that in this day and age is not very good."

Her first idea - in keeping with the muffins-are-breakfast theme - was a yogurt and granola muffin. "I thought, what a great idea, these are your breakfast cornerstones," she recalls. For the first version she tested, she stirred leftover homemade granola and diced pears into the batter, which contained yogurt instead of milk. "I tried it a few different ways. I think I had honey in there as a sweetener, because you know yogurt and honey is so nice together, and it just was not . . . " She trailed off. Despite multiple testing efforts - including one with the granola sprinkled on top of the muffins like streusel - granola muffins got the axe. The granola always got chewy, reaching a texture she called "weirdly unpleasant." She also realized granola muffins were too complicated for her purposes. "You'd have to start with already-made granola, and so you either would have to buy it or you would have to have already made it, and that's ridiculous. . . . I really like to work from whole ingredients."

By the time granola muffins had been declared dead, pear season had given way to orange season. "All these beautiful oranges appear in grocery stores in December and January. You've got pink ones and orange and yellowish, so I used segments from a bunch of rainbow-colored oranges and I tried to make an orange and yogurt muffin," Perelman recalled. She segmented each orange, cut them into 1-inch pieces, and folded them into her basic batter. The results looked stunning. "It was like the most beautiful thing in the entire world," Perelman sighed. The taste? Not so good. The oranges reacted strangely with the leavener, resulting in a weird flavor, and they lost their juiciness in the baking process, too. Perelman kept the pictures but ditched the recipe.

After the gorgeous orange muffins, Perelman's memory gets hazy. She knows there were seven rounds of testing total; she knows they were all breakfast-appropriate and didn't call for any hard-to-find ingredients. But the open-endedness of the task at hand wasn't helping. "I was losing my focus as I was working on the muffin, because I just knew I wanted a great muffin but I didn't have any more rules," she said.

It was already late summer when Perelman had a breakthrough moment. "I ended up just being in your average coffee shop/deli-type place one morning getting my coffee, and I saw this basket of lemon poppy seed muffins. And I was like, 'Why are we always putting lemon and poppy seed together?' . . . It just seemed random to me that they're always tied together and people never think of poppy seeds without lemons." She had recently been enjoying New York's annual bounty of plums - particularly the oblong variety known as prune plums. "I associate them with Central and Eastern European cookery a little bit, as I do poppy seeds." She added those two ingredients to a batter containing browned butter and a little cinnamon and nutmeg. "And I ended up loving it," she said, adding, "I know, it's the longest story ever."

All that remained was writing the recipe in Perelman's typically detailed, chatty style. Perelman thinks recipes should tell you absolutely everything you might wonder about while in the kitchen. A good recipe, per Perelman, is one that an absolute novice can cook in the same way the person who wrote it did. "Anything else is making it unnecessarily difficult for new cooks. Why would you want to alienate a potential half of your audience?" she asked. "Also, I can't tell you how often I'm making a recipe and I'm like, 'Is the batter supposed to be this runny; is it supposed to be this thick?' I tend to make really thick muffin batters." (It prevents fruit from sinking to the bottom of the pan.) "So I like to tell people, 'This batter's going to be really thick, almost like cookie dough.' I.e. 'If this is what yours looks like, don't freak out, you did it correctly.' "

As someone who cooks frequently and writes recipes, I was heartened to learn that Perelman's approach jibes pretty well with my own. There are few dishes that can't be varied - and eventually morph into something new - using the same approach Perelman took to find her muffin recipe: Find a basic formula or technique that works, then start playing around with the specifics. Once you realize you can substitute plums for blueberries in muffins - or for that matter, shrimp for chicken in a stir-fry, or sweet potatoes for butternut squash in soup - developing original recipes doesn't seem so daunting. When the results disappoint, they're usually at least still edible. And when they don't, you get bragging rights.

               

               Herewith, the muffin recipe that took several months to nail down, as it appears in "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook":

Text Only
Community News Network
  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 30, 2014

  • Survey results in legislation to battle sexual assault on campus

    Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday to announce legislation that aims to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

    July 30, 2014

  • An alarming threat to airlines that no one's talking about

    It's been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

    July 30, 2014

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140729-AMX-GIVHAN292.jpg Spanx stretches into new territory with jeans, but promised magic is elusive

    The Spanx empire of stomach-flattening, thigh-slimming, jiggle-reducing foundation garments has expanded to include what the brand promises is the mother of all body-shaping miracles: Spanx jeans.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research

    Opponents of marijuana legalization are rapidly losing the battle for hearts and minds. Simply put, the public understands that however you measure the consequences of marijuana use, the drug is significantly less harmful to users and society than tobacco or alcohol.

    July 29, 2014

  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014

AP Video
Florida Panther Rebound Upsets Ranchers Small Plane Crash in San Diego Parking Lot Busy Franco's Not Afraid of Overexposure Fighting Blocks Access to Ukraine Crash Site Dangerous Bacteria Kills One in Florida Workers Dig for Survivors After India Landslide Texas Scientists Study Ebola Virus Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow Southern Accent Reduction Class Cancelled in TN Raw: Deadly Landslide Hits Indian Village Obama Chides House GOP for Pursuing Lawsuit New Bill Aims to Curb Sexual Assault on Campus Russia Counts Cost of New US, EU Sanctions 3Doodler Bring 3-D Printing to Your Hand Six PA Cops Indicted for Robbing Drug Dealers Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways
House Ads
Twitter Updates
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide