Moultrie Observer

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
  • Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 4.42.47 PM.png VIDEO: Leopard attacks crowd in India

    A leopard caused panic in the city of Chandrapur when it sprung from the roof of a house and charged at rescue workers.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • The top 12 government programs ever

    Which federal programs and policies succeed in being cost-effective and targeting those who need them most? These two tests are obvious: After all, why would we spend taxpayers' money on a program that isn't worth what it costs or helps those who do not need help?

    April 22, 2014

  • In cuffs... 'Warlock' in West Virginia accused of sexual assault

    Police in West Virginia say a man claiming to be a “warlock” used promises of magical spells to lure children into committing sexual acts with him.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Cats outsmart the researchers

    I knew a lot had been written about dogs, and I assumed there must be at least a handful of studies on cats. But after weeks of scouring the scientific world for someone - anyone - who studied how cats think, all I was left with was this statement, laughed over the phone to me by one of the world's top animal cognition experts, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi.

    April 22, 2014

  • McCain 1 House Republicans are more active on Twitter than Democrats

    Your representative in the House is almost certainly on Twitter. Your senator definitely is. But how are they using the social network? Are Democrats more active than Republicans, or vice versa? Who has the most followers on the Hill?

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Do your genes make you procrastinate?

    Procrastinators, in my experience, like nothing better than explaining away their procrastination: General busyness, fear of failure, and simple laziness are just a handful of the excuses and theories often tossed around. Now researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have added another option to the list: genetics.

    April 21, 2014

  • Do White Castle prices tell us anything about the minimum wage?

    The paper looked at how many delicious steamed sliders the minimum wage has been able to purchase over time. The point is that as it notes, in 1981, the $3.35 minimum could buy a whole dozen. Today, at $7.25, it could purchase just 10.

    April 21, 2014

  • VIDEO: Moose charges snowmobile, flees after warning shot

    While snowmobiling in New England, Bob and Janis Powell of Maine were charged by a moose and caught the entire attack on camera.

    April 21, 2014

  • Can Hillary Clinton rock the cradle and the world?

    What's most interesting to contemplate is the effect becoming a grandmother will have on Hillary's ambition. It's one of life's unfairnesses that a woman's peak career years often coincide with her peak childbearing years.

    April 21, 2014

  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

Business Marquee
Facebook
AP Video
U.S. Paratroopers in Poland, Amid Ukraine Crisis US Reviews Clemency for Certain Inmates Raw: Violence Erupts in Rio Near Olympic Venue Raw: Deadly Bombing in Egypt Raw: What's Inside a Commercial Jet Wheel Well Raw: Obama Arrives in Japan for State Visit Raw: Anti-Obama Activists Fight Manila Police Motels Near Disney Fighting Homeless Problem Michigan Man Sees Thanks to 'bionic Eye' Obama to Oso: We'll Be Here As Long As It Takes Bon Jovi Helps Open Low-income Housing in Philly S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart New Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees Named 'Piles' of Bodies in South Sudan Slaughter SCOTUS Hears Tv-over-Internet Case Chief Mate: Crew Told to Escape After Passengers
House Ads
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
More
weatherradar
Seasonal Content
Poll

Should abortion be legal for victims of rape?

No. That baby is alive, no matter how horrible its manner of conception.
Yes. It's wrong to force a woman to carry the child of her rapist.
Abortion is a private matter and should be legal for everyone.
     View Results