SMS: Orange Blueberry Muffins with Pecan Crumble

I hope that Chaya of Sweet & Savory will forgive me, but I bent the rules this week and strayed a bit from the selected recipe. I still made Orange Blueberry Muffins topped with Pecan Crumble, but my muffin base is not exactly from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book. Even though I made them over 9 months ago, the “sister” muffins to this week’s recipe, which featured peaches instead of blueberries, were markedly dense, heavy, and overall unimpressive. Though many of our highly creative and supremely talented bakers offered valuable suggestions to address the muffins’ textural inadequacies, I felt they were sadly beyond saving. 😦 And, it just so happens that I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to try my beloved Cook’s Illustrated’s new version of Blueberry Muffins, which utilizes a unique method of injecting major fruity flavor. I figured if I honored the required orange-blueberry combination, and still topped my muffins with Sweet Melissa’s Pecan Crumble, I could keep my recently renewed participation in SMS going, and maybe offer an alternative to those who remained unsatisfied with the recipe as written.

Berry baked goods are typically banned from my household, with my MVT (Most Valuable Taster), my Mom, severely allergic. But, as it happens, my Dad LOVES a good berry studded muffin- and what kind of daughter would I be to deprive him of such an indulgence every once in a blue moon (no pun intended!)? While I hated the thought of making something my mom couldn’t also enjoy, in this particular instance, I decided it was for the greater good of SMS (and my Daddy’s belly). Not to worry though, coming up soon is a Coconut Custard Pie that has my Mom’s name written all over it!

But first, on to the muffins! I think I may have hit the blueberry muffin mother-load with this one. Break into one of these little gems, and you’ll quickly discover they are not only jam packed and bursting with bright berry goodness, but also have an incredibly moist interior, and a soft, delicate, tender crumb. Beautifully balanced with the subtle citrus undertones of orange zest (a fun, unexpected spin on the classic blueberry-lemon combo), and crowned with a sweet, crunchy, nut-filled streusel topping, the ideal textural foil for what awaits inside; they are a truly a muffin lover’s dream. While my Dad is not nearly as prolific or expressive with his reviews as my Mom, he was surely not at a loss for compliments when it came to these breakfast beauties. If they pass the Daddy deliciousness test, they will definitely have a permanent home in my recipe files.

One of my favorite features of a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, is the inclusion of a detailed history describing how it was conceived. In the process of constructing the “Best” blueberry muffin, CI tested a variety of ways to achieve maximum intensity of sweet-tart fruity flavor. Ulimately, they landed on a technique that I think is absolutely brilliant: to pump up the volume, why not take some of the berries, cook them down on the stovetop to evaporate excess juices, thus concentrating their flavor, and swirl the resulting mixture right into the muffin batter? As it turns out, this thick, potent, deep-indigo jam, swirled in along with a substantial amount of fresh fruit, gave the muffins a distinctive one-two berry punch- exactly what they needed to put them over-the-top.

But what about the muffin base- after all, that was the problem I was dealing with in the first place… what did Cook’s do to ensure I didn’t fall into the same trap I had with Melissa’s? Well, those clever folks at CI had a few tricks up their sleeves (and some interesting science to back them up)! First off, they examined the mixing method: the creaming method was out after producing muffins that were too cake-like, and unable to support the hefty amount of fruit added to the batter. A more suitable choice, was the quick-bread or “muffin method” (haha! big surprise there!) that calls for mixing the wet and the dry ingredients separately, and then gently folding them together. They stressed the importance of not over-mixing (as with pancake batter), because “overly strenuous mixing encourages the proteins in flour to cross-link and form gluten, toughening the final product.” This method proved superior, and made for muffins with a hearty crumb, substantial enough to support the generous addition of berries. Next, to achieve ultimate moisture, they considered the fat used in the recipe. The balance of butter (which contributes great flavor) and oil (more effective at making baked goods moist and tender) was the key. Apparently, “unlike butter, oil contains no water, and is able to completely coat flour proteins and prevent them from absorbing liquid to develop gluten.” Equal amounts of both fats ended up producing just the right combo of buttery flavor, and moist, tender texture. Finally, to make the muffins as rich as possible, they sought a substitute for whole milk. Buttermilk offered a slight tang (complementing the berries) and appealing richness, while still being light enough “to keep the muffins from turning into heavyweights.” And do we want heavyweights, my friends? I think not! In my eyes, they successfully deduced a winning recipe for not only blueberry muffins, but “fill-in-the-blank” muffins, that would be delicious with any selection of mix-ins. No more futzing with Melissa’s metzah-metzah muffins (that means so-so for all you non Yiddush speakers out there). These babies are where it’s at!

Thank you Chaya for hosting this week- and again, please let me apologize for taking such extreme creative liberties with the recipe. I also wanted to extend a very warm welcome your way- SMS is lucky to have you and I’m looking forward to baking together each week! To check out all the other SMSter’s muffins, swing by our blogroll– can’t wait to hear from all you lovely ladies!

Before I forget, I was hoping to pick all your baker’s brains and get some feedback/suggestions regarding a recipe that’s coming up in 2 weeks: the Coconut Custard Pie. I’d really love to use the mini (4″) tart pans I just got my hands on (they’ve been on my wish list forever), instead of a single 9″ pie plate. I get all worked up and nervous about adjusting baking times and determining when things are done, and I wasn’t sure if they’d take significantly less time in the oven for the crust to brown/custard to set (the baking time as written is 50-55 min). Are there any tell tale signs a custard pie is done? Do you want a little jiggle in the middle or no movement at all? Any advice or ideas? I’d really appreciate your help, as I (of course) want the sweet treat I make special for my Mom to be delicious (and perfectly baked)! If I can’t figure it out, I’ll just make the full pie. Has anyone tried this recipe yet? Thanks in advance for your assistance! 🙂

BEST BLUEBERRY MUFFINS
adapted from Cook’s Illustrated (May/June 2009)

MAKES 12 MUFFINS

Ingredients:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) fresh blueberries, picked over
1 1/8 cups (8 ounces) plus 1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 cups (12½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk (see note)
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
**2 teaspoons grated orange zest

Note: If buttermilk is unavailable, substitute 3/4 cup plain whole-milk or low-fat yogurt thinned with 1/4 cup milk. (*You can also use 1 cup of milk mixed with 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar- let it sit for 10 minutes, and then it’s ready to use!)

Directions:

1. FOR THE MUFFINS: Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 teaspoon sugar to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to ¼ cup, about 6 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl. Whisk remaining 11/8 cups sugar and eggs together in medium bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Whisk in buttermilk, vanilla, **and orange zest until combined. Using rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining cup blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened. (Batter will be very lumpy with a few spots of dry flour; do not overmix.)

3. Use an ice cream scoop or large spoon to divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups (CI suggests that the “batter should completely fill cups and mound slightly,” however, that left me with a little overflow problem, i.e. merging muffin tops. I was worried that my muffins would be unattractive, but once split apart, they really looked fine. Next time though, I’ll only fill the cups 3/4 of the way, and make a few extra!). Spoon a teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into center of each mound of batter (I stuck my spoon down in a ways just to be sure the blueberry mixture went through and through). Using a chopstick or skewer, gently swirl berry filling into batter using a figure-eight motion. (If using: Sprinkle pecan crumble- recipe below- generously and evenly over muffins).

4. Bake until muffin tops are golden and just firm, 17 to 19 minutes, rotating muffin tin from front to back halfway through baking time. (My gigantic muffins took significantly longer to pass the toothpick test, at least an additional 3-4 minutes, but if they were normal size, the baking time given would probably be accurate). Cool muffins in muffin tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool 5 minutes before serving.

BEST BLUEBERRY MUFFINS WITH FROZEN BLUEBERRIES

Note: Our preferred brands of frozen blueberries are Wyman’s and Cascadian Farm.
Follow recipe for Best Blueberry Muffins, substituting 2 cups frozen berries for fresh. Cook 1 cup berries as directed in step 1. Rinse remaining cup berries under cold water and dry well. In step 2, toss dried berries in flour mixture before adding egg mixture. Proceed with recipe from step 3 as directed.

STEP-BY-STEP MAKING MUFFINS WITH BLUEBERRY FLAVOR THROUGH AND THROUGH

1. MAKE BERRY JAM

Cook half of fresh blueberries into thick jam to concentrate their flavor and eliminate excess moisture.

2. ADD FRESH BERRIES

Stir 1 cup of fresh blueberries into batter to provide juicy bursts in every bite.

3. PORTION BATTER

Scoop batter into muffin pans, completely filling cups. (Or almost filling cups!)

4. ADD JAM TO BATTER

Place 1 teaspoon of cooled berry jam in center of each batter-filled cup, pushing it below surface.

5. SWIRL INTO BATTER

Using chopstick or skewer, swirl jam to spread berry flavor throughout.

Pecan Crumble
slightly adapted from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book by Melissa Clark

Makes enough for two batches of muffins (Either cut the recipe in half or use the extra in a baked fruit crumble!) I wonder if you can freeze the leftover- thoughts anyone?

I’d advise you prepare this first, and have it ready to go when your muffins are portioned.

Ingredients:

• 3/4 Cup pecan pieces
• 3/4 Cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 3/4 Cup firmly packed light brown sugar
• 3/4 Teaspoon salt
• Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
• 1/8 Teaspoon ground allspice
*I also added 1/8 Teaspoon cinnamon (just because I love it so!)
• 8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, stir together the pecans, flour, brown sugar, salt, nutmeg, allspice, *and cinnamon. Stir in the melted butter.

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SMS: Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake with Cornmeal Crumble Crust

Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake with Cornmeal Crumble Crust

Food is a consummate communicator. When made from the heart, a special meal or sweet treat can say “I love you,” “Congratulations,” “I’m proud of you,” or “I appreciate all you do.” I decided to utilize this week’s SMS recipe, Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake with a Cornmeal Crumble Crust, to offer sincere thanks to my neighbors, Toby and Rebecca. A few weeks back we experienced a very close call when my puppy (and the love of my life), Bella, narrowly missed oncoming traffic while running across our street. Though both my Mom and I yelled for her to come, and tried desperately to catch her, our efforts proved futile. In all my fervor, I ended up tripping over my own two feet (yeah, I’m super coordinated like that!), eating the pavement, and acquiring open abrasions on my hip, palms, and knees. Bleeding, heart racing, and feeling scared-to-death, I stood up to find Bella safe and sound in the yard across the street, showering Toby and Rebecca with kisses. They had heard all the commotion and acted heroically and without hesitation, calling out to Bella and in effect, saving her life. In my mind, they were two angels that day, and I simply can’t thank them enough for being there in our moment of need. With the desire to express my deepest appreciation, my mind immediately went to food, and more specifically, cheesecake, Toby’s favorite dessert- it was the perfect choice to say “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Blueberry Close-up

A beloved dessert with different variations all over the world, cheesecake is said to date back to 776 BC, when the Greeks served it to the athletes at the first Olympic games. The Romans soon caught on, spreading recipes throughout Europe, and eventually the confection made its way along with immigrants to America. In 1872, while trying to duplicate the popular Neufchatel cheese of France, American dairymen developed a formula for an un-ripened cheese they named cream cheese, which was even richer and creamier than the original. As the main ingredient of the modern cheesecake, this breakthrough ushered in a new age of cheesecake baking. Today, while there are many different styles reflective of various regions, most Americans can agree that cheesecake holds a special place in our country’s heart.

Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake 2

Despite its popularity, cheesecake is one dessert that I’ve never attempted before. When my baking first started catching on, I quickly learned the individual tastes of my two best testers, Mom and Dad. Though very few things were outlawed on his account, my dad made clear that cheesecake was blacklisted in our house. I like to think of myself as a well-rounded baker, so I was giddy to find an excuse to end the cheesecake ban in my kitchen. I did a little research prior to my first baking foray, and quickly realized there are LOTS of things to consider when baking cheesecake. Here are some of the tips and tricks I picked up along the way:

*Use room temperature ingredients- It is much easier to whip softened cream cheese, and will help achieve the creamy and smooth consistency you want for your batter.

*Don’t over-beat the batter- If too much air is incorporated into the filling, the cheesecake will puff when baked and sink as it cools, and is also likely to crack. It is actually the eggs that will hold air in the batter, so add them last, and then mix as little as possible, only until combined.

*Bake the cheesecake gently using a water-bath- A long, slow bake allows for a more uniform internal temperature, and a water-bath, or bain-marie, keeps the oven moisture high and the heat gentle. Wrap the bottom of your springform pan in aluminum foil, place it in a larger pan, and pour hot water halfway up the outside of the springform pan- by using this technique, the cheesecake will cook more evenly.

*Don’t over-bake!– An over-baked cheesecake tends to crack and be dry, not creamy. The cheesecake is done when the top jiggles as a whole and the center two inches look softer and slightly moist. Remember, the cheesecake will continue to bake after it is removed from the oven, and the texture will smooth out as it cools.

*Loosen the cake from the edge of the pan after it comes out of the oven- Run the tip of a knife or narrow spatula between the top edge of the cake and the side of the pan, which allows it to pull away freely from the pan as it cools.

*And finally, chill, baby, chill- After the cake comes to room temperature, refrigerate at least 6 hours, but ideally, overnight. Chilling the cheesecake allows the cream cheese to sink into the crust and ensures the dessert is firm and easy to cut. It’s definitely worth the wait!

Thank you to Eliana of A Chica Bakes for choosing this great cheesecake recipe, and pushing me to expand my ever-growing baking repertoire. And of course, a big thanks to Toby and Rebecca for taking care of my little girl.

Bella

Joy Heart 2