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: Orange Scented Scones *with Grand Marnier Honey Butter Glaze*

Orange Scented Scones

My second favorite way to relax and unwind (after baking, of course) is curling up in a cozy spot, wrapped in a fluffy blanket, sipping on a piping hot mug of French vanilla tea. When the kettle whistle blows, the tension in my body immediately begins to ease, as I eagerly await the curative brew with which I start and end each day. While I don’t have an ounce of British heritage, I swear I belong in the UK, where “tea breaks” are practically a national pastime. There is something magically restorative about enjoying a good cup of tea, and I highly recommend incorporating the soothing beverage in your repertoire, especially as an accompaniment to any indulgent sweet treat starring as your breakfast, snack, or dessert. There is no culinary couple that can quell an anytime craving quite like tea and scones- the ultimate European gastronomic duo. Like peanut butter and jelly or milk and cookies, tea and scones simply belong together, flawlessly complimenting each other’s best attributes. Both tea and scones have quite a bit of ground to cover to surpass coffee and muffins in regard here in the US, but thanks to recipes like this week’s SMS selection, tasters are being converted with just one bite.

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A small quickbread (or cake if the recipe includes sugar) of possible Scottish origin, the scone is a popular treat in many countries around the world, but especially in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada and of course, the US. They are usually made of wheat, barley or oatmeal, with baking powder acting as the leavening agent. The name is said to derive from the Middle Dutch schoonbrood, schoon meaning “pure and clean” and brood meaning bread. The original scone was a round and flat cake (now commonly referred to as a bannock), that was usually the size of a small plate, made with unleavened oats, and baked on a griddle. It was then cut into triangle-like quadrants, or scones, for serving. The scone evolved into the oven-baked, well-leavened pastry we know today when baking powder was introduced to the market and became widely available to the masses. While the British scone is often lightly sweetened, it can also be savory, and popular mix-ins include raisins, currants, cheese or dates. In contrast, scones in the US are typically drier, larger and sweeter, and are standard coffee shop fare, featuring fillings such as cranberries, blueberries, nuts, or even chocolate chips.

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There are a few keys to producing an excellent scone, and ways to avoid the dreaded “hockey puck” consistency that gives scones a bad name. Both temperature of ingredients and mixing method are crucial components to consider. It is best if all the ingredients are cold, to add the liquid to the dry ingredients all at once, and then to mix everything together quickly and lightly. Because the butter is “cut-in” to the dry ingredients (just like in making pie dough), it is crucial that it’s cold, so it becomes small, flour-coated crumbs rather than melting and forming a smooth mass- this step is what ultimately gives scones their characteristic delicate, flakey texture. After the liquids are added, it is imperative to mix the ingredients as little as possible (only until everything comes together)- an overworked scone is usually hard and doughy, so a light hand is essential. When the dough is turned out and formed into a disc, it can either be cut into triangles, or rounds by using a cookie cutter. If you opt for the latter method, it is recommended to twist the cutter through the dough instead of pushing straight down, which yields higher rising scones during baking. Brushing the scones with an egg wash or some additional milk/cream imparts a gorgeous golden color and helps encourage browning. When they’re removed from the oven, you can either allow them to cool uncovered for a crusty exterior or wrap them (still hot) in a clean towel for a softer outer layer. Scones are best served warm and eaten the same day they’re made. Classic accompaniments include butter, jam or preserves, clotted cream, and/or lemon curd, however, a well-made scone is delicious even when plain. If you keep these tips in mind, scone baking is relatively easy, and you’re guaranteed to produce a winning treat.

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This is especially true when you have a sure-fire recipe to fall back on, like the Orange Scented Scones from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book. When I first read the recipe, chosen by Robin of Lady Craddock’s Bakery, it seemed like a very basic cream scone dressed up with a bit of grated orange zest. I wanted my scones to deliver a punch of orange flavor, so I pumped up the citrus volume in a few places. I added the zest of one whole orange (which was a bit more than the specified two teaspoons) and then turned to my pantry, which is stocked with a variety of flavored extracts, including orange. I mixed a teaspoon of orange extract into the wet ingredients for that extra hint of citrus essence all throughout the dough. But I didn’t stop there! I knew I wanted to accent my scones with some sort of glaze, and while my first thought was to go the confectioners sugar/orange juice route, I stopped short in my tracks when I discovered a honey butter scone glaze recipe featured in one of my favorite cookbooks, A Passion for Baking, by Marcy Goldman. In an “A-ha!-in-the-kitchen” moment, I thought, why not add a splash of that Grand Marnier (or orange liquor) I have leftover from the Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake? Perfect! With triple the orange zip, the scones were tangy, bright, and super refreshing. The sticky sweet glaze kept them ultra moist on days 2 and 3 (I can’t report on any longer since they didn’t last more than that!) I’m confident the classic scone recipe would be a great canvas for any flavor profile you’re craving, and by changing up the mix-ins with different fruits, spices, nuts, and zests, you never have to make the same scone twice! I highly recommend giving the glaze recipe a try as well (either spiked with your favorite liquor or booze free)- dry, chalky stones… I mean, scones, be gone!

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Thank you to Robin of Lady Craddock’s Bakery for this excellent tea-time pick! Head on over to her site for the recipe, and have fun playing with it and making it your own. Get some other great ideas by checking out all the delicious scones baked up by the other lovely ladies of SMS!

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Just in case you’d like to test my version, here’s the fabulous (and truly simple) glaze recipe I used:

Scone Glaze
from A Passion For Baking by Marcy Goldman

Ingredients:

1/3 cup honey
¼ cup or 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon flavored liquor such as Grand Marnier (optional)
1-2 tablespoons sparkling or sanding sugar to coat

Directions:

While the scones are baking, heat honey and butter in a liquid measuring cup in the microwave until mixture is just simmering, about 1 minute, stirring halfway through. Let cool slightly, and then stir in the liquor if using.

Brush the scones lightly with honey-butter glaze as they come out of the oven. Let stand on baking sheets. Repeat with more honey-butter glaze, more generously, about 15 minutes later. Sprinkle with the sanding sugar and let set.

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SMS: Whole Orange Poppyseed Cake

Whole Orange Poppyseed Cake

Citrus recipes and I go way back. The first thing I ever attempted to make solo was fresh lemonade for my Grandma and Papa. I was so proud of myself as I presented each of them with a full glass, and I watched eagerly with anticipation as they took their first sips. My grandmother smiled ear to ear and declared it the best she’d ever had, while my grandfather winced intensely, unable to hide his tastebud’s acute reaction. Apparently, I had forgotten a rather important ingredient (it’s hard to remember all TWO components of lemonade, you know)… the sugar! I didn’t have much more success a few years later when I tried making fresh squeezed orange juice on Mother’s Day, after presenting my mom with a beautiful antique-style juicer. After cutting, pressing, and praying over an entire bag of oranges, I emerged from the kitchen with a pathetic, measly 1/3 of a cup of juice to accompany her breakfast in bed. I later realized I had purchased the wrong kind of oranges, unsuitable for juicing- who knew such citrus fruit existed?

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Despite my early citrus centered failures, I’ve had much better luck utilizing these fruits in my baking. A few months back my Mom returned from California with a bag full of the most vibrant, juicy lemons picked from a tree at my great aunt and uncle’s home in Encino. I did some recipe searching, and settled on Ina Garten’s lemon cake, a moist, bright, lightly glazed loaf that my family raved about and quickly devoured. And thanks to Melissa of the delightful blog, Lulu the Baker, I’ve now found it’s orange counterpart, Whole Orange Poppyseed Cake.

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This exceptional cake employs a unique method of infusing citrus flavor. As the name implies, it’s not only the zest and juice of the fruit incorporated into the recipe, but literally the entire orange! It’s cut into segments and simply thrown into the food processor with some sugar, pulsed thoroughly, and broken down into the most aromatic orange-flecked mixture imaginable. With all the essential oils residing in the peel, every ounce of orange essence is incorporated into the batter, not just the flavor from a few teaspoons of zest. You would think that the white pith might add bitterness, but fortunately, this is far from the case. A lovely finishing touch of a citrus glaze adds a gorgeous sheen and sticky sweet-tart bite. I utilized the same technique I used with my lemon cake when applying the glaze- first, I poked the top all over with a toothpick, and then brushed on the glaze, allowing it to seep down into the cake, and enhancing the delicate crumb with tremendous moisture. The poppyseeds are an unexpected and fun mix-in, which pair just as well with orange as the more commonly matched lemon.

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And bonus! Oranges just so happen to be packed with health benefits, especially in the often discarded peel. A great source of Vitamin C, oranges also contain phytonutrients with healing properties- the most powerful of which, Herperidin, is found in the peel and inner white pulp, has strong anti-inflammatory properties, and can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. Because it’s found in the peel and pulp, rather than the liquid orange center, you usually miss out on these powerful health benefits. Not so with Whole Orange Poppyseed Cake! Each bite packs a punch of flavor and nutrition.

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Incredibly fragrant, quick to pull together, and simple yet sophisticated, this cake is a lovely choice to serve guests and pairs well with coffee or tea. My dad’s review noted that it tastes as good as it looks and smells, a compliment I’ll take any day! A big thank you goes out to Melissa for selecting this fantastic SMS pick- definitely check out her adorable site, and give the recipe a try. Also, take a look at what the other SMS bakers cooked up this week by exploring the Sweet Melissa Sunday’s blogroll.

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