The Boy started a new job recently, and apparently the process for welcoming new teachers includes having them bake muffins, then judging said muffins to see if they are worthy. It was very specifically stated that they must be muffins, not their showier, sweeter (and smaller) cousins, cupcakes. We take such challenges quite seriously – The Boy is (arguably) a better baker than I am – so to make sure he was the worthiest of the worthy, we ended up discussing what makes a muffin a muffin, and what makes it a really good muffin.
Of course the difference between a muffin and a cupcake is technically quite small – the line is muddy, but it seems cupcakes are closer to a cake, and muffins generally closer to bread. Personally I feel that icing on a muffin is a no-no, whereas a cupcake wouldn’t really be a cupcake without that delicate crumb. Cupcakes must always be dressed up like it’s going to a tea party; muffins are more like comfy jeans and baggy t-shirts. A cupcake is allowed to look better than it tastes, all icing and not a lot of flavour; a muffin is allowed to be ugly, but must taste better than it looks. A muffin is allowed to be rugged, chunky, have random ingredient substitutions and additions, and be low in sugar. I am definitely more of a muffin person.
It’s possible I’ve been overthinking this. Anyway, The Boy made his muffins (apple and rhubarb – no I didn’t help), which were very delicious, and he was allowed to keep his job.
But these muffins aren’t those muffins. I’ve just recently started a new job as well, and although there was no muffin challenge issued I feel like I should take the opportunity to force my baking onto other people, especially now I work somewhere where everyone isn’t on a diet. Since I had a few overripe bananas collecting in the freezer and the weather was cool enough for baking to be bearable, it was muffin making time.
I followed a basic muffin recipe from Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, adding mashed banana, chopped dates and walnuts, substituting honey for the sugar, wholemeal self-raising flour for white, and brown butter for the oil. Between the sweetness of the banana, dates and honey it didn’t need any extra processed sugar – in fact, if I were to make it again I’d probably reduce the honey a bit. I’ve seen debate for both sides on whether butter is better or worse than vegetable oil, and have decided to err on the side of butter, because it’s just more awesome.
With more bananas left, I decided to experiment with baking using coconut oil, which is supposed to be a big improvement on both vegetable oil and butter health-wise. The unrefined coconut oil I tried has quite a rich coconut flavour, although this comes through only very subtly in the muffins and probably wouldn’t be noticed unless you know it’s there.
I used this banana muffin recipe from Averie Cooks, once again using wholemeal flour and honey instead of sugar. It isn’t a completely fair comparison as the coconut oil muffins are intended to be vegan and didn’t have egg, so didn’t rise as much, but as you can see above there isn’t much difference between the butter muffin (left) and coconut oil muffin (right). I do think that butter gives a more beautiful golden brown colour, but in terms of taste, fluffiness and crumb texture I think it’s fairly even. I ended up using the butter ones in my photos as I under-filled the coconut oil ones, so (through no fault of their own) they mostly ended up a bit small and unattractive, even for muffins.
Banana, Date & Walnut Muffins
Not the prettiest of desserts, but using wholemeal flour and with no (processed) sugar these muffins are almost healthy enough to have for a sweet breakfast or afternoon tea. These are based on the basic muffin recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, which I completely bastardised. This recipe makes 24 mini muffins, or 12 regular sized muffins. Although I generally prefer muffins unadorned, I couldn’t help dressing them up just a little, with some dipped in cinnamon sugar and some topped with walnuts and a marmalade glaze.
- 220g wholemeal self-raising flour
- 2 tbspn honey
- 3/4 cup of milk
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup of brown butter (or vegetable oil)
- 1-2 overripe bananas, mashed
- 4 dried dates, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
Here’s what you do:
- Preheat oven to 180˚C and grease a muffin tray.
- Combine egg, milk and butter/oil in a bowl and whisk lightly.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until just combined.
- Spoon into a muffin tray to 3/4 full and bake for 10 minutes (mini) or 20-25 minutes (full), or until lightly brown on top.
- Remove muffins and leave to cool on a wire rack
For cinnamon sugar tops: mix caster sugar and cinnamon, brush melted butter onto the tops of muffins then dip in cinnamon sugar mixture. I like the way these look like mini doughnuts.
For walnut and glaze tops: add some chopped walnuts to the top of muffins before baking. After baking, melt marmalade or jam and brush on the tops for a super simple glaze.