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MULTITUDE OF MUFFINS THEY'RE QUICK, EASY AND DELICIOUS.

Byline: Natalie Haughton Food Editor

Muffins, incredibly versatile - and easy to whip up and dress up - can satisfy at breakfast, lunch or dinner. You can serve them with spreads, flavored butters, cream cheese and preserves.

``A muffin is a curious creature,'' writes Peter Reinhart, in ``Brother Juniper's Bread Book.'' ``It can be surprisingly good or exceedingly bad. What differentiates the two extremes usually boils down to one factor - moistness,'' notes the founder of Brother Juniper's Bakery in Santa Rosa, now a full-time chef. ``A cause of dry muffins, besides dry recipes, is overbaking ...''

``A good muffin is golden brown (for light-colored batters), somewhat rounded with a bumpy (not peaked) top, moist and has a tender, light type of texture (between bread and cake) without large holes in it,'' says Sherri Field, senior test kitchen expert for Betty Crocker Kitchens.

In the last decade, muffins have become more cakelike, she adds, noting that ``they are higher in fat than they used to be and have taken on a lighter, moister texture.'' A lemon poppy seed muffin she favors is reminiscent of a lemon cake with poppy seeds stirred in.

``But what makes a muffin, by definition, is its shape from the tin and the quick-bread technique used to create it,'' notes Bruce Weinstein, who with Mark Scarbrough has written ``The Ultimate Muffin Book.'' Weinstein says they use mostly unsalted butter for best flavor (other cooks use vegetable oil).

``Muffins should be breadlike, yes - but there's a world of latitude. Some are flat-topped, others are conical, even cracked. Some poof out like mushrooms; others widen out along the sides,'' continues Weinstein.

Muffins lend themselves to lots of creativity - you can add various nuts, cheeses, dried or fresh fruits and vegetables, a plethora of dried or fresh herbs and spices, along with other flavorings like chocolate, peanut butter, applesauce, pumpkin, cream cheese, beer, bananas, roasted red peppers and much more.

If you opt for breakfast muffins, you might want to make them more healthful and nutritious - by using whole wheat, oats, bran, cornmeal, seeds and the like. Lunch and dinner muffins can be packed with savory flavors like basil and sun-dried tomatoes, cottage cheese and dill, beer, corn and green chiles, sour cream jalapeno and corn and more. Many different muffins can also be baked with the Splenda Granular product for those watching calories.

In the recently released ``The Complete Muffin Cookbook'' (a remake and combination of two earlier books - ``Gloria's Glorious Muffins'' and ``Gloria's Gourmet Low-Fat Muffins''), author Gloria Ambrosia approaches muffins with a healthy bent. She uses a variety of whole-grain flours - barley, brown rice, buckwheat, rye and soy - as well as cornmeal and rolled oats to enhance the flavor of her muffins. She achieves subtle, sweet tastes by relying mostly on fresh and dried fruits, fruit juice concentrates and purees, honey, molasses, maple syrup and brown sugar. Spices, extracts and citrus peels are her tricks for perking up the taste.

For those interested in convenience and cutting preparation time in half, muffin mixes are an option. Betty Crocker offers eight different flavors - blueberry, chocolate chip, cinnamon streusel, lemon poppy seed, double chocolate, twice the blueberries, banana nut and apple streusel.

Muffin mixes have been selling extremely well in the past year - and the category is growing, says Field, adding that the increased interest may in part be attributed to the big trend and interest in little sizes and individual portions of foods and the popularity of cupcakes. Same goes for the newfound interest in from-scratch and store-bought muffins.

Natalie Haughton, (818) 713-3692

natalie.haughton(at)dailynews.com

CLASSIC BERRY-STREUSEL MUFFINS

Streusel Topping

3/4 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 egg

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup fresh, frozen OR canned (drained) blueberries

Grease bottoms only of 12 medium muffin cups with shortening or line with paper baking cups. Make Streusel Topping; set aside. In a large bowl, beat milk, oil and egg with fork or wire whisk. Stir in flour, sugar, baking powder and salt all at once just until flour is moistened (batter will be lumpy). Fold in blueberries.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Sprinkle each with about 1 tablespoon Streusel Topping. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. If baked in a greased pan, let stand about 5 minutes in pan, then remove from pan to wire rack; if baked in paper baking cups, immediately remove from pan to wire rack. Serve warm if desired. Makes 12 muffins.

STREUSEL TOPPING: In a medium bowl, mix 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Cut in 2 tablespoons firm butter, using pastry blender (or pulling 2 tables knives through ingredients in opposite directions), until crumbly.

VARIATIONS:

APPLE-CINNAMON MUFFINS: Omit blueberries. Beat in 1 cup chopped peeled apple (about 1 medium) with milk. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon with flour. Bake 25 to 30 minutes.

BANANA MUFFINS: Omit blueberries. Decrease milk to 1/3 cup. Beat in 1 cup mashed very ripe bananas (about 2 medium) with milk. Use packed brown sugar for sugar.

CRANBERRY-ORANGE MUFFINS: Omit blueberries. Beat in 1 tablespoon grated orange peel with milk. Fold 1 cup cranberry halves into batter.

From ``Betty Crocker Baking for Today.''

GIANT CHOCOLATE CHIP COFFEE CAKE MUFFINS

CHOCOLATE CHIP AND WALNUT TOPPING:

3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

2/3 cup chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

CHOCOLATE CHIP BATTER:

3 cups bleached all-purpose flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cups semisweet chocolate chips

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

3 large eggs

2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

3/4 cup milk combined with 1/4 cup half-and-half

Powdered sugar, for sifting on top of baked muffins (optional)

Line inside of 10 jumbo muffin/cupcake cups (6 cups to a pan, each cup measuring 4 inches in diameter and 1 3/4 inches deep, with a capacity of 1 1/8 cups) with ovenproof baking paper liners. Or, film inside of each cup with nonstick cooking spray.

Make Chocolate Chip and Walnut Topping: Mix chocolate chips, walnuts, brown sugar and melted butter in a small bowl.

Make Chocolate Chip Batter: Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper. In a small bowl, toss chocolate chips with 2 1/2 teaspoons of sifted mixture.

Cream butter in a large bowl of a freestanding electric mixer on moderately low speed 3 minutes. Add brown sugar and beat 2 minutes; add granulated sugar and beat 2 minutes longer. Beat in eggs, one at a time, mixing 30 seconds after each addition. Blend in vanilla and melted unsweetened chocolate. On low speed, alternately add sifted ingredients in 3 additions with milk-half-and-half mixture in 2 additions, beginning and ending with sifted mixture. Scrape down sides of mixing bowl frequently to keep batter even-textured. Stir in chocolate chips.

Divide batter among prepared cups, mounding slightly. Sprinkle a little Chocolate Chip and Walnut Topping over each of muffins.

Bake in preheated 375-degree oven 25 minutes, or until risen, set, and a toothpick inserted into center of each muffin withdraws clean.

Place muffin pans on cooling racks and let stand 20 minutes. Carefully remove muffins and place on cooling racks. Dust tops lightly with powdered sugar. Cool. Serve muffins freshly baked or within 1 day of baking. Makes 10 muffins.

From ``Chocolate Chocolate,'' by Lisa Yockelson.

BLUE CORNMEAL MUFFINS

1 1/4 cups blue OR yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

2 eggs

Grease bottoms only of 14 medium muffin cups with shortening or line with paper baking cups. In large bowl, mix all ingredients with spoon; beat vigorously 30 seconds. Fill muffin cups about 7/8 full.

Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven 20 to 25 minutes or until light golden brown. Immediately remove from pan. Serve warm. Makes 14 muffins.

From ``Betty Crocker Baking for Today.''

BEER MUFFINS

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large egg, at room temperature

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 1/4 cups beer, at room temperature

1 1/4 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

To prepare muffin tins, spray indentations and rims around them with nonstick spray or line with paper muffin cups. If using silicon muffin cups, spray as directed, then place on a baking sheet.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper in a medium bowl until uniform. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk egg, melted butter and mustard until blended. Gently whisk in beer until foaming subsides, then add cheese. Finally, stir in flour mixture with a wooden spoon until moistened.

Fill prepared pans 3/4 full. Use additional greased pans or small, oven-safe, greased ramekins for any leftover batter, or reserve the batter for a second baking. Bake in center of a preheated 400-degree oven 20 minutes, or until muffins have lumpy brown tops and a toothpick inserted in center comes out almost clean.

Set pan on a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. Gently tip each muffin to one side to make sure it's not stuck. If one is, gently rock it back and forth to release. Remove muffins from pan and cool 5 minutes more on rack before serving. If storing or freezing muffins, cool completely before sealing in an airtight container or in freezer-safe plastic bags. Muffins will stay fresh for up to 48 hours at room temperature or up to 2 months in freezer. Makes 12 muffins.

BEER BLUE CHEESE MUFFINS: Reduce Cheddar cheese to 3/4 cup and add 1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled blue cheese, such as Gorgonzola or Stilton, with remaining cheese.

BEER CARAWAY MUFFINS: Add 1 tablespoon caraway seeds with flour.

BEER CELERY SEED MUFFINS: Add 1 tablespoon celery seeds with flour.

BEER HORSERADISH MUFFINS: Add 2 tablespoons bottled prepared horseradish with mustard.

CIDER MUFFINS: Substitute hard cider for beer.

From ``The Ultimate Muffin Book: More Than 600 Recipes for Sweet and Savory Muffins,'' by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

For the best muffins possible ...

A few tips for muffin-baking success at home.

--Baking powder and/or baking soda are used to make muffins rise and give them their light texture. Check the expiration dates on the containers of baking powder and baking soda because the muffins will not rise properly if either is old. Bake batters immediately after mixing so leavening power is not lost.

--Some experts suggest avoiding silicone muffin cups because of uneven baking and browning tendencies. If you do use them, be sure to spray well with nonstick cooking spray (with flour in it for easy removal of muffins) and place on a baking sheet for baking.

--Fill any unused muffin cups in the pan halfway up with water prior to baking to help nearby muffins bake evenly, keep them from drying out and protect metal pans from warping in the high oven heat.

--Most muffins are best eaten the day baked.

--Be sure to preheat the oven 10 to 15 minutes before baking muffins so they will rise properly.

--Cool muffins in pans at least 5 minutes or longer once removed from the oven so they will hold their shape.

--Grease only the bottoms of muffin pans (if the recipe directs) so the batter doesn't form an overhanging dry or hard edge.

--For the best crumb, don't sift the flour (you're making a quick bread, not a cake); just spoon into a measuring cup, then level off.

--Mix dry ingredients in one bowl, wet in another. Then mix dry into wet, stirring only long enough to combine the two and flour is moistened (a few lumps are fine). Muffins do best when less gluten is formed, so they will have a tender crumb.

--Shiny, light-colored bake ware - aluminum and stainless steel - is recommended for light brown crusts. Avoid dark or black pans as they tend to yield dark-crusted, dry, tougher muffins. If you opt for nonstick, some advise using paper liners, due to the current concern about the pan coating.

--While some love paper liners, others like Bruce Weinstein avoid them because the end results look more like a cupcake than a muffin.

--To make muffins with whole wheat flour, substitute no more than half wheat flour for white flour in recipes for best results (be aware that muffins will be heavier than if all white flour was used).

--Baked muffins can be frozen two to three months. Freeze in a tightly sealed freezer bag when fresh and cool. To thaw, let stand at room temperature 2 to 4 hours.

--Most recipes lend themselves to making muffins of various sizes, but you'll have to adjust baking times accordingly. If you're using a muffin recipe designed for standard-size pans but are baking the batter in mini muffin pans, figure on reducing the baking time by about half; in extra-large muffin pans, increase the baking time by about one-third.

--The easiest, neatest and time-saving way to evenly fill muffin cups is with a 1/4- or 1/2-cup measure or an automatic-release ice cream scoop (available at cookware shops or restaurant supply stores). Fill muffin cups 2/3 to 3/4 full so there is room for expansion when baking.

- Natalie Haughton

Sources: ``The Ultimate Muffin Book,'' by Bruce Weinstein & Mark Scarbrough; ``Betty Crocker Cookbook, Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today.''

What it means if ...

Here are some trouble-shooting hints, in case your muffins aren't turning out as well as expected:

--Peaked and smooth tops could be due to too much mixing.

--Tough and heavy muffins may be due to too much flour or too much mixing; uneven texture with long holes or tunnels might be explained by too much mixing.

--Dry muffins may mean you used too much flour, the oven was too hot or they were baked too long.

--If baked muffins end up with a dark crust, but are not cooked in the center, the oven was probably too hot.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- color) Muffins!

Sweet, savory ... scrumptious

Photo by Ben Fink from ``Chocolate Chocolate,'' John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

(2 -- color) CLASSIC BERRY-STREUSEL MUFFINS

From ``Betty Crocker Baking for Today,'' Wiley Publishing Inc.

(3 -- color) no caption (muffins)

From ``Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook,'' Clarkson Potter/Publishers

(4 -- color) Blue Cornmeal Muffins

(5 -- color) Beer

Box:

(1) For the best muffins possible ... (see text)

(2) What it means if ... (see text)
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Article Details
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Mar 7, 2006
Words:2510
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