Even though I’m mostly home with children these days and no longer in the trenches of a professional kitchen, I still read about food—and especially pastries—quite a bit. I’m always a little jealous when I read about some chef’s amazing food memories from their childhood. It seems, at times, that everyone had an amazing mother, father or grandmother who effortlessly whipped up incredible meals or went on family trips filled with culinary adventures.
Truth be told, my mom did OK with meals but a lot of them were nothing out of the ordinary: Dinners were usually a meat, starch and a vegetable. On Fridays, it was fish, starch and a vegetable. This was certainly nothing to complain about, yet nothing mind-blowing either.
One food memory I do have is going to the local diner with my dad to get a muffin and chocolate milk after dropping my older sister at school. It was one of the few times I got to go somewhere with dad alone. Having four older sisters limited my parental one-on-one time, so it was pretty special. The diner was the blue-and-silver-train-car type, which I believe ended up in a museum. Something tells me those muffins weren’t anything special either, but my memory says they were amazing. My dad passed away this past year so those images are fresh in my mind again, especially when I bake muffins for my own kids.
It seems when my boys were younger, I baked muffins more often. But writing this story has gotten me baking them again, especially the savory ones. Muffins are incredibly versatile: They’re easily portable and fit in lunch boxes or camping backpacks; they don’t take long to mix and bake at the last minute; they can be sweet or savory and they freeze really well. I’ve kept a simple “Master Muffin Recipe” on hand for several years now and can modify it depending
on what’s in season. I’ve provided that recipe here along with some variations for add-ins, but don’t be afraid to let your imagination run free. Summer is the perfect time to experiment with flavor combinations, given the amazing produce available; these variations are just a guideline.
There are a couple of important things to remember for successful muffins: Don’t overmix the batter or the muffins will be tough. The ingredients should be mixed until just combined and a few lumps in the batter are fine. Also, I use both “regular” and nonstick muffin pans. I usually spray the pans with a nonstick spray, making sure to spray up over the edge of each muffin cup as this is where the muffins tend to stick. I generally don’t have a problem getting them out of the pan with this method. Be sure to cool the muffins for 15 to 20 minutes before removing them and they should be fine. The alternative is using muffin papers, which work really well, but spraying the top of the pan where the muffins spill over is still key. Finally, it’s important to start with a hot oven—400° works well. Be sure the oven is preheated and use a convection setting if you have it. The muffins need this hot temperature to give that initial boost that will result in a nicely domed top.
You might think that muffins are “basic” and easy to make, which is true, but, as with a lot of the “basics” of cooking and baking, too often the results are less than perfect without having a few pro tricks up your sleeve. I encourage you to think of muffins as a quick, portable and healthy snack for a busy summer schedule—make a few batches to get the hang of it and you’ll be a pro before you know it!
MASTER MUFFIN RECIPE
MAKES APPROXIMATELY 24 MINI MUFFINS OR 12 LARGE MUFFINS
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsalted butter
2 eggs, room temperature
2¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 cups milk
Preheat oven to 400°F (on convection setting, if you have it). In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs 1 at a time and mix until just combined. In a separate bowl, sift together all dry ingredients and then slowly add to the creamed butter followed by the milk. Stir until the mixture just comes together. Do not overmix—a few lumps are fine.
Prepare a muffin tin with nonstick spray, being careful to spray the flat surface where the muffin dome will spill over. Insert fluted muffin papers if you wish, then fill each muffin cup to the top. Bake approximately 12–15 minutes for mini muffins and 20–25 minutes for large muffins. The muffins are done when the muffin tops spring back, the edges are golden brown and/or a cake tester comes out clean.
*Note: I sometimes replace 1 cup of the all-purpose flour with an equal amount of whole-wheat white flour, which won’t much affect the recipe but adds a slight nutty flavor and almost imperceptible crunch.
Lisa Sewall graduated from Johnson and Wales in Providence. She then came to Boston and worked at Biba, before going to Nantucket to work at the White Elephant, Summer House, and Wauwinet. She returned to Boston and was the Pastry Chef at L’Espalier (where she met, Jeremy, her husband.) For five years, she lived in Northern California as the opening Pastry Chef at Ondine in Sausalito. In 2006, she and Jeremy opened Lineage in Brookline. Lisa and Jeremy have three kids which keeps her out of professional kitchens for the moment!