Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Strawberries and Cream Muffins: "I do beseech you . . ."

". . . I saw good strawberries in your garden there;
I do beseech you send for some of them."

William Shakespeare, from Richard III, act 3, scene 4.

What, pray tell, is more appealing than a fresh, warm muffin that's been dotted, within and on top, with bright crimson strawberries? Exceptionally good strawberries, if you can ferret them out this time of year, are such a rarity.

So when I spotted some particularly promising berries recently that were actually on sale(!), I wasted no time in nabbing a container. Strawberry muffins, you see, had been on my mind.

In my retail baking class last week, one of my tasks had been to make several dozen petite strawberry muffins, which were slated to accompany a fabulous main-dish salad that the garde manger class was preparing at the same time. (The garde manger class makes a huge variety of beautiful cold dishes, comprised largely of veggies and fruits--really fantastic stuff.)

Those little muffins were pretty cute, and I was pleased with how they turned out. Their batter, though, was boringly one-size-fits-all, so I decided to devise a brand new strawberry muffin recipe to try out at home--something more interesting--and that's what we have here today. I was absolutely delighted with how these turned out, and my kids LOVED them.

The case of the disappearing strawberries . . .

Have you ever noticed how strawberries have a way of simply melting away in baked goods, sometimes leaving nothing but a little pocket of pinkish moisture that leaves you wondering what might have been there to begin with? Sadly, the gorgeous little chunks can be completely diminished by heat. This recipe, though, makes an effort to get around that problem, at least partially.

In coming up with this recipe, I borrowed a couple of hints from my baking teacher, Chef Chris. He doesn't always mix berries right into muffin batter; he layers them into the batter in the muffin cups. That's one tactic I adopted here, and it helps alleviate, though doesn't completely eliminate, the problem of disappearing strawberries.

No, it's not a cheesecake . . .

A special component of these muffins is the addition of a very small amount of a sweet cream-cheesy mixture, which I layered in over the first sprinkling of berry pieces. It just barely evokes the flavor of cheesecake, and it's subtle enough so that it doesn't make the muffins too rich, nor does it make you feel like you're eating something that belongs on a dessert cart. It also doesn't firm up into a thickened streak within the muffin, but melds nicely into the batter itself, augmenting the moistness of the muffin's soft interior.

Does Size Really Matter?

You can make them regular size or, if you're into jumbo muffins, go for it and make them huge. You'll get about 6 giants out of this recipe, or 14 regulars. I had enough leftover batter, after I'd filled my pan of 12, to make one giant muffin. (See the picture below? That baby's gigantic! I stuffed it with extra berries and filled the jumbo muffin cup to capacity. Whoa! If you make them enormous, though, remember that they'll need to bake way longer.)

Any size they are, I think you'll like these. No, let me amend that. I think you'll love these.

Strawberries & Cream Muffins

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Makes about 12 to 14 regular size muffins, or about 6 jumbo muffins.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

1 cup whole milk (or, you can use something like 2/3 cup of 2 percent milk and 1/3 cup half-and-half, mixed together)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. almond extract
2 large eggs
2 cups All Purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 and 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup fresh ripe strawberries chopped into very small pieces (the redder and sweeter, the better!)

4 oz. full-fat cream cheese, very soft
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. of liquid from one whole egg that's been beaten lightly
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

Put paper liners in the cups of your muffin pan, or use nonstick baking spray very liberally.

Cut up your berries and set them aside.

In a small bowl, mix together with a spoon the cream cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, the 1 and 1/2 Tbsp. beaten egg, and 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract. Mix until almost all the lumps are gone. Set this aside, but don't chill it.

Melt the butter slowly in a sauce pan on low heat. Add the vanilla extract, almond extract, and the milk into the butter, stirring to combine. Cool until the mixture is just warm, then whisk in the eggs.

Thoroughly combine with a whisk, in a large mixing bowl, the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour all of the butter, milk, and egg mixture into the dry ingredients, blending just until combined. Don't overmix. It's okay if a few little flour streaks are still evident.

Using a portion scoop or spoon, fill each muffin cup barely half full. Scatter a few pieces of strawberry on top of each one.

Using a small spoon, dab a generous teaspoonful or so of the cream cheese mixture on top of the berries.

On top of that, add on another tablespoon or two of the muffin batter.

On top of that, add a few more pieces of strawberry. Push them in just slightly. If they're well visible at this point, they'll still be visible after the muffins have baked (and they won't melt away and disappear)!

Sprinkle the tops of the unbaked muffins very generously with coarse sugar for a nice sparkle.

Bake the muffins for about 15 to 18 minutes, until they're light golden on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean. The middle of the cupcake should be kind of firm when lightly pressed with a finger. Check on the muffins early, and if they're browning too fast, lightly cover the pan with a sheet of foil.

Let the muffins cool in the pan, on a rack, for a couple of minutes, then carefully remove them from the pan to cool the rest of the way on the rack.

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