Friday, July 9, 2010

Jumbo Sweet Cherry Muffins . . . with Buttermilk and Brown Sugar

There's a lot of enthusiastic chatter in the food-blog world lately about cherries. After all, they're in season right now; have you noticed? Because if you haven't, you'd better take heed--those little beauties won't be around long.  I'm talkin' fresh sweet cherries. You know, the kind that grow on real trees.

Gosh, I love 'em. You too? Yeah, I can see that you do. Besides eating cherries, I  also love picking them, in part because the trees themselves are so exceptionally pretty. They're kind of small and their diminutive nature seems to invite one to come closer.

They endear themselves by being so approachable, and cater even to little kids in this respect. Could they be any more charming if they tried? I think not.

A few days ago, my family and I went picking in a northwestern Michigan orchard, while visiting my in-laws' cottage on Torch Lake. A huge inland lake, it's in one of the most beautiful areas in the state.

It's also in the middle of cherry country, which spreads out for miles around. I'm always kind of thrilled whenever our visits up north coincide with cherry season and, this summer, fortunately for us, the crop ripened a little earlier than usual. It made the picking almost too easy.

Lush branches, heavily laden, leaned down to accommodate even the most minimal effort. In some spots, the cherries clustered into big shiny bunches, mimicking grapes. Standing beneath the branches and gazing up, with a hazy sun poking through the almond-shaped leaves, was a delightful thing.

If you ever get the chance to pick them, you should jump at the chance. There's nothing in the world like the taste of a really fresh cherry just plucked from the tree, wiped clean, and popped into your mouth.

 Of course, after picking the cherries, I longed to bake with them sooner rather than later, but because of the alarming heat wave sweeping this part of the country, I couldn't contemplate it seriously until we got back home into air conditioning. So, I tucked a few pounds of the cherries, unwashed, into the fruit drawer of the fridge where they were likely to be undisturbed, and on the day we left they were carefully packed into a cooler with ice for the journey home. They arrived here in very good shape, thankfully.

Now, though I know it's not original in the least, I decided I had to use some of the cherries to make muffins yet again. (Yes, I know. It seems I'm on a major muffin binge this year. Can't help myself, I guess.) Specifically, I needed to bake these muffins.

About this recipe . . .

A splendid vehicle for the combo of sweet black cherries and the lighter, milder Queen Anne cherries. these jumbo muffins are substantial and flavorful. Who knew that brown sugar and buttermilk could complement fresh sweet cherries so completely?

Adapted from Peter Reinhart's book, Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers, I adjusted the spices (added in a pinch of cinnamon and of nutmeg) and the flavorings (instead of using all vanilla extract, I used half as much vanilla as indicated, and added in a small amount of almond extract).  Instead of using dried fruit in these muffins I used only fresh fruit, and I chose canola oil instead of melted butter. I left the base of the muffin essentially alone because, I figured, why tamper too much with perfection? (I was about to substitute in some whole wheat flour, but held back at the last minute.) And, predictably, I reworked/reworded the instructions a bit to reflect exactly what I did.

I've mentioned Peter Reinhart before, in a post on challah bread, and I have to reiterate here that I think his recipes are exceptionally reliable, and the books of his that I've spent any time with are remarkably well worth reading. (This may make me sound like a groupie or something, but I must admit I feel profoundly lucky as a baker to have easy access to his knowledge, experience, and overall philosophy through his writing. This guy knows what's what, and he clearly loves sharing what he's learned. Valuable stuff.)

These muffins are jumbos because the recipe seemed to merit that kind of heft. But large or small, I think you'll like them. From this recipe I got nine jumbos, but if you don't want the huge guys, I assume you could easily get 18 modest regular-size muffins out of this batter. 

Jumbo Sweet Cherry Muffins

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

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line muffin pans with paper liners and spray the inside of the liners with baking spray. This recipe will make 9 jumbo muffins, 12 generous regular size, or 18 smallish regulars.

3 and 1/2 cups unbleached All-Purpose flour
1 and 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt (I actually used 1 scant tsp. kosher salt)
2/3 cup canola oil
1 and 1/2 cups brown sugar, tightly packed (I used light brown)
2 large eggs
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1 pinch ground nutmeg
1 and 1/4 cups buttermilk (I used regular buttermilk, not low fat)
 2 cups of pitted, coarsely chopped, sweet cherries (I used half black cherries and half Queen Anne)
coarse, or granulated, sugar (optional)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a medium size bowl. Add the brown sugar and whisk it in thoroughly.

In a large bowl, mix together the oil, eggs, vanilla extract, almond extract, and buttermilk. (I did this by hand, and my muffins turned out great, but Reinhart instructs doing this part in your mixer. You decide!)

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir just until the dry ingredients are absorbed.

With a portion scoop, fill the muffin cups about halfway full. Using your hands, sprinkle on that a couple tablespoons worth of the chopped fruit and gently pat it down into the batter. Scoop another glob of batter atop that. Sprinkle the remainder of the fruit over that. If any batter remains in the bowl, dab it equally over the top of the muffins. It's fine if some of the fruit is exposed and not buried in batter.

Sprinkle the tops with coarse sugar or granulated sugar if you like.

Place the muffin pan on top of a baking sheet, and bake for 10 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 375 and bake for 10 minutes more. Check the muffins to see if they're browning too quickly; if they are, cover them lightly with foil. Bake the muffins until golden brown, and until the tops spring back when lightly touched. Mine took barely 30 minutes to bake. I also checked them with a toothpick inserted in the center to ensure they were fully done.

Let them cool in the pan, on a rack, for a few minutes before attempting to remove to the rack to finish cooling.

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