Friday, March 25, 2011

In Praise of Muffins and Ukuleles . . . (Brown Sugar Buttermilk Muffins with Marcona Almonds, Dried Sweet Cherries, and Apricots)

My younger son, Nathan, has a ukulele. He procured it with his own money just after Christmas, and he's been teaching himself to play. The instrument's maker is a company called Lanikai, and their slogan is, "Lanikai . . . Makes Me Happy!" (Click that if you want to hear their perky little ditty.) That motto sums up how I feel about homemade muffins--they make me happy. From their simplicity to their diminutive size, I like them. They're so approachable, and unpretentious in the extreme. In the same way that anyone can learn to play the ukulele, anyone can produce a fine muffin.

I'm developing a similar fondness for that ukulele. It's not loud or showy, and I'll bet it weighs in at a whopping 12 ounces, if that. It's subdued tinkling reminds me of wind chimes. Maybe my affection stems, in part, from the fact that my kid seems so enamored with it. He'll pick it up in a quiet room and gently pluck away, quite unselfconsciously, in a manner that's not typical for him. The ukulele's peaceful appeal is completely unlike that of any electronic device that competes for his teenage attention. I find it reassuring that Nathan appreciates that. Lanikai picked a very appropriate slogan, it seems to me, and I can just imagine how happy I'd be if I nibbled a nice muffin while listening to Nathan pluck away on that thing. Pretty darn happy, probably.    :)

About this recipe . . . 

This recipe adaptation brings together ingredients I am perennially crazy about--brown sugar, buttermilk, Marcona almonds (softer and sweeter than regular almonds), dried cherries, and plump, dried apricots. It's an adaptation, I suppose, of several muffin recipes that have wandered into my life over the past year or two, but I think it harkens back most directly to this recipe that I adapted from a Peter Reinhart muffin last summer.

This new muffin's differences include a focus on almonds (including the nuts themselves, along with almond extract, and a small amount of almond meal in place of some of the flour); the addition of sweet, dried, Michigan cherries, and dried apricots; and, some whole wheat flour standing in for a portion of the white flour. These bake up nicely and, when broken open, reveal a tender crumb that's soft without being cakey. The moisture from the buttermilk and brown sugar really give these a longevity that most muffins can't boast. Not too bland, nor too sweet, they're just right. I love them.

Brown Sugar Buttermilk Muffins with Marcona Almonds, Dried Cherries, and Dried Apricots

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

Yield: 18 regular size muffins (or, at least 9 jumbos or 36 minis)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Use baking spray liberally on 18 regular size muffin cups, or use paper liners. (Actually, if I were you, I'd use some baking spray even if I were using liners at the same time. Overkill? Maybe. But why take the chance? I spray the stuff on the top of the pan too, before filling the cups with batter, so any overflowing batter doesn't have a chance to glue the muffins to the pan's surface. Let's just say I've learned my muffin lesson in the past.)

2 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached
1/2 whole wheat flour
1/2 almond meal (This means finely ground almonds. I buy this stuff, inexpensively, at Trader Joe's or make it myself in the food processor from whole or blanched almonds. Just don't over grind the almonds accidentally into paste!)
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 and 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher salt; if you use regular salt, you might want to decrease this measurement slightly.) 
1 small pinch of ground nutmeg (I like to use fresh and grate it myself. Much nicer smell and fuller flavor. I buy whole nutmeg from Penzey's, and I use a tiny little hand-grater that I found at Bed Bath and Beyond.)

1 and 1/4 cup buttermilk (I'd suggest you keep a couple of extra tablespoons on hand to mix in just case the batter seems unusually thick to you.)
2/3 cup canola oil
2 eggs, large
1 and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract 

1/2 to 3/4 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped 
1/2 cup Marcona almonds, roughly chopped (I buy these at Trader Joe's, too. They come in small plastic containers, salted and roasted, and packed in a small amount of oil. They're extremely tasty, but not cheap.)
1/4 moist, plump, dried apricots, roughly chopped (The softer and moister the better. Super leathery apricots are not so good in a muffin.)

In a large bowl, evenly combine all of the nine dry ingredients (not including the fruit and nuts) with a whisk. 

In a small bowl, mix together all of the chopped fruits and nuts. Remove about 1/4 cup of this mixture and set it aside; you'll use this to sprinkle on the top of the unbaked muffins. 

In a medium size bowl, whisk the eggs lightly, then add in the buttermilk, oil, and extracts. Whisk until well combined.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour all of the liquid into it. Stir just until no big streaks of dry ingredients are evident. Use care not to over mix. 

Sprinkle in the fruit and nuts and stir gently just to distribute them fairly evenly. 

Using a portion scoop, if possible, put the batter into the muffin cups. My regular size cups were pretty full, as the photos show. Sprinkle a pinch of the fruit and nut mix that you set aside onto the top of each one. 

Bake the muffins in the center of the oven for about 15 -20 minutes, or until nicely golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (If you tend to have trouble with your muffin bottoms burning, set the muffin pan on top of a cookie sheet when you put it in the oven.) Let the muffins cool in their pan, on a rack, for no more than a few minutes, then carefully remove them from the pan to cool the rest of the way on the rack. 

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