Last week, on a day that fiercely called for chocolate, I decided to make a pan of brownies along with a pan of these chocolate muffins. We brought the brownies to our friends Amber and Annie’s house for a dinner party and kept the muffins on the kitchen counter where they sustained us through a few rainy, busy workdays. Sam’s nephew Kevin is living with us for a while and somehow that fact alone has convinced me that we need more treats in the house (although I would like to say for the record that Kevin is far more conservative with treats than I am on most days and there’s a strong chance I ate more of these muffins than both men combined). They’re humble, boast just the right amount of chocolate, are wonderfully moist and even better the second day.
To be honest, I thought long and hard about whether or not I wanted to mention these chocolate muffins to you at all. They’re inspired by a recipe in Dan Lepard’s excellent baking book Short and Sweet. You may know Lepard from his food column in The Guardian. He’s a very British baker (although he’s from Australia originally) in the sense that he’s drawn to humble cakes and classic old-fashioned recipes. I find myself returning to his book over and over because he quietly (and sometimes daringly) uses whole-grain flours in unexpected places — and makes no big cheers or to-do’s about it. Each recipe is very much geared towards the home baker, and a quick flip-through always reinvigorates my excitement for baking. So when Dan Lepard described his Chocolate Custard Muffins as “the best chocolate muffin you’ll ever taste,” I thought to myself: Say no more.
In looking at the recipe though, I found myself wanting to futz with it a little — and now we get to the part of this post where my muffin neurosis becomes quite clear. First, what makes these muffins instead of cupcakes? Did I feel o.k. eating them for breakfast or did they seem more appropriate for dessert? Didn’t I find it odd that they begin with 1/2 cup of corn starch? Even in the juiciest of August peach pies, I’ve only relied on half that amount of cornstarch. What was the science behind the cornstarch? Could I make an egg-based custard instead? Maybe I need another cup of tea before turning on the oven? But really, questions and neurosis aside, I trusted Dan Lepard and his bold claim that this is the best chocolate muffin so I plodded forward … with just a few changes.
I have been really loving pairing chocolate with rye flour lately, so I used 100% whole-grain rye flour in these muffins, swapped in coconut oil and natural sugar, added a good dash of salt and cacao nibs to scatter on the tops. In the end, I know one thing for sure: they weren’t very custardy (although they were wonderfully moist), so I’ve opted to call my version Nibby Chocolate Rye Muffins. And while I’m not 100% sure they’re the best chocolate muffin I’ve ever tasted, they do make a ho-hum rainy weekday feel like a little celebration. They’re comforting in a way that a super rich, decadent muffin just wouldn’t be plus they have these wonderfully grooved tops that make them feel decidedly rustic.
I can say firmly that I quite fancy them. Kevin gave them two thumbs up (which isn’t all too common around here) and Sam repeated many times that he was very fond of them. So I decided to share them here with you … all with the hope that you’ll make them and tell me what you think. And even better: maybe you know the science behind the cornstarch? Or perhaps you may share your favorite chocolate muffin recipe here so I can keep this trend of small, daily celebrations going for a few weeks at the very least.
Bay Area! I’m in your neck of the woods next week. Will you come out and say hello? You can find me at the following places (I’ll have granola samples and my pen ready to sign your copy of Whole-Grain Mornings). It’d be cool if we could all have a chocolate muffin or two as well, but that might just be pushing our luck(For future events in Portland, Vancouver or Seattle see an updated tour list on the Whole Grain Mornings book page).
Friday 2/7: 11am-1pm Book Signing + Granola Tasting at Anthropologie, Berkeley (see below for more information and RSVP!) – FREE
Saturday 2/8: 9:30 am-12 pm: Book Signing Birite Divisadaro – FREE
Saturday 2/8: 3-6 pm Breakfast Better Cooking Class at 18 Reasons (there are a few spots left! Come join us!)
Sunday 2/9: 1 p.m. Book Talk + Granola Tasting at Book Passage, Corte Madera – FREE
Adapted from: Short and Sweet
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a muffin tray with paper liners (or butter well).
Place the cornstarch, cocoa, brown sugar and water into a saucepan and whisk together constantly over medium heath until boiling and quite thick. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and chocolate until thoroughly combined.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Add the oil, vanilla and eggs to the chocolate mixture and stir well. Fold in the sugar and continue stirring until mixture is smooth and thick. Fold in the flour mixture and stir until no clumps remain.
Spoon the batter into muffin liners, and sprinkle the tops with cacao nibs. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops have puffed and are dry to the touch — yet still a touch jiggly in the center . Let cool on a wire rack before serving.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.