Muffin recipes are in the limelight

Oatmeal raisin muffins are a tasty, low-fat treat. BY JACK CLEMONS
March 12, 2012

You may have noticed the ongoing enthusiasm for cupcakes, a trend that began in the late 1990s. Although many food writers have predicted an end to cupcake towers for weddings and specialty bakeries selling only cupcakes, the popularity of these treats has not waned. Later this month, Sprinkles, a gourmet cupcake chain, will open a 24-hour cupcake vending machine in Beverly Hills. And, the company announced plans for 10 more cupcake ATMs in cities across the country later in the year.

What is a cupcake (the food, not the person)? Exactly what it’s named: a cake baked in a cup-shaped mold, typically topped with frosting. Today’s cupcakes are far removed from the sprinkles and fluted paper wrapping of our childhood birthday parties. The choices of fillings and flavor combinations are practically limitless, ranging from maple bacon to caramel beer to banana peanut butter.

Since they’re about the same size and shape, what’s the difference between a cupcake and a muffin? Cupcakes are made with the same ingredients as a cake, and the batter can be baked in layer cake pans, sheet cake pans or cupcake pans. Muffins typically feature fruit as an ingredient and won’t bake properly in anything except a muffin pan.

Muffins had their time in the limelight during the late 1980s, when they grew enormous in size. Delis and supermarkets sold large muffin tops with more calories than an entire standard muffin, and you could find muffin-top pans to bake them at home. This is the same time when a few states named their official state muffins: Maryland chose corn, Minnesota opted for blueberry and New York selected apple.

While degree of sweetness and frosting are sometimes used to differentiate between cupcakes and muffins, you’ll find savory cupcakes and iced (or glazed) muffins. The key difference is consistency - delicate and crumbly like a cake or moist and dense like a quick bread. Another feature is the type of fat in the recipes: cupcakes are made with butter; muffins are made with oil. Of course, every rule has an exception, such as the oatmeal raisin muffins in the photo that were made with no fat at all.

Since the names cupcake and muffin refer to a specific shape, it seems possible to make them out of less traditional ingredients, perhaps something as different as meat and potatoes. I started with ground meat seasoned as meatloaf, packed a generous spoonful into the cups of a muffin tin and baked them for about 20 minutes. As they cooked, the fat in the meat collected in the cups, keeping the outside from forming the wonderful crust that makes meatloaf memorable. First lesson learned: Do not attempt this with anything but very lean meat unless you want an oily blob that falls apart when removed from the pan.

I had planned to mimic the appearance of an iced cupcake by piping mashed potatoes on top of the meat. Next lesson learned: Mashed potatoes with skin or any lumps at all will not pass through the tip of a pastry bag. After the potato-topped meat muffins spent 10 minutes in the oven, I learned my final lesson: Unless the mashed potatoes are quite thick, they will begin to melt in the heat. Instead of a decorative potato topping, my meatloaf muffins looked like they’d been left out in the rain (see photo).

To save you from similar mishaps, I’ve included a recipe for mashed potato muffins that can be baked on their own or as a topping. The ratio of solid to liquid ingredients and the addition of cornmeal helps these hold their shape. Since everyone has their favorite meatloaf recipe, I haven’t added one for meatloaf muffins; just be sure the meat is lean and you’re generous with the breadcrumbs to keep them sturdy. Finally, these oatmeal raisin muffins are definitely delicious but would never be mistaken for cupcakes.

Mashed Potato Muffins
2/3 C flour
1/4 C cornmeal
2 t baking powder
salt & pepper, to taste
2 eggs
1 C mashed potatoes
1/3 C buttermilk
1/4 C sliced green onion
1/3 C minced red pepper
2 T snipped chives

Preheat oven to 400 F. Coat the inside of a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk eggs until frothy. Stir in mashed potatoes and milk. Add potato mixture, onion and red pepper to dry ingredients; stir just until combined. Pour into prepared muffin cups and sprinkle with chives.

Bake for 15 minutes; allow to cool for at least 5 minutes before removing muffins from pan. Yield: 6 to 8 muffins.

Oatmeal Raisin Muffins
1 C oatmeal
1 C buttermilk
1 C flour
1/3 C sugar
1/2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1/2 t cinnamon
1 egg
1/3 C applesauce
1/2 C raisins (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 F. Coat the inside of a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.  In a large bowl, combine the oatmeal and buttermilk; allow to sit for about 5 minutes. In a small bowl whisk together the dry ingredients; set aside. Add the egg, applesauce and raisins to the oatmeal; stir to combine thoroughly. Pour the dry ingredients into the oatmeal mixture and stir just until moistened; do not overmix. Pour the batter into the prepared pan; fill any unused cups halfway to the rim with water. Bake for about 20 minutes. Yield: 10 to 12 muffins.