It’s very late and Alton has fallen asleep in front of the television. The news drones on about a dumb thief who picked a fight with several policemen who wanted his autograph. It seems the man resembled an international cooking celebrity. The phone awakens Alton; it’s his brother BA. Apparently BA has been arrested again. He’s the celebrity look-alike! Now he wants Alton to make him a cake with “something special” inside.
Alton’s not sure what kind of cake to make for a jailbird (BA presumably wants a cake with a file inside, but Alton misses the subtext). Finally, Alton decides his brother needs muffins and not cake. Muffins store well, they’re small and they serve as vehicles for delivering all manner of delicious ingredients to the mouth. They might even be traded for other jailhouse luxuries.
Alton wanders out to “Drury Lane,” and there encounters a muffin man. The man’s fare consists mostly of flat English muffins. He does have an example of a taller, raised muffin of the sort Alton wants. Muttering about “ruddy Yanks” and their chemical leavening agents, he hands over the muffin.
Alton describes English muffins as yeast breads that are cooked on a griddle while taller American muffins are baked quick breads. Chuck the Muffin Man pops in and out to help Alton explain: Quick breads get their lift from a chemical source, rather than a biological source. These breads need no rise time, which is why they’re quick. They post date the development of baking powder – a nineteenth century innovation.
Muffins actually have more in common with pancakes than with other breads. The key difference is what Alton calls “the muffin method.” He starts by setting his oven a little below his baking temperature to pre-heat it.
Alton’s recipe starts with the wet team: yogurt for body and acidity, vegetable oil, sugar, and an egg. He combines these in a bowl, noting that sugar usually gets mixed with the wet ingredients owing to its chemical properties, so it correctly belongs on the wet team. Then he moves on to the dry team, which starts with flour. Alton prefers to measure by weight and he shows why: the same weight of flour can occupy a range of volumes depending on its compaction. Alton adds a pinch of kosher salt, some baking powder and some baking soda complete the dry team, then sifts these together into a bowl. Chemical leavening works best when the ratio of acid to alkali is close to equal, so when recipes call for acidic ingredients they will usually require baking soda, an alkali, to restore the balance.
Alton stops to consider the filling. Almost any kind of nuts or berries work well, but beware of frozen berries. The cell walls have been punctured by ice, so these berries will weep into the batter. The carbon dioxide released by the leavening combines with these cellular chemicals and can result in an unappetizing green batter. Prefer fresh berries if you can get them, but if you must use frozen don’t thaw them before adding them to the dough.
Alton lightly dusts his berries with dry mixture. This causes them to bind to the finished batter, preventing them from sinking to the bottom of the muffin cup.
Pour the wet team on top of the dry team and mix for a long ten count. Over mixing promotes agglutination and produces muffins with large cavities where carbon dioxide is trapped by “nets” of gluten. Add the berries (reserving about a half cup) and mix for three more counts. Even if the batter doesn’t look mixed, stop!
Alton prefers a heavy aluminum muffin tin with a non-stick coating. If you can’t quite trust your muffin tin, use a little non-stick spray (but take it easy – too much will make for greasy muffins). And don’t use cupcake papers! A size 20 ice cream scoop works well to ensure evenly sized muffins. Alton dots the top of his muffins with the berries he reserved during mixing, then adjusts his oven to the correct temperature (remember that it was initially set a little below that) and slides in his muffins. The temperature adjustment makes the oven cycle on as the muffins go in. This provides an initial burst of heat that helps ensure a good rise. Alton sets his timer for half the bake time. When it sounds he turns the muffin tin around and resets the timer. This midpoint turn compensates for the uneven temperatures found in most ovens.
The only reliable test for doneness is the old toothpick test; the pick should come out clean. Alton prefers to remove his muffins from the tin to cool; leaving them in the tin promotes a soggy bottom – not good eats. He stretches a towel over the tin, then inverts them both and lets the muffins cool upside down.
At the jail BA lowers a rope made of knotted sheets and Alton sends up a basketful of muffins. The muffins come right back down. They’re not what BA wants. Alton’s puzzled under he realizes the problem: the muffins won’t fit through the bars of BA’s cell! Just then a stern policeman appears at the door; Alton’s caught! But a tossed muffin distracts the constable long enough for Alton to escape back to his kitchen.
Alton tries English muffins next. With the help of a puppet, he explains how yeast converts simple carbohydrates (like sugar) into carbon dioxide. He proofs the yeast with a little sugar in some just barely warmer than body temperature water – about 100º. Next he mixes very hot water with some shortening, sugar, salt and powdered milk. Alton uses powdered milk at a higher proportion than called for in normal reconstitution. This produces richer milk that contains more protein and more maltose (milk sugar), enhancing flavor and browning in the muffins. The yeast should be foaming by this point; if it isn’t, the water temperature wasn’t right or the yeast weren’t viable. Add the entire foamy yeast mix to the wet team.
The dry team is sifted all-purpose flour. Alton digs a well into it and pours the wet team there, then mixes until it just comes together. He sets this aside for a half-hour to rise. A heating pad set to low and placed under the bowl will help keep it warm.
Alton makes rings out of tuna cans with both ends cut out. He sits these on a 300º griddle and sprays them with non-stick cooking spray. Getting out his ice cream server again, Alton puts two scoops of batter into each ring, then covers the rings (a half sheet pan works well) and cooks them for five minutes. After five minutes he flips them and cooks them covered for another five minutes and then cools them on a rack.
Returning to jail, Alton offers BA the English muffins. Once again he’s surprised by the law. This time he can’t distract the officer with a tossed muffin, and he joins BA in his cell where BA is demonstrating the proper way to open an English muffin – with a fork, not a knife.
We leave Alton as he asks his brother who’s in the top bunk – it’s “some psychiatrist” who wants to know if “Clarice” is there… Share this article with your friends