Okay so not exactly science… just baking jiggery pokery really.
First, can I say that I’m not a fan of processed low-fat ANYTHING. If I’m going to spread butter on my bread it’s going to be butter (Yeo Valley out of preference), and nothing remotely low-fatty or weirdly whipped with water.
Still, it’s the New Year and while I love my cakey buns, I’m determined to shed a few Christmas pounds, and when you’re healthy eating, sometimes the worst thing to get over is a craving for something sweet. A banana or handful of raisins will often do the trick, but let’s face it, you can’t beat cake. The worst thing about cake is, well, everything really – fat, sugar and refined white flour are possibly the things that most of us are trying to avoid.
Enter stage left, the well-loved but often under-appreciated Mr Muffin. He’s smaller, more portable and, in lower-fat baking terms, easier to keep moist. Bless him.
So what’s the difference between a muffin and a cupcake (or fairy cake)? Well, I’d say a muffin is more breakfasty and bready, and a cupcake is more, well, cakey. Also I find that muffin recipes tend to contain oil, while cupcakes are more buttery, and more often than not are iced too. But hey, a cake is a cake is a cake, right? HOWEVER. There are substitutes you can make in baking, and it IS possible to make a healthier version. So let’s attack these babies one at a time, shall we?
Fat plays an important part in a cake recipe. Butter, for a start, adds flavour, but more than that (and without getting too technical) it’s essential for lightness, as it plays a part in holding the air bubbles you’ve produced (by whisking the eggs and adding stuff like baking powder) and keeps the cake soft by ‘wrapping’ itself around the protein in the flour.
So. You can’t get rid of it completely, therefore use it wisely and make sure the fat you do use is good for you. Rapeseed oil is excellent (I’ve talked about it before here). You can, however, cut it down and replace some of it with other moist ingredients like fruit (apple purée or mashed banana, prunes, squished peaches…) or low-fat dairy like yoghurt and creme fraiche. Yes, you’ll reduce the lightness a little bit, but you can get away with it.
Sugar obviously adds flavour (and again, without getting too technical, it inhibits gluten development, which, when allowed to run rampant can make cakes and biscuits a bit hard) and it also helps with browning. If you’re using fruit as a substitute fat, this can help with sweetness too, and it can help with browning as cutting down sugar can sometimes make cakes look a bit insipid. Honey can help here as it’s much better for us and has natural sweetness.
If you’re reducing fat and sugar, you’re going to give yourself the problem of toughness (remember the protein ‘wrapping’ and gluten development I mentioned above? This is why an awful lot of low-fat foods have TONS of sugar in – it’s not just flavour, it’s about a tender end result as well). So what else can we do? Well, we can reduce the gluten in the first place, by replacing some of it with things like oats, which are much lower in gluten-producing proteins. You can also experiment with low-gluten flours like rye flour. Wholemeal flour is obviously a healthier option too and should contain less gluten (although I’m being cautious here, as this isn’t always the case).
Other tips for low-fat baking:
So now I’ve bored you to death with all this talk of gluten and ‘wrapping’, here are a couple of other things to consider:
Experiment. You might love a recipe made with peach purée but hate mashed banana. You might find that a recipe is too tough, but taking away a little flour and adding another handful of oats can make a terrific difference. Have a play. The only thing you’ll lose is the odd cake or batch of muffins (which will probably still be nice enough to eat anyway).
Try just cutting the fat down on a normal recipe. You can often eliminate a third or even half the amount of butter without doing that much damage to the finished cake (trust me).
Lessen cooking times to retain moisture – with lower fat baking, you might find your cakes need less time in the oven. This is often why muffins are better than cakes – they require much less oven time.
Remember the GMR. The Golden Muffin Rule is most applicable when healthy baking – stir ONLY as much as necessary. Working the mixture will develop the gluten and toughen up your end result.
If you find your recipe is a bit dense, try beating the egg whites and folding them into the mixture.
And finally, DON’T ever bother cooking with low-fat butter or margarine type thingies. They are the spawn of the devil and should be avoided at all costs. Bleurgh.
So here’s my recipe for healthier muffins. They’re not sweet, delicate little cupcakes, but for a healthy breakfast, they’re pretty unbeatable. Try stirring through a handful of blueberries or some raisins too:
So…preheat your oven to gas 4/180. Pop paper cases into a 12 hole muffin tin.
First combine your wet ingredients:
1 large egg
120g low fat yoghurt
2 tablespoons rapeseed oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large or 2 small bananas, mashed
1 or 2 tbsp honey
Then get all the dry ingredients ready in another bowl:
50g porridge oats
100g golden caster sugar
60g wholemeal flour
150g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
Now, bung the wet into the dry and quickly combine with a fork (remember the GMR – don’t worry if there’s the odd bit of flour left). Pop a tablespoon of mixture into each muffin case and get them into the oven quickly.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes (remember, the moister the better). They won’t keep more than a day or two (in an airtight tin), but they’re a great healthy breakfast or sweet treat to keep you on the straight and narrow, or to shut the kids up when they’re after cakeage and you don’t want them rolling around like fat little barrels. Oops, a bit non-PC there. Sorry.
A word of warning here, though, if you eat all 12 with three cups of tea, then possibly the ‘healthy’ tag doesn’t apply.
So breakfast muffins, then.
You know me, I’m a big fan of largesse. Indulgence is my middle name (okay, actually it’s Susan, but you get the picture). Somehow, though, in a breakfast muffin you need lightness and fruitiness and that kind of ‘I’m starting the day in a healthy way’ feeling, even though you’re obviously still eating a cake.
So with this one, I’ve cut down the sugar and butter to the absolute minimum. Any more and my children would be revolting (too late ahaha). You can also use a healthy oil rather than melted butter if you prefer. Here we are, then, a healthy(ish) way to start your engines:
120g butter, melted
200g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
125 g caster sugar
150 – 200g berries – raspberries, blueberries, strawberries or a frozen berry mix
Handful porridge oats
So preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4 and pop some paper cases into a 12-hole muffin tin.
Weigh out the butter and pop it into a pyrex jug or something microwaveable. Melt it in the microwave, then add in the milk and eggs. Whisk well. Meanwhile sift the flour and baking powder together, then stir in the sugar.
Make a well in the centre of the floury mixture and stir in the liquid mixture. Remember the GMR (Golden Muffin Rule), which is to only just combine the ingredients – it doesn’t matter if you can still see the odd bit of flour, just don’t overmix it. Lastly, fold in the berries and the handful of oats and spoon the batter into the muffin cases:
Bake for 25 minutes or until risen and firm to the touch. Cool slightly on a wire rack, but honestly these are really best served warm and eaten the same day.
NOTE: I’ve only given a rough weight for the fruit as punnet weights differ. 200g is an awful lot of blueberries, so if you prefer your muffins less fruity, cut it down to 150g. I used a 170g punnet of raspeberries this morning and it was the perfect amount.
So when I originally commented in a rather rude fashion about SingleParentDad’s use of fairy cake packet mixes, I wasn’t sure he’d take my step-by-step muffin challenge all that seriously. And then when Laura from Are We Nearly There Yet Mummy (of the self-confessed ‘ovenly challenged’ variety), decided to throw down the gauntlet (or should that be oven glove and challenge him to a full-on ’Muffin off’, I knew we were in for a bit of fun. Here are the results, then. First of all, we have SingleParentDad‘s offerings:
And here are lovely Laura‘s small but beautifully formed chocky chippy wonders:
Each, as I’m sure you’ll agree, have their own merits. So now it’s over to you. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to visit Laura’s blog (click here) and Single Parent Dad’s blog (click here) (SPD should possibly have points deducted for entitling his offering ‘Muff Munching’ however – not very Disney that, is it), read their full muffin posts, and then decide who is the winner. This blog will self-destruct in three…two….one….
So it’s come to my attention that Single Parent Dad uses packet fairy cake mixes. *Gasp*
When I recovered from the shock, I promised to do him a little step-by-step guide and he, in turn, promised to take photographic evidence for us all to have a good laugh at to prove that he’d really made them. Just so happens that I have a spanking new bottle of something called Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Bean Paste nabbed in the fantastic Williams Sonoma on our recent trek with Disney’s Sarah (Mary Poppins) round the biggest mall in the world, somewhere in Florida:
Here yiz are, then, SPD:
Firstly for the ingredients:
You will need:
And here’s how to do it:
…it looks yucky but don’t worry, just whisk with a fork or something until it’s all combined.
Oh and if you have Mickeys that you stole from a Disney resort, so much the better:
And that’s it. Good luck, SPD. We’ll be waiting for your results.
So, chocolate muffins, then. I make them more times than I care to admit to and, as a dabbler, tend to add at least one extra little something: some chopped white chocolate, maybe, or some orange zest… dried cherries are surprisingly nice… sometimes I’ll decorate them with ganache, or just melted chocolate, and sometimes I just leave them alone and unadorned. This version came about after making muffins and wishing there was something else I could pipe onto them apart from buttercream, which I love, but Hubby detests. So first up for the muffins, you’ll need:
170g butter, softened
170g caster sugar
115g self raising flour
55g cocoa powder
So preheat the oven to 180/gas 4 and beat together the butter and sugar until they’re really light and fluffy. Add in the eggs one at a time, beating really well after each addition, then sieve the flour and cocoa into the bowl and fold them in gently. If the mixture’s a bit thick, add a slosh of milk.
Put paper muffin cups into the holes of a muffin tray and put a tablespoon of the mixture into each one (it should make about 12). Bake them for about 15/20 minutes until the centre springs back up when you push it with your finger. Leave them to cool on a wire rack:
Now, get cracking on the meringue:
Take a really clean bowl and whisk up two egg whites until they’re really stiff (yes, yes, you can do the ‘holding the bowl over someone’s head’ thing if you like). Now whisk in 115g of caster sugar one tablespoon at a time, whisking really well between each spoonful until the meringue is thick and glossy.
Now comes the fun bit. Preheat the grill to medium and then you can just dollop the meringue on top of the muffins, or you can crack open the piping kit (yay!) and pipe little swirls of meringue over the muffins. Once they’ve been piped, it’s your prerogative as Head Chef to pipe the rest of the meringue straight into your mouth. Now just let them heat gently under the grill until they’re kind of golden with a few darker tips – watch them carefully as they burn really easily. BTW: If you’re worried about eating raw eggs, you could always pipe them onto greaseproof paper on a baking tray, then bake them in a really low oven, and just stick them on top of the muffins with a spoonful of whipped cream. Yum. I was also thinking these would be lovely made without the cocoa (make up the difference with flour) and with a tsp or two of vanilla extract, then you could even add a hint of pink food colouring into the meringue – fab for a girly party.
And there you have it. Gorgeous, gooey meringue and rich chocolate cake. A mixture, I think you’ll agree, made in heaven. As I always say, there aren’t many things in this life that can’t be improved with a big dollop of meringue.
So this week, Mr Lovely (D next door’s brother in law – it’s all so incestuous round these parts) turned 40. Mrs L has been, somewhat reluctantly it has to be said, planning a big party and we had a little brainstorming evening to sort out the finer details. Seeing as Mr L is a fireman, it made sense for someone to bake a fire engine cake. Mrs Lovely didn’t volunteer. Neither did I. It turned into a bit of a staring contest and then we decided that we’d pursue other avenues – both of us being severely cack-handed in the cake decorating department. We were chatting about cupcake towers and the like and looking on the internerd when it dawned: cupcakes…loads and loads of little cupcakes each decorated with a teeny fire engine. Mrs Lovely vowed to have a crack at a fire engine cake too. The nutter.
Saturday morning dawned, then, and I started on the cupcakes. While I baked batches of 24, passing children were enlisted to help melt chocolate and whisk ganache and stick on the little rice paper/icing cake-toppers that Mrs L ordered and had delivered to her sister in the UK, along with a big list of other baking stuff that’s hard to find here (she got stopped coming through customs with a big block of royal icing – ‘no officer, it’s not semtex – honest’). We decided to stick to vanilla cupcakes with white chocolate ganache, and chocolate cupcakes with dark chocolate. But honestly, after a while, it all kind of got a bit confused and anyone that happened to have made a bowl of ganache dolloped it on the nearest available cakes.
So for the vanilla cupcakes, then, you need
125g caster sugar (vanilla sugar if you have it)
1 tsp vanilla extract (leave out for the chocolate ones)
2 large eggs
125g self raising flour (replace a heaped tbsp with cocoa for chocolate ones)
Couple of tbsp milk
Firstly, try to make sure everything is at room temperature. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, add the vanilla extract and then the eggs, beating well after each addition. Don’t worry if it curdles – that’s such an old wives tale – just add some of the flour and carry on. Then gently fold in the flour (if you beat the hell out of it you won’t get a lovely light sponge) and lastly the milk – just enough to make the batter plop softly off a tablespoon into the cupcake paper. Bake at 180/gas 4 for about 18 minutes until golden – they should spring back when lightly pressed. Cool on a wire rack. This amount will make about 12 cupcakes. Remember you don’t want them too high, or the ganache won’t completely cover them.
For the ganache:
200g bar white chocolate
2 tbsp icing sugar
About 100ml double cream
Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water (don’t let it spit everywhere as you risk getting water in the chocolate, in fact, once it’s boiled just turn it off – the chocolate will still melt). When just melted, take it off the heat and sieve in the icing sugar. Gently start to whisk that in, then while you’re whisking, pour in the cream until you have a thick, glossy bowlful – about the same consistency as melted chocolate. Pour a generous tablespoon of it over each cupcake – ideally so that it just about reaches the top of the paper case. Then just leave them naked or decorate with whatever you like: mad, printed cake toppers…grated chocolate… a big swirl of whipped cream… jelly beans… whatever.
Multiply that recipe by about 8, blow up your food mixer, scoff any disasters, make a few more and there you have it. A 100 cupcake birthday extravaganza. Happy birthday, Mr Lovely! Oh, and she never did make that fire engine cake, y’know. Great party though.
Every year, Hubby gets all demanding about mince pies, requiring a constant supply, especially of these little beauties which are an adaptation of his favourite childhood treat, his Ma’s Pastry Jammy Cakey Things. Obviously because these ones contain mincemeat rather than jam they had to be renamed, but still, I think it’s quite a catchy title don’t you? Now I know I’ve done these before, but I’ve twiddled the recipe (as usual) and I thought I’d do you a little festive step by step. On your marks, then:
First, for the pastry. I’m always messing with my pastry recipe, but I really think this one is the best so far, and the Mince Pie Monster agrees, so it must be okay.
200g plain flour
150g cold butter
2 tbsp caster sugar
About 2 tbsp cold water
So pop the pinch of salt into the flour, then cut the butter into teeny squares, and gently rub the butter into the flour until it’s breadcrumby. Stir in the sugar, then add in the cold water until it just comes together. Hubby’s Ma taught me that the best way with pastry is to keep it as dry as humanly possible. You’ll think it’s too dry, but actually when you squish it, it’ll stay together. Preheat your oven to 180/gas 4 while you remember.
Roll it out and cut out 12 circles with a pastry cutter. Gently pop the circles into the bottoms of 12 muffin cases:
Next blob a teaspoon or so of mincemeat into each little pastry case:
Leave them somewhere cool while you whip up a quick sponge mix (if you’re making lots, make it 170g/3 eggs):
115g caster sugar
115g self raising flour
1tsp vanilla extract
Cream the butter and sugar until really light and fluffy, then add in the vanilla extract, then the eggs, beating after each one. Now gently fold in the flour. If the mixture’s a bit stiff (this’ll depend on the size of your eggs), add a splash or two of milk. So now blob a spoonful of your cake mix on top of each mince pie:
Mix a teaspoon of sugar with half a teaspoon of cinnamon and sprinkle a little pinch on each cake, for added festiveness, and to fill your house with the gorgeous seasonal scent of cinnamon. Then just whack them in the oven for about 20 to 25 minutes and you’ll be delighted to discover a light muffin with a pastry base and a little mincemeat surprise in the middle.
Nice one, Nanny.
So we woke up this morning to the wonderful smell of baking. ‘Mmmm’, I thought, ‘I love baking in the morning’. Then, ‘that’s strange, though’, I thought after that, ‘I’m baking and yet I’m still in bed’. Of course, it was the smalls in the kitchen: Head Chef #1 was knocking up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, ably assisted by his slightly grumpy Sous Chef, #2. And very nice cookies they were too, except… ‘they need a bit more butter’. ‘What?’, says #1, ‘why? They seem perfect to me’. ‘Meh’, says I, ‘I just think they’d be nicer a bit more buttery. Whose recipe did you use?’. ‘Yours’, said the little sod, with just a small hint of triumph.
But that’s the thing about cooking, you see. Nothing’s ever quite perfect is it? Take my Bounty Cake. I was so pleased with the result, I thought I’d try and make a chocolate version, but when I replaced the coconut with cocoa, the result was all horrible and powdery. Back to the drawing board then. So anyhoo, no, you’re not getting the cookie recipe just yet as it obviously needs a bit of tinkering. Instead, I’ll let you into the secret of my chocolate chip muffins. I make hundreds of these, often for breakfast. My thinking being that I’d rather have my children eating something homemade in the morning, than some fat-soaked cereal bar, the ingredients of which I don’t even understand, let alone approve of. The recipe for these, then, has been tinkered to death, and I’m pretty sure it’s foolproof:
200g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g granulated sugar
50g muscovado or dark brown sugar
100g butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g dark chocolate, chopped
So get your oven on to about 190 degrees, gas 5, and put a dozen of those little paper muffin cups into a muffin tin. Sieve the flour, baking powder and bicarb together, then stir in the sugars.
In another bowl, whisk the eggs with a fork, then add the melted butter, milk and vanilla, whisk briefly to combine them, then pour this into the dry stuff. Add the chocolate, then remember the golden muffin rule: mix as briefly as possible until everything is just combined.
Put a spoonful in each paper muffin thingy, then bake then for about 20 minutes or so, until they spring back to the touch and they’re a lovely golden brown.
Give them a try. Oh, and feel free to burst my bubble if they’re a horrible failure for you, though. Nobody’s perfect, eh?
On Sunday, I made Bill Granger’s banana and butterscotch pudding. Okay, so I admit, I left out the ‘banana and’ bit when I was telling #2 what it was, but he sussed right away. As I was making the custard I was mulling over what gorgeous stuff custard powder is. Remember those yummy rhubarb and custard sweets? So then last night, as I was lying in bed (I know, I know…) I thought ooh, I wonder if you could make rhubarb and custard muffins? But not having any rhubarb handy, I settled on pears. And the result is pretty darn good, even if I say so myself.
So remember, as usual, the Golden Muffin Rule: get your ingredients ready before you start, and don’t over mix. If you can still see a teeny bit of flour, it’s just right.
8 oz plain flour
2 tablespoons custard powder (not instant custard!)
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
4 oz caster sugar
2 oz brown sugar
6 fl oz milk
Â½ tsp vanilla essence
1 egg, beaten
4 oz butter, melted
1 large ripe pear: peeled, cored and diced into teeny squares.
Sieve the flour, custard powder, baking powder and salt, then add the sugars (as usual you can use any sugar you like, I like the toffeeness of brown sugar in it). Just melt your butter in a jug in the microwave, then mix in the milk, vanilla and beaten egg and stir into the dry stuff. Don’t forget to add in your diced pear here (remember the GMR – a lighter hand gives a lighter result). The smell of the custard powder when you’re mixing is just gorgeous. Divide into 12 large muffin cases. It’s also quite nice if you sprinkle the tops with crunchy sugar, but I forgot.
Bake for about 15 – 20 minutes, depending on the size, at 200 degrees, then serve warm to fully appreciate the moist custardy interior studded with little pearly bits of pear….mmmmmmm.
So you know my sneakiness knows no bounds, but while #2 continues to refuse everything healthy apart from carrot sticks, frozen peas and the odd apple I need to keep one step ahead. Breakfast is a particular problem, as he hates milk and smoothies make him gag (we made raspberry and mango ones yesterday and they were absolutely gorgeous – he tried a sip but no, same result: think Dean Gaffney on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’). Tea is slightly easier, I made spaghetti the other day and used the same tomato sauce I make for pizza and he did eat that, but grudgingly. So in order to stave off rickets or mange or whatever it is malnourished children get, I figured even a little healthy stuff is good, even if it’s disguised with chocolate, and these little babies even surprised me.
8 oz plain flour
1 oz dark cocoa powder (I used Green & Blacks)
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
6 oz brown sugar
6 fl oz milk
1 egg, beaten
4 oz butter, melted
Large handful dates, stoned
4 oz dark chocolate, chopped
So, as usual with the muffins, sieve your flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt, then add the sugar. The darker the sugar the more toffee-ish the end result. Now here’s the sneaky bit. Take a big handful of the dates, and whiz them in the blender with the milk until they’re unrecognisable. Then melt your butter in a jug in the microwave, mix in the date/milk mixture and the beaten egg and stir into the dry stuff. Remember, the less you mix, the lighter the result. Finally, bung in the chopped chocolate. A couple of ounces of walnuts would be a good addition here, too. Give them a hint of a stir to combine, then divide into 12 muffin cases. I found that you get a large serving spoonful in each one.
Bake for about 25 minutes at 200 degrees, then serve warm, explaining that the little glistening golden pieces in the muffin are toffee (they do taste remarkably toffee-like, well, that’s what you use to make sticky toffee pudding, right?). Oh and remember, lying in a maternal, nutritionally responsible way isn’t really lying at all.