You know I absolutely love baking, and one of the recipes I’ve been trying to perfect for ages is for proper American style double chocolate muffins. American style muffins tend to be denser and less sweet than cupcakes, and I wanted to make ones that really erupt out of the case like the muffins you buy in bakeries in America. After a fair bit of twiddling, I’m pretty sure I’m there with this one. Oil definitely seems to work better than butter (no, me neither), and as usual with muffins, you need to remember the golden muffin rule: wet into dry and mix as little as you can possibly get away with to avoid developing the gluten (nobody wants a tough muffin). Don’t use huge muffin cases either – you want to fill the cases about 2/3 full so you get the proper volcano-erupting shape.
Recently, an enormous box arrived at English Towers with a lovely note from the folks at Kenwood: ‘we know you love cooking, so would you like this beautiful Kenwood Chef Elite?’ Seriously generous, right? But I didn’t rush to open it, because, well, I’ve got a mixer already that I’ve had for ages and love, and on the box it looks all complicated and new-fangled, not homely and quirky like mine. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, though, and because everyone kept complaining that there was a huge box on the kitchen floor, I opened it up and popped it onto the kitchen counter. Well. Cue choirs of angels singing and all that jazz, because this thing is beautiful. Seriously, I sent a pic to Mr E and he replied ‘erm, wow. It really goes in our kitchen’. To give it a thorough test, though, and make sure it has brains as well as beauty, I attempted some Christmas crumble muffins with my sleek and shiny new baby. Here’s how I got on:
You know me, I LOVE to bake. I go through spells of obsessing about things: recently it’s been fresh bread (including these yummy iced buns), all sorts of different flavoured brownies, and muffins, especially breakfasty ones. It’s funny how things change but at one stage the boys would happily scoff a big breakfast in the morning: eggs on toast, bacon sandwiches… that type of thing. Recently, they’re not as keen (probably because they’re always late) and I hate the thought of them going out into the world with empty stomachs. Bring on the breakfast muffin: easy grab and go food, and not too hideously bad for them (better than a McDonald’s breakfast, no doubt). I absolutely love the flavour combo of these fresh orange and dark chocolate muffins, although obviously you could add things like blueberries or chopped banana instead (I only add a scant 75g anyway).
You love doughnuts, right? Everyone loves doughnuts. But wait, you love muffins don’t you? Soft, fluffy and perfect breakfast fodder. So why not put them together? I’ve been fiddling about with this recipe for ages, and the boys are pretty sure that I’ve perfected the whole doughnut/muffin scenario, but the jammy bit had beaten me.
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:
Banana, oat and honey healthy muffins
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.
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