It’s been asked of me before, and I have no doubt it will be again: What’s the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? I’ll give you the same answer I always give: frosting. And that’s about it. The ingredients are almost identical—butter, flour, eggs, sugar, etc.—they come in a familiar one-size-fits-most shape and size, and minus that mop of frosting, could easily be mistaken for one another in a police lineup. All that to say, muffins are really just a good excuse to eat cake for breakfast which, if you know me, you know I am all for.
Muffins are humble. They don’t need to put on a show to get your attention in the pastry case and they know how hard it is to turn it on first thing in the morning. But what they lack in flash, they make up for in low-key satisfaction and can do-it-ness. They don’t need fondant, or sprinkles, or meringue to get the job done. In fact, we’ve done everything we can think of to dress them down in order to sell them as a morning meal. They’re cake dressed in business casual.
We’ve substituted some of the fat in muffins for mushy produce like banana or mashed avocado. We’ve added large amounts of shredded vegetables (carrots, zucchini) in an effort to pack in a “whole serving of fruits and/or vegetables!” We’ve swapped in as much whole grain flour as we could without just selling paper liners full of Metamucil. We’ve ground up nuts and seeds and bound them together with egg replacer. We’ve bulked up muffins with as much bran as the eggs could bind only to end up with leaden molasses-colored pucks that require a startling amount of butter to make them palatable.
It’s a noble pursuit this healthy muffin-making but it’s not worth it. Let’s just admit that we like cake for breakfast and enjoy it. I’m not proposing we do anything insane like put Nutella on top of a blueberry muffin. (Nutella is not a breakfast food, but that’s another opinion piece.) I’m just saying let’s be honest and keep it simple.
With that I present you with a pretty great basic muffin. Nothing fancy here: butter, flour, an egg, some fruit. I did cut the white sugar with a little brown sugar. You know why? Because I ran out of granulated and that’s what I had in the cupboard, but you can use all white sugar if you have it. I folded in some frozen blueberries (that’s what was in the freezer) but you could use any frozen or fresh berry that you have on hand or you could fold in chopped firm bananas or apples, pears or walnuts or raisins. You get the idea.
Some suggestions for swap-ins and outs:
You can substitute up to a quarter (that’s ½ cup in this scenario) of the all-purpose flour for an alternative flour of your choice and still end up with a tasty muffin that stands up straight in the tin. Almond flour, spelt, or some other pulverized ancient grain will work. These flours add great nutty flavor and make it look like you know tens of muffin recipes off the top of your head when you only know this one.
A cup and a half of anything that holds its shape will work folded into this batter. That includes most fruits, dried or fresh, as long as they’re not too ripe or watery, so no cantaloupe or kiwi. Coarsely chopped nuts (preferably toasted) are excellent, as are a combination of the two. Try strawberry pistachio, or—duh—banana and walnut.
Add up to 2 teaspoons of dried spices—cinnamon or freshly grated nutmeg; cardamom in small doses—or a teaspoon of finely grated lemon or orange zest. My sister’s mother-in-law makes this unbelievably delicious “Five Flavors Pound Cake” and it has a teaspoon each of vanilla, almond, coconut, lemon, rum, and butter extracts (which I know is six flavors but that’s not the point). If you are so bold, you could try that, but I’d start at about ¼ teaspoon each of those considering the smallish amount of muffin batter. Her name is Lorine and I can give you her address for the thank you notes.
Sometimes I sprinkle quick breads with a layer of sugar before baking. It gives the exterior a crispy sweet crunchy topping that has people literally asking “What’s on top of this?!” It’s fun to tell them it’s just sugar and watch their heads explode. So, sprinkle with sugar—raw or granulated—or use this basic ratio for streusel topping: 1 part butter : 1 part sugar : 2 parts flour; squeeze together in your fingers until crumbly and sprinkle on top of muffins before baking. Don’t tell anyone I told you that.
Pretty Basic Muffins
- Yields: 12 muffins
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 12-cup standard muffin tin with paper liners (or coat with nonstick spray and dust with flour).
Whisk baking powder, salt, and 2 cups flour together in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat butter and both sugars together in a large bowl on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add egg and beat to combine, scraping down sides of bowl; beat in vanilla.
With mixer on low, add dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with milk, and beginning and ending with dry ingredients, beating to combine after each addition. Scrape down sides of bowl as necessary and beat to combine.
Toss berries with remaining 2 teaspoons flour until coated; fold berries into batter. Divide batter among prepared muffin cups and bake, rotating tin halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25–30 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.
Note: Muffins will keep, tightly covered at room temperature, for 2 days.