Monday, November 9, 2009

#12 - English Muffins

The Magnificent English Muffin

Just Look at Those Beauties!

In 1988, when my son, Matthew, was but a toddler and I a stay-at-home mom, I had a very small baking business, which consisted of one order. But that one order was a tall one: two gross per week of my stellar English muffins that had delighted my friends and family. And just like the episode of the I Love Lucy Show where her friends and family convince Lucy she should prepare and market "Aunt Martha's Old-Fashioned Salad Dressing," my business was born.

It was great fun! I baked twice a week, and while the paycheck was small, I derived a great deal of satisfaction from the act of the baking itself as well as knowing other people were enjoying these marvelous treats. My family was happy because there were always English muffins in the larder, and they got the added bonus of my homemade strawberry jam to spread on top.

The best story of all, though, involved our beloved Julia Child. Most of us who consider cooking and baking an avocation were inspired and influenced by Julia. During my English muffin phase, Julia's The Way to Cook was published. She came to town for a book signing. I could not believe my luck! I was going to get a chance to meet the icon herself! I arranged for a sitter for my son, by now, two years old, and took my older child, Cate, with me to meet her. Naturally, I tucked a box of English muffins under my arm. Included in the box was a note to Julia handwritten from me telling me how much I admired her style, how much she had inspired me, and that "I am the cook I am today because of you."

Meeting Julia was a kick! She was exactly as she appeared to be: affable, charming, and fun-loving. She patted the box of muffins not unlike I had seen her pat that awful monkfish on one of her PBS TV shows, saying, or should I say (her descriptor) warbling, "Oh boy! Goody- goody gumdrops. Homemade English muffins! I'm so glad to see a small cottage industry like this."

As you can imagine, I floated out of the bookstore and had to take a walk around the village of La Jolla for a while before I trusted myself to drive. Though only six at the time, my daughter, who had watched Julia with me since she could remember, was also very excited to meet this larger than life persona.

A few weeks later, I was stunned to find a letter from Julia herself in my mailbox. In it, she asked me how I got the muffins to be cooked all the way through without burning them. Can't you just see my jaw dropping? I answered her letter, explaining my procedure, and she answered that letter too! What a down-to-earth gracious woman. And, of course, I still have both letters.

Nearly 20 years later, when Julia died, it was my daughter, Cate, who called to tell me. It was as if a favorite aunt had died; we were both grief-stricken.

All of that is to say that I never would have tried my hand with this bread were it not for this challenge. I thought I had the perfect formula, but I was wrong. This one far surpasses it! The crust is better, the crumb superb, and the taste unparalleled. I think the breakthrough that Peter Reinhart discovered was the final baking in the oven after their preliminary dance on the griddle. Brilliant! That one little procedure eliminates the problem of the English muffin baking experience. Even if they are just a tad underdone, there is only one thing to do - deposit them directly into the trash and start over. If you try to cook them further, they become dry and tough. This method is foolproof, especially using the thermometer to test the interior temperature, as he also recommends.

I made two batches - one using white flour and the other using half whole wheat. While I liked the whole wheat, the muffins using white flour exclusively were superior in taste. This will be my go to formula for this bread from now on, and while I no longer bake these for profit, I still make them from time to time.

Whole Wheat Muffins Rising

Both Varieties Cooling on the Racks


  1. That's just how I'd imagine Julia Child to be. What a sweet story. Glad to hear that PR's english muffins will be your go-to recipe from now on.

  2. Oh wow! What a touching story. I knew about Julia, but was too young to appreciate her way back when. I was also puzzled by the final baking in the oven, but it worked wonderfully. Your muffins look yummy.

  3. What a wonderful story! It's nice to hear that Julia Child was as nice "in real life" as one would imagine and hope. I was never a big follower, but after seeing "Julie and Julia" I have a new-found appreciation.

    I also love that you have the benefit of comparison with this bread. Never having made them before, I wouldn't know the difference, although I found them to be utterly delicious.

    Thank you for sharing your story, and the muffins look oerfect!