I grew up in a home where breakfast was “catch as catch can”. From the tender age of 5 or 6, as early as I can remember, we were on our own. Stumbling out of bed and into the kitchen in our jammies, we were in charge of rifling through the multitude of boxes of cereal, grabbing down a bowl and pouring the milk, washing bowl and spoon then scooting off to get dressed then hopping onto our bike and pedaling off to school, lunch money or brown paper lunch sack in hand, all on our lonesome. Though never homemade, the breakfast choice was indeed great: we could go the honorable route and opt for a bowl of Raisin Bran or Cornflakes or fall into the sweet trap, pouring out a generous helping of Cap’n Crunch, Fruit Loops or Cocoa Krispies (or Count Chocula, depending on the year, and the first one to open the box got the prize!). Who worried about balanced meals or cavities back then? All that mattered was that our tummies were full and our sugar level high. If we so desired, we could rip open a packet of instant oatmeal in a rainbow variety if flavors, and have something hot, but a small kid or, later on, a teen, was rarely in the mood for this kind of cooking! Weekends were long, slow and lazy and the choice usually turned to Pop Tarts, chocolate frosted or unfrosted cherry warm from the toaster and slathered with salted butter, or maybe two slices of cinnamon toast. Either way, we were on our own, everyone in the house, and there were six of us, responsible for his or herself and rarely, if ever, bumping into another during those wee pre-school mornings.
Mom, as I have claimed many a time, did not like cooking. Dinner she dutifully had on the table every evening at 6 on the nose, but breakfast and lunch she relinquished early on, brushed her hands of, so to speak, whatever she knew we could take care of ourselves. She never doubted that we would eat, worried not that we’d leave for school on an empty stomach and rarely thought to ask. Yes, she did make that occasional pot of steaming hot oatmeal on a chilly winter Sunday morning, but I just cannot remember a time when we all sat down to enjoy breakfast together as a family. Dad was up and breakfasting literally at the crack of dawn in order to join his carpool at 6:30 every day of the week, and one or the other of us managed to pass him in the kitchen of a morning, but I cannot imagine that mom ever dragged herself out of bed to join him for the meal. And heaven forbid she ever play the June Cleaver and get out of bed, doll herself up and rush off to fix him scrabbled eggs and toasted English muffins at 5:30!
Early on, JP and I got in the habit, the rhythm of always eating breakfast together. Maybe this was something that came from his side of the family, but for whatever reason, we always enjoyed sharing this quiet, early-morning meal together. For many years we were joined by both sons. Whether Milan, Nerviano or Sucy-en-Brie, breakfast was a family affair. A warm kitchen, the wonderful, inviting aroma of coffee and a table spread out with everyone’s favorite treats. Store bought, but treats all the same. Weekends would call for a trip to the neighborhood pasticceria for sweet rolls or cream- or jam-filled brioche, or the boulangerie for croissants and a warm, soft baguette viennoise. We could be sure that the boys ate enough and drank a tall glass of milk or a warm mug of cocoa and we could have cozy family time, starting the day off with a smile.
As the boys grew older, times and schedules changed, as JP left earlier and earlier for work and children evolved into teens, breakfast became our private quiet time, JP and I alone, sitting in the still chilly kitchen waiting for the heating to kick on and the coffee to drip, the sky dark and mysterious through the slats of the shutters. We had time to chat alone about the boys, work, life. We would listen to the fox and her newborn kits mewling under the diningroom in Sucy or the rats scratching around outside in Nerviano, the hotel waking up outside our apartment in Milan and we shared just a little peace and quiet at the beginning of our day.
And we still do. Whether at 7 on a normal day, earlier when he has to catch a train or a bit later on the weekend, we pop (well, “pop” is rather a strong word for that early in the morning, more like “roll and stagger”) out of bed and one of us starts the coffee. In our busy, busy lives, when Clem is either up and out early or in bed until we’ve already finished lunch, when Simon is living his own schedule and grumpy until noon and I can never be sure if JP will make it home for lunch or what time he’ll walk in the door in the evening, when Simon will decide that he’s off to eat junk food with his friends late in the afternoon or Clem will just not show up at all, breakfast is our one sure thing. The house is quiet, the city is just waking up, even Marty is too tired to crawl out of bed and come see what’s going on, and we are alone in the world. I have always wondered if our finding this time together, sharing breakfast and a laugh every morning isn’t the glue that has kept our marriage together.
I love baking things just for breakfast. Sweet quick breads, cookies, cakes or muffins, easy, cozy, homey treats that everyone loves. I was in the mood for muffins this week and as berries are currently out of season, I knew that chocolate chips would be the mystery ingredient. Mmmm. I had half a bottle of thick, fresh buttermilk in the refrigerator that I knew I wanted to use. Buttermilk gives such wonderful texture to cakes. And cinnamon, that perfect companion for chocolate, to add a dash of warmth. And just enough grated orange zest to give a subtle hint of citrus to freshen it up. I found a recipe on the Joy of Baking website and doodled around a bit until I had what I wanted. I created these wonderful Chocolate Chip Muffins, 6 large heart-shaped muffins for my love, almost 2-dozen tiny mini muffins for the sons. The top gave a slight crunch, the inside crumb tender and delicate. Tiny chocolate chips, a hint of orange and cinnamon all made for the perfect muffin, not too sweet, not overpowering, just perfect.
As soon as they were out of the oven, I lost half the mini muffins to a hungry, persnickety teenager who, after scarfing down a platterful of these babies, washed down with half a container of milk, explained that he couldn’t find anything else to eat for lunch so he ate muffins. Just goes to show you how delicious these muffins are.
I also baked these Chocolate Chip Muffins for my Monthly Mingle Bread & Chocolate, and event created by my friend Meeta.
CHOCOLATE CHIP BUTTERMILK MUFFINS
Adapted from a Joy of Baking recipe
1 ½ cups (325 g) flour
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
2 tsps baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground cinnamon *
Finely grated zest of ½ to 1 orange, to taste
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¾ cup (180 ml) buttermilk
2/3 cup (160 ml) vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
¾ cup (about 75 g) mini chocolate chips
* if you prefer, eliminate the orange zest and increase the cinnamon to ½ tsp
Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly grease or line with paper cupcake cups either 12 regular-sized cupcake tins or a variation, as you like (2 dozen or so mini cups or 6 jumbo).
Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and orange zest in a large mixing bowl and whisk to blend. Stir in the chocolate chips.
Combine the egg, buttermilk, oil and vanilla in a large measuring cup or a bowl and whisk until well blended.
Using a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon, stir and fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and the batter is well blended and smooth. Do not over beat or over mix as this can lead to a tougher muffin.
Fill each muffin cup ¾ full and bake for about 20 minutes (time may vary depending on your oven and the size of the muffins) until the muffins are puffed, golden and set and a tester inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.
Remove the muffins from the oven and carefully lift each muffin out of the tin and allow to cool on a rack.