Monday, February 11, 2013



The sky was dark and gloomy, the air was damp and raw, the streets were wet and sloppy. 
The smoke hung sluggishly above the chimney-tops as if it lacked the courage to rise, 
and the rain came slowly and doggedly down, 
as if it had not even the spirit to pour. 
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers 

While the wild, furious winter carpets the northeast with snow, as my distant friends awake to yet another morning of white silence, backyards and front stoops buried beneath glorious mounds of icy brilliance, I stand in the rain under gloomy, sluggish gray skies. Again. Not one to let that hamper my mood, I channel my inner housewife and decide that nothing sparks the baking flame like a rainy day.
Inner housewife aside, there is nothing that brings out the child in me quite like homebaked cranberry muffins. Delicate cakey muffins, just sweet enough (but not too much), dotted with deep garnet berries that burst on the tongue in a clap of fruity tartness much like the anticipated yet unexpected clap of thunder that shivers the skies. I pull out that long-ago recipe learned in the Girl Scouts or junior high Home Ec, a recipe that made me utterly once and for all fall in love with baking. And succeeded in mortifying me, making me feel completely incompetent. You see, a recipe perfectly executed under the watchful eye of teacher or Scout leader, a treat so perfect that I wanted nothing more than to rush home and duplicate the recipe for my family, somehow got flipped and shuffled around in my soft and tender young head once on my own. That original recipe, still stuck away somewhere among my youthful jottings, scratched down in my loopy grade school cursive, called for three tablespoons of Crisco. Yes, you see it coming, don’t you? By the time I gathered the ingredients and found a free afternoon to bake, in my eagerness and enthusiasm, overflowing with self-confidence, those three tablespoons became three cups.

 Years of Innocence

I pulled the tin from the oven and, much to my horror and dismay, discovered tiny muffin tops floating in a sea of grease. Alas. The experience dampened my enthusiasm, much like the weather that rages outside my windows. My brother – the brother with whom I spent Sunday afternoons pulling taffy across the kitchen expanse or pouring boiling sesame-studded caramel into parchment-lined pans for candy, the brother with whom I baked my first yeast breads - peered at the mess over my shoulder and comforted me in his own brotherly way. He told me not to give up, he urged me to just start the whole project over again.

Over the years, I have reconstructed the recipe, searched and adapted new recipes and developed the one I now make every single winter season, come rain or come shine. Oddly enough, this is one treat that all three of my men, each one more persnickety than the next, absolutely love. The tender cake is not too sweet, and this one I kicked up with the fragrance of winter’s orange. I added a handful or two of coarsely chopped pecans for the bite and doused the whole with a cinnamon-sugar topping just before sliding the tin into the oven. And once the scent of those homely, fabulous muffins fills the house, the men stop what they are doing and wander into the kitchen, expectations high. And we forget the rain and gloom, forget the endless chain of dreary days, forget the misery and boredom of being stuck inside the house, huddled together in front of the tv or laptops.

In the country, the rain would have developed a thousand fresh scents, 
and every drop would have had its bright association with some beautiful form of growth or life. 
In the city, it developed only foul stale smells, 
and was a sickly, lukewarm, dirt-stained, wretched addition to the gutters. 
Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit 

Makes 12 muffins

8 Tbs (115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 g) sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
2 cups (260 g) flour
2 tsps baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup (125 ml) milk
1 ½ - 2 cups fresh cranberries, thawed if frozen
½ - 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
Tbs sugar + 1 tsp ground cinnamon mixture for topping, optional

Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a 12-muffin tin with cupcake papers or grease them well.

Coarsely chop the pecans. Pick over the cranberries and discard any rotten berries; slice any large cranberries in half. Zest the orange.

In a mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Briefly beat or stir in the vanilla and the orange zest.

Stir the flour, baking powder and salt together. Add the dry ingredients into the creamed batter in 3 additions alternating with the milk added in 2: dry-wet-dry-wet-dry, beating briefly but well after each addition. Do not overbeat.

Using a large spatula, fold the cranberries and pecans into the batter until evenly distributed.

Spoon the batter evenly into the 12 muffin cups. Don’t worry if they are mounded above the edge of the cups, this batter is firm enough that they will rise up and not spill over. Sprinkle the top of each muffin with the cinnamon-sugar mixture if desired.

Bake the muffins for 30 minutes until risen, the top golden; a tester inserted in the center of a muffin should come out clean. Remove from the oven and carefully lift each muffin out of the pan and transfer to a cooling rack to cool. (Use a small sharp knife or kabob spike to lift them up out of the tin so as to avoid burning fingers)


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Lovely muffins! This is a winning combination.

Here, everything is covered with a thick (15-20cm) coat of snow...



Jill Colonna said...

I hear you with the rain. How much more can we have? It has been virtually every day since October - yesterday was sleet. Totally identify with you going back to cosy thoughts of childhood and keeping in the warm and these muffins do look comforting. Love the photo of you - you haven't changed much at all, Jamie!

Amanda said...

Oh, I can almost smell these! I had a wee baking binge yesterday which was just as well as the temperatures will be creeping up again here, this week.Although, I suppose you don't really want to hear that. ;-)

Paula @ Vintage Kitchen said...

Perfect old fashioned muffins Jamie! I might make them with blueberries, since cranberries are unknown here, especially fresh. Some days I envy rain or snow, our tÂș doesn´t go below 90F, on good days.

Nisrine said...

What beautiful muffins. Fresh cranberries are so wonderful for baking.

Elizabeth said...

3 cups?! Oh my! (I know it's wrong to laugh at the misfortunes of others but, but, but, well... you have solicited it.)

These muffins sound wonderful! And us with no oranges in sight and me too lazy to slog through the slush to the store to get some. Maybe tomorrow....

Substitute "slush" for "mud" in this passage from Bleak House (I think this might be my favourite of Dickens' openings) and you'll get the picture of our streets right now:

"As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest."

The anti-robot image appears to have been dredged in rain and mud. I hope I get it right.

tasteofbeirut said...

These are my favorite muffins, or sweet bread; I made a similar recipe once with yogurt instead of milk. You have such a kind bro, lucky girl!

lisa is cooking said...

This reminds me of the time I miss counted sticks of butter and ended up with two cups instead of one cup in a cake batter. Now, I double-check and triple-check the recipe and my quantities! What a great recipe to keep and adapt over the years. The current version sounds delicious.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful muffins! I served them with a chicken salad with green grapes for a beautiful Ladies' Lunch. They were delicious, pretty and will become a go-to for a special breakfast, too.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Oh, Jamie, I'm flashing back to my own early misadventures in baking. While you recovered from yours and persevered, I became a bake-o-phobe and have turned to other forms of culinary expression. I must admit that these muffins would be perfect here in snow-covered Rhode Island.

Ivy said...

These muffins look delicious. I tried cranberries only once and it's a pity we don't find them in Greece except the dried ones. Last week the weather was beautiful but unfortunately I spent it in bed and today it's cold, windy and raining.

David @ Frenchie and the Yankee said...

Oh I love this combination so much! Bookmarked! :)

Barbara Bakes said...

Sounds like a perfect muffin. I need to bake it soon.

Kate@Diethood said...

I bake like a mad woman on rainy days! :)
Nothing beats the orange/cranberry combination ... so yummy good!!

Lisa said...

I had a good laugh at the 3 cups of Crisco because I did something similar, but NOT as a child. Let's just say 1 lb of butter instead of 1 stick. I vowed never to bake when I hadn't had enough sleep, EVER.again. These muffins look moist, tender and lovely. It's a shame I only started liking cranberries recently. xo

Meeta K. Wolff said...

Oh my! 3 cups of Crisco ... but we all went through this ... the mistakes makes us who are and learn from them. Now look at you the Sauciest baking Goddess if there ever was one!

Jeanne said...

LOL - I've done that before - too much shortening is an absolute killer from which there can be no recovery... You've come a long way, baby! I also made a version of these back in 2009, although with dried cranberries - such an awesome flavour combo :)

Jamie said...

@Jeanne: Oh I will check out your recipe! Thanks for sharing. But I want to see you in a short green Scout outfit, too.


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