Of Time and the Muffin

The honourable gentleman made a speech which drew tears from the eyes of the ladies, and awakened the liveliest emotions in every individual present. He had visited the houses of the poor in the various districts of London, and had found them destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin…                         — Nicholas Nickleby

Some people campaign against the misuse of the word hopefully; some people feel strongly that leggings are not pants; some people advocate for world harmony. I personally am on the warpath about muffins.
Remember when muffins were bread instead of cake?*
This abstruse historical fact came to mind after I had expensively renovated a fireplace and then discovered the historical toasting forks in the pantry of my old family house. Toasting muffins! All the old muffin memories came flooding back. Remember when you put butter on muffins? Putting butter on a modern muffin would be like putting butter on cake. Actually it wouldn’t be like putting butter on cake; it would be putting butter on cake.
Muffins are the canary in the coal mine of modern American food practices. The canary is now the size of a chicken and imparts a sweet flavor. That is to say, over the past sixty years food in the United States has gotten enormously larger and sweeter.
I remember when “giant” muffins were first invented. They came into stores in the early 1980s, along with “giant” (now known as “regular size”) cookies six inches in diameter. The giant muffins were extravagant, outsized, comical. Look how much muffin! A whole meal of muffin!


Gargantuan commercial muffin, extra sugary

Gargantuan commercial muffin, extra sugary

Then, of course, they became normal. They were also sweeter than traditional muffins: much like gargantuan cupcakes with no frosting.
Since then they’ve grown even larger. Many muffins you buy in American coffee shops and supermarkets have a top as large as a dinner plate. In many instances they’ve also acquiring icing. The evolution to a cake variant is coming to its culmination.
But back to primordial muffins. Finding the toasting forks, I remembered the muffins of yore, those small, modest, only hintingly sweet muffins, and I determined to make some. The way to find an old-fashioned muffin recipe is to consult an old cookbook, in my case the 1946 Joy of Cooking, which was given to my mother as a wedding present.
In the 1946 Joy of Cooking, the regular muffin recipe calls for 2 cups of cake flour or 1 3/4 cups of bread flour, and 1/4 cup sugar, and makes 24 muffins.

1946 Joy of Cooking

1946 Joy of Cooking

The blueberry muffin recipe in the same book increases that to 1/3 cup sugar, and makes 36 muffins.
I will pause, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, while you absorb these facts. 1/4 to 1/3 cup of sugar.
So I go straying around the internet looking at modern muffin recipes.
The “Best Ever Muffins” recipe at Allrecipes.com — a recipe for plain muffins — calls for 2 cups of flour and 3/4 cup sugar, and makes 12 muffins. Note that the proportion of sugar in each muffin has tripled, and the amount per serving has increased by six.
I’m wondering precisely why we have these debates about why Americans are so heavy. The truth is in blinking neon lights. By their muffins ye shall know them.
And the Allrecipes.com muffins are the little bitty muffin size of yesteryore, the cupcake size — not even the coffeeshop Brobdingnagian size.  That’s a lot of sugar for a bitty muffin.
So I turn to the locus classicus of muffin making. The recipe from the new Best Loved and Brand-New Joy of Cooking calls for 2 cups flour and 2/3 cup sugar.  Again, three times as much sugar.
So I made the 1946 blueberry muffins and they were dandy, and mmm so good hot and buttered.   But the recipe didn’t make 24 muffins. I could only get 16 out of it, because my sense of normal muffin size has been warped. So even the muffins that I think are very small are 50% bigger than the original muffins. Original muffins — let”s call them heritage muffins — should be two inches in diameter and about an inch high. Those are muffins the size that nature intended. Modern muffins are like titanosaur muffins, striding the earth with a footprint the size of a small nation.

A herd of heritage muffins

A herd of heritage muffins

On the page across from the 1946 muffin recipe is the muffin recipe that really put me to shame. CRUMB MUFFINS. “Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.” It would be amusing to make these and officially title them “Acceptable Muffins.” But the whole tradition of making Acceptable Muffins out of stale bread crumbs has died away with the end of World War II, rationing, and shortages. And note: the Crumb Muffins have no sugar at all!   They are wholly a bread item! But they are no more. The end of a long evolutionary line, vanished. A muffin dead end, like their cousins, Sour Milk Muffins, the next in the book, a whole necropolis of extinct baked goods.
But right now there are little old-fashioned blueberry muffins in my kitchen. So here’s to old-fashioned small and bready things. May they never perish from the earth.
(Stay tuned for recipes and brutal interrogation.)

*Let’s be clear about the terminology here. The United States and Britain are two countries divided by muffins. Right now the things I’m complaining about are the cupcake-shaped things made in North America. The other constituent of the catgeory of “muffin” is what Americans call the English muffin, which is approximately analogous to what the English call crumpets. English muffins and crumpets don’t taste the same, and you don’t split a crumpet, but my guess is that if you home-made English muffins and crumpets they would be very similar, much closer than their industrial versions. Both English muffins and crumpets have stayed on the bread side of the bread/cake divide, although I say this with the proviso that all American breads are so sweet that English people make faces and say “Can’t I get some bread in this country?”
What Americans call muffins were first introduced to England in the 1990s, under the terminology “cake muffins,” which gives you a historical snapshot of the situation right there.

(In case muffin mass exinction has gotten you down, here is a cheering clip of the interrogation of the Gingerbread Man about the doings of the Muffin Man, from Shrek):

Here are the 1946 recipes — little time capsules:

About 24 two inch muffins

Sift before measuring:
2 cups cake flour or 1 3/4 cup bread flour
Resift with:
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 2 teaspoons combination type
[“combination type” is the modern “double-acting” baking powder, now the norm]
Beat in a separate bowl:
2 eggs
Combine and add:
2 tablespoons melted butter
3/4 cup milk
Stir the liquid quickly into the dry ingredients, taking only 15 or 20 seconds in which to do it. Make no attempt to stir or beat out the lumps. Ignore them. Unnecessary handling of the batter results in tough muffins. Pour the batter at once into greased tins or paper baking cups. Fill them about 1/3 full. Bake the muffins from 15 to 20 minutes in a hot oven 425 degrees. Remove them at once from the tins. To reheat them, place in a paper bag and close the bag and place it in a hot oven 425 degrees for about 5 minutes.

About 36 two inch muffins
Follow the preceeding rule for Muffins.
Use in all:
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons melted butter
Fold into the batter:
1 cup blueberries, slightly floured, or 1 cup canned, well-drained blueberries, slightly floured
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind or orange rind (optional)


12 two inch muffins
Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.
Soak for 10 minutes:
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
3/4 cup milk
Sift before measuring:
1/2 cup bread flour
2 teaspoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 1 1/2 teaspoons combination type
[“combination type” is the modern “double-acting” baking powder, now the norm]
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon butter
Beat it with:
1 egg.
Add the sifted ingredients to the dry bread crumbs. Add the egg mixture and stir the batter with a few swift strokes until the ingredients are blended. Partly fill greased muffin tins. Bake the muffins in a hot oven 425 degrees for 20 minutes.


6 thoughts on “Of Time and the Muffin

  1. Ah, but muffins and crumpets are very different things this side of the pond. Both are savoury. A muffin is a low cylinder of dough, rather like bread, and you do toast it and add butter. Here is a link to a picture of a muffin, English style:
    You can also put breakfastish stuff on it, such as scrambled eggs. If you have it in the afternoon, you have it with butter and honey, or marmite.

    And a crumpet is a very odd thing, full of holes. You don’t split it, and it is not breadish. You toast it and put on butter, which melts and goes into the holes, in practice for going into and clogging your arteries. It is a winterish treat for people in a cold country with no central heating.

    Love from England!

    • That is so useful! But where do you get English English muffins? I’ve never seen one. You don’t call them “English muffins,” do you? The Brown-Eyed Baker site seems to be American. Our “English muffins” also have a similar arrangement with crannies for butter. And wouldn’t you call crumpets breadish rather than cakeish? If an English person would call a crumpet cakeish, that totally says it about the English/American divide, because our bread is sweeter than crumpets.

  2. In New Bedford, Providence, and Cape Cod, you can find Portuguese muffins, like English muffins but larger and faintly sweeter (though still definitely on the “bread” continuum).

    The same trend has affected doughnuts. My father grew up with crullers, the old-fashioned cake-like style, which he’d toast and butter. I hate to think what would happen to the toaster were he to try that with a Krispy Kreme or one of Dunkin’s iced and sprinkled specimens!

    • I see the Wikipedia entry for crullers has a photo of a cruller with coconut flakes on it and says “Crullers may be topped with plain powdered sugar; powdered sugar mixed with cinnamon; or icing.” Love the idea of old-fashioned butterable crullers. Seems like there’s an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone to invent a whole range of bread items all over again.

  3. I agree… It’s been a pet peeve of mine for a lonnnnnng time. Mom made biscuits, mostly (with FAT, not bisquik!) and only made muffins occasionally – don’t really know how she decided that…

    But what I sorely missed in those new-school muffins – we bought them on the way to work to replace breakfast – was the eggy-ness of old-schoolers.

    No bakery muffin ever gets that right. But you did, so thanks! 🙂

  4. Just found this blog—don’t have my old Joy of Cooking with me and was looking for a muffin recipe that did NOT have so much sugar! You are right on about the huge amount of sugar in today’s muffins. One of my pet peeves!

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