The English Patient
Wrestling the muffin from Thomas' tight grip.
By Meg Favreau
Whereas fresh bagels are coveted and home-baked bread approaches a spiritual experience for many, it's rare in America to come across a fresh-from-scratch English muffin. In fact, I'd venture that there isn't another bread product we're as willing to buy pre-packaged (except for maybe the pocket pita). We simply don't have respect for the English muffin. Take the breakfast sandwich, for example. A staple everywhere from the McDonald's drive-thru to high-end restaurants, the breakfast sandwich puts the focus on the egg, cheese, and meat that's tucked in the middle on the sandwich, forcing the English muffin that holds it all together to play second-fiddle (or is it griddle?). Of course, a breakfast sandwich doesn't have to be made with an English muffin. But let's not lie to ourselves: A bagel or bread couldn't handle the breakfast sandwich the way an English muffin does. The bagel has too much dough, and bread falls apart. Only the English muffin has the right size and sheer tenacity to properly reign in the wily breakfast sandwich. Yet we rarely give it the attention it deserves.
I like English muffins. Some mornings they're the only breakfast food that feels right: just filling enough, covered with butter and jam that melts into the nooks and crannies Thomas' has taught us to love so much. But I will admit that even though I bake my own bread and boil my own bagels, I've always been content to buy English muffins from the store. I just assumed that since I've never heard about anyone making their own English muffins, the process was too difficult to do at home. In my mind, English muffin factories employed multi-million-dollar industrial nook-and-cranny machines. Without such complicated machinary, I thought, home bakers such as myself were simply SOL.
The truth is that like most bread products, English muffins are easy enough to make at home. But when I decided to tackle English muffins, a simple Google search for a basic English muffin recipe raised more questions than it answered. The recipes varied wildly — some advocated sticky batter dropped directly into muffin rings, while others described a bread-type dough that was cut and placed on the griddle like a cookie. Rising times varied from one hour to 24.
Testing these recipes quickly made me wonder if I had been right about the industrial machine. The first recipe I tried made beautifully round muffins, but they tasted like dough lumps. The next recipe tasted delicious, but lacked the puffy holes of a true English muffin. I started to wonder if the Thomas' nooks-and-crannies campaign had an effect on me similar to that of casting overly beautiful actors in so many films. Just as I might get a skewed sense of beauty from seeing Angelina Jolie too many times, did Thomas' leave me with unachievable expectations for the airiness of my home muffins?
In an attempt to solve the problem, I tried searching for the history of the English muffin to see what the old standard was. The Thomas' Web site claims that in "1874, young Samuel Bath Thomas left England for America with a recipe for a muffin baked on hot griddles." Bays', the company that supplies all of the English muffins to McDonald's, goes further with the claim that "the family baker made English muffins from leftover bread and biscuit dough scraps and mashed potatoes. He fried the batter on a hot griddle, creating light, crusty muffins for the servants." But nobody had a definitive definition of the muffin. Most bloggers who broached the subject agreed that the English muffin as it currently stands is an American invention, and that it had some relationship to the English crumpet. But nobody could say exactly what that relationship was.
Frustrated and close to giving up on the muffins, I asked a colleague if he knew anything about their history. "John Thorne," he told me simply, "wrote the book." I got in touch with John, the James Beard award-winning author of several books, most recently Mouth Wide Open. Three days later, his self-published booklet arrived at my house, entitled The English Muffin: It's Origins, Preparation & Accompaniments; Scones & Crumpets; Thoughts on Toast; A Perfect Breakfast.
The book answered everything I wanted to know. The first muffin recipe showed up in the British cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747, but what stands for the English muffin in America today is quite different from a muffin in England. "The British muffin," Thorne writes, "is nothing more unusual than a roll baked on a griddle. But...the American English muffin is quite different, unlike any other bread, crispy, chewy, and with a flavor both subtle and yet distinct." As for the similarities between the muffin and crumpet, meanwhile, Throne describes the crumpet as "a muffin trying to find its way back to the flapjack and getting lost," and says that "there is a small and clamorous claque of crumpet lovers, and because of them the name of the muffin and crumpet are inexorably linked." I also learned an important lesson — English muffins must be toasted. Don't even think about eating them otherwise. In fact, it's very possible that the first recipe I made was delicious, and I just didn't toast the muffins.
Armed with his research, Throne provides a lengthy and tested English muffin recipe. I made it, and my muffins turned out beautifully, with nooks and crannies all over the place. Take that, Thomas': This is an English muffin I have respect for. • 13 August 2009
| English Muffins, adapted from John Thorne
3 cups white or whole-wheat white flour
Proof the yeast by adding the sugar, water, and yeast to a bowl. While waiting for the yeast, warm the flour in a 250° oven for 10 minutes, until it is warm but not hot to the touch.
Mix the proofed yeast, milk, oil, flour, and salt together with a wooden spoon. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a towel, and either place it in a cool spot to rise overnight, or a warm spot if you want to want to make the muffins in one session. Allow the muffins to rise until doubled in size.
After the muffins have risen, turn your oven to its lowest setting for 5 minutes, then shut off. Sprinkle a griddle with corn meal and grease your muffin rings, if you are using them (you may also simply plop the muffin batter directly on the griddle). If you do not have enough griddle space and have to make the muffins in batches, also grease and sprinkle a cookie sheet. Set out the rings on the griddle.
Beat down the dough, then spoon a quarter-cup of dough into the muffin rings (or directly onto the griddle). If you are not using rings, make sure there is at least an inch of space between the muffins. Place the griddle in the oven until the muffins have almost doubled in size. This should take less than 30 minutes. If you are baking the muffins in two batches, start the second batch on the cookie sheet just before you take the first batch out of the oven.
When the muffins have risen, turn your range to low-medium heat. Set the griddle on a burner.
After about 7 minutes, slide a spatula under one of the muffins to be sure they are not sticking. The muffins are ready to flip when the bottoms are lightly browned and the tops are set, approximately 10 minutes.
Turn them over carefully, adding a pinch more corn meal if needed. Brown the other side to the same color. When done, remove the muffins to a rack and allow them to cool for a few minutes before toasting. Dust off any excess corn meal.
If you are making a second batch, carefully transfer the muffins on the cookie sheet to the hot griddle, after another sprinkling of corn meal. The spatula should be both greased and sprinkled with corn meal to prevent any tearing of the dough (the skin is thin, and immediate deflation will result). Cook this second batch just as you did the first.
When cool enough to handle, split them with a fork and toast them. They keep well for up to a week.
Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Philadelphia. She blogs at ihearyoulikestories.com.
Article photo by anjuli_ayer via Flickr (Creative Commons); recipe photo by Andrew Rugge.