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
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
CRANBERRY ORANGE PECAN MUFFINS
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)