This post likely would have been much more helpful about fourteen months ago, when the baking craze started in full force, but better late than never. Hopefully people still bake on occasion? Today we’re going to talk about yeast, a reasonably simple subject that gets complicated surprisingly quickly.
Before we get into the precise details of the baking yeast we use today, it’s important to understand just a bit about the history of bread and leaveners in general. A leavener – basically anything that makes dough rise – can be physical, chemical or biological in nature. Physical leavening agents are air and steam, which might be incorporated either through mixing or through the oven’s heat. Chemical leaveners, most often baking soda and baking powder, create a chemical reaction that causes doughs to rise. And finally, yeast acts as a biological leavener; yeast is a microscopic organism that consumes simple sugars and creates carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct of fermentation, which in turn causes dough to expand. Yeast cells used in baking are found either in commercial packaged form or wild in a starter.
Yeast-risen doughs really are simpler than this picture makes them seem.
Naan dough resting after being rolled out into rounds.
I adore their cookbooks because they’re not simply recipes but travelogues, too. As with many of you, I read cookbooks like novels, and in this extended no-travel period we find ourselves stuck in, these books are a transcendent escape. Duguid & Alford visited some very off-the-beaten-track locales – long before selfie sticks, Instagram, and exploitative overtourism were issues – and they have the stories and adventures and recipes to prove it. Their passion was never high-end restaurants catering to well-heeled tourists, but the tiny, unremarkable street stand tucked away in a nondescript alleyway serving the best Afghan snowshoe naan or Sichuan pepper bread in the world. Their palpable love for both food and the people who make it, day in and day out, as they’ve done for centuries, shines through in all their books.
Let it be hereafter known to all and sundry that I am not cool. I am definitively not trendy. The only time in recent memory I’ve been on-trend is when activities I’ve cheerfully pursued for years – baking bread! sewing! growing food! raising chickens! – happened to intersect neatly with a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. All of a sudden, my previously-mocked Laura Ingalls Wilder skills were wildly in demand. All of a sudden, I was cool.
Sadly, it looks as though my coolness has worn off as we tentatively, gradually, carefully tiptoe back to our “real” lives. Most people have given up on sourdough, everyone is wearing cheap counterfeit N95s, gardening is probably finished and I don’t want to think too hard about what happened to all those pandemic chicks. My point here, if you were wondering, is that I am once again proudly not cool and I am still baking muffins.
Homey. Comforting. Just what we need right now.
Muffins are not cool, either. They are not a cronut or a cake pop or a brookie or a rainbow layer cake. I am doubtful that muffins have a massive following on Instagram. Perhaps there have never been muffins on Instagram? I’m pretty sure no one has made a fortune off of them recently. They’re just…muffins. They’re humble and comforting and kind and homely and they’re basically just a hug from your grandmother in pastry form and therefore they’re perfect for this weird purgatory we all find ourselves in, where things are sort of looking up but the pandemic definitely isn’t over and we haven’t exactly leaped into normal life again. It’s an odd, unsettled time, to be certain.
If I haven’t sold you on muffins yet with that confusing pitch, allow me to continue proselytizing: muffins are far and away one of the simplest things you can bake, even at altitude. They’re infinitely customizable with whatever you might have lurking in the freezer or pantry. You can use up fruits or vegetables that might otherwise get thrown out. It’s easy to make them reasonably healthy, and they freeze like a dream. What more could you ask from a baked good, honestly?
Get your mise-en-place together first!
Gather round, children, and I’ll share my own personal hard-and-fast rules for muffins. You might want to take notes! First and foremost – and I’m going to say this loud for the people in the back – MUFFINS ARE NOT CUPCAKES. Did everyone hear me? I abhor the standard Costco-style blueberry muffin which has forty grams of sugar and may as well be a dessert. That is not an acceptable muffin – my limit is one-half cup of sugar in a twelve-muffin batch. With natural sweetness from whatever fruit I’m using, plus a bit of turbinado sprinkled on top for crunch, that’s plenty sweet. There’s simply no need to eat that much sugar for breakfast or any time of day, really.
Second, I much prefer baking muffins fresh first thing in the morning, and fresh muffins are much easier when all of the ingredients are prepped the night before. How can you manage this neat pro trick? Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and leave covered on the counter. Combine wet ingredients in another lidded container and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, gently fold wet and dry together and bake. By the time the coffee is finished brewing, the muffins are practically ready. Simple and effortless and especially useful if you have overnight guests, if that will ever be a thing again.
Wet ingredients (back left) will overnight in the fridge, dry ingredients on the counter.
A few other muffin-making tips: even if you choose to prep your ingredients the night before, never mix wet and dry together until just before you’re ready to bake. The leavening agent – in this case, baking soda – will be activated by the acidic yogurt and will start a chemical reaction. If you combine the batter and let it sit without baking it, you’ll likely get no rise and a bitter, metallic flavor. Wet and dry always stay separate until the last minute.
When combining wet and dry ingredients in a muffin or quick bread batter, it’s imperative not to overmix. You only want to fold things together until it’s mostly homogenized; a few streaks of flour are not an issue. Muffins and quick breads do not benefit from vigorous mixing, as this activates the gluten strands and toughens the crumb. Gentle is the way forward here.
I love using fruit purees in muffins, including but not limited to overripe bananas, home-canned applesauce, and unsweetened jam. Whenever a recipe calls for overripe bananas, they should be well-speckled or even fully brown; as they ripen, the natural sugars intensify so you’ll achieve sweeter flavor without extra sugar. If you’ve got overripe bananas but no plans to bake soon, peel the bananas and freeze on a sheet pan lined with waxed paper, then store in a zip-top bag. You can pull out the amount you need, and they’ll soften quickly – plus less food waste!
I fill the muffin cups to the rim, then sprinkle with turbinado and chopped nuts before baking.
When the muffins are fully baked, get them out of the pan immediately and set them on a cooling rack. Most baked goods (with the exception of a few delicate cakes) should be removed from the baking pan as soon as possible, and allowed to cool with good air circulation so the bottom crust doesn’t become soggy from heat and moisture. If you don’t have a cooling rack, grab one of the wire racks from the oven and use that instead.
Though muffins, like most pastries, are at their best the day they’re baked, they do freeze surprisingly well. I freeze cooled muffins on a sheet pan; once solid, they’re tucked into a zip-top bag to enjoy throughout the week. Since the muffins are small they’ll thaw quickly at room temperature, but thirty seconds in the microwave can speed that process along, if necessary.
Just a few ideas for what you can use in your muffins!
I use a basic muffin recipe that works well at 6,300 feet, and I customize it according to what I have on hand. Dry ingredients: two cups all-purpose flour (you can sub out up to half with spelt, whole wheat, or white whole wheat), 1/2 cup rolled oats, 1/2 tsp. salt, 3/4 tsp. baking powder (leavening agents are typically reduced at altitude), 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 cup chopped nuts, 1/2 cup dried fruit. Wet ingredients: two eggs, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup neutral oil (such as grapeseed), 1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce, 1/3 cup yogurt, milk or buttermilk, 1 to 1 1/2 cups mashed banana, pumpkin puree, shredded zucchini and carrot, or other fruit and vegetable combination (adjust liquidity as needed). Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for five minutes, then lower the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for about another twelve minutes, depending on your oven. (My oven has notorious hot spots, so I rotate the tray at least once. You know your oven best; adjust accordingly.)
Muffins are pretty forgiving; if you bake a lot, as I do, you’ll learn to adjust the liquidity in the batter. Mashed bananas generally won’t require additional liquid, but if you’re just using chopped fresh fruit or vegetables, like apples or carrots, you might need a bit more yogurt or milk. If you find your muffins to be either overly mushy or overly dry, you’ll know to adjust for next time – and that’s how you get better.
Some of my favorite tried-and-true flavor combinations: apple cinnamon walnut :: banana chocolate almond :: blueberry coconut vanilla :: zucchini carrot apple raisin :: pear pecan ginger :: peach coconut macadamia :: raspberry apricot :: pumpkin hazelnut raisin. There are a million more variations possible here, with a little experimentation.
Wishing you plenty of strong, hot coffee and fresh, uncool muffins this week, dear friends.
P.S. If you’re one of my treasured bakery regulars, please immediately forget everything you’ve just read. There’s no way you can possibly make these at home. Muffins are really super difficult and complicated. Just keep ordering from me.
We’ve been honest about the fact that we don’t eat many sweets here at Quiet Farm – our tastes definitely lean more towards the salty and savory. That said, when we do have a sugar craving, we’re seeking something spectacular, rather than something merely mediocre. Dry, tasteless storebought cookies? No thanks. Artificially sweetened plastic-wrapped gas station pastries? Absolutely not. Homemade millionaire’s shortbread with a hot cup of coffee? Yes, please.
What’s that, you say? You are an American raised on Twix bars and you have never in your lifetime heard of this mysterious thing called millionaire’s shortbread? Well, please allow your intrepid guides to introduce you to this magical sweet. The name millionaire’s shortbread apparently originates in Scotland (totally unverifiable), and refers to the unbelievably rich layered combination of shortbread crust, sticky-sweet butterscotch caramel, and chocolate. The confection, also known as caramel slice, caramel shortbread or caramel shortcake, is well known in Britain and Australia but not so much here in the U.S. (Unless of course it’s packaged and called a Twix bar.)
This version, lightly adapted from this Bon Appétit recipe, is jokingly referred to as billionaire’s shortbread because it incorporates both whole sesame seeds and tahini, exotic (and somewhat pricey) ingredients. Tahini is simply sesame seed paste, and it’s commonly found in savory Middle Eastern cooking – notably hummus. Of late, however, many pastry chefs have started incorporating it into desserts, and I am all for this trend. There is no denying that millionaire’s shortbread is almost teeth-achingly sweet, with the decadent combination of shortbread, caramel and chocolate, and the tahini (as well as the toasted sesame seeds in both the shortbread and sprinkled on top) cut that richness. I like the crunch, the textural contrast, and the slight bitterness the sesame seeds bring to the party.
Pre-made tahini is surprisingly costly to purchase, but it does keep forever if refrigerated and it is a terrific addition to salad dressings, bean dips and certain baked goods. If you are the sort of person who already makes your own nut butters, preparing your own tahini will be an easy step – simply puree raw sesame seeds in your high-powered blender much as you might almonds or peanuts. As with all nut and seed butters, tahini is likely to separate after a time, so always give it a good stir to re-incorporate the oil that might have settled on top.
Tip the crumbly dough into the pan, then press into an even layerand pierce with a fork.
Ready to tackle this? Let’s go. As always when baking and cooking – especially when you’re trying a new and/or complicated recipe – it’s super-helpful to put together your mise-en-place, which is a simply a fancy French culinary term meaning “to put in place.” I like to use the glass bowl set shown in these photos to assemble all of my ingredients; setting things up in this fashion also helps if you get distracted midway through, because you can see at a glance if you’ve added all of the required ingredients. “Did I add the salt yet, or not?” is not generally conducive to successful baking.
If it’s your first time making shortbread, here are a few tips: 1. Make sure your butter chunks are good and cold; I chop the butter then pop it into the freezer until I’m ready to use it. 2. Don’t overmix the ingredients; they won’t be homogenized (see bits of golden yolk above) and that’s just fine. 3. When you press the dough into the pan, use some effort so it stays together when you cut it later. (Also, please note that the binder clips in the photo above are simply used to keep the parchment paper in place while preparing the dough. They do not go into the oven!)
Once your shortbread crust is baked and cooled, you’ll pour the caramel layer on top. This recipe calls for a simple caramel that doesn’t require a candy thermometer, but caramel still takes a bit of experience. Whenever you’re making any caramel, use a larger, deeper pan than you think is necessary, because the mixture always wants to boil over. Remember that if you’re baking at altitude you actually want to cook the caramel a bit less, since the lower air pressure means that water boils at a lower temperature here (and water evaporation is key to making successful caramel). Also, caramel (and candy-making in general) really isn’t a kitchen activity for kids; the risk of severe sugar burns is pretty high if you’re not careful.
No no no! Don’t do it like this!
Here’s a pro tip: make absolutely sure that the caramel layer is thoroughly chilled before you pour the melted chocolate on top. In the photos above, you can see that the chocolate is actually sinking into the caramel, rather than spreading out smoothly. Do not skimp on chilling the caramel and shortbread; you can even tuck it in the freezer for a few minutes, just make sure to keep the pan level so all the warm caramel doesn’t slouch to one side. And when you’re melting chocolate, avoid using chocolate chips. These are specially formulated not to melt, since their whole point is to stay whole in cookies and the like. Buy a stash of good-quality chocolate bars and when you need melted chocolate for a recipe, chop into chunks and melt gently in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water. (I am not a fan of melting chocolate in the microwave; I think it runs the very real risk of burning the chocolate.)
This happens surprisingly quickly! Don’t walk away.
Any time you use nuts or seeds in any format, be it in baked goods, sprinkled on a salad, or in trail mix, know that they’ll be much more flavorful if toasted first. Many recipes call for using the oven to toast a sheet pan of nuts or seeds; from long experience, I can tell you that this is a great way to burn twenty dollars’ worth of pecans. I always, always dry-toast my nuts and seeds in a shallow frying pan on the stovetop, where I can babysit them carefully. Depending on the variety, nuts and seeds can go from pale and raw to charred and ruined in a matter of seconds, and the oven doesn’t allow me enough control. Also, once the nuts and seeds are toasted to the level you’d like – taste them! – make sure you transfer them from the hot pan to a plate and let them cool completely. There will be enough residual heat in the pan to keep on cooking, and you might find they’re burnt anyway.
Almost ready to enjoy…but needs some salt on top.
Once you’ve poured and smoothed the melted chocolate, the pan goes back into the fridge for a final set. Feel free to sprinkle with flaky sea salt in addition to the toasted sesame seeds, if your fancies swing that way. When you’re ready to cut the millionaire’s shortbread, gently lift the entire mess out of the pan using the parchment paper as handles, and set on a cutting board. Use a serrated knife and saw into small squares; a chef’s knife, no matter how sharp, will press down on the bars and cause the caramel to squish out.
These are unbelievably rich and sugary, and you really only want a tiny piece. We keep ours in a covered container in the fridge for better texture and longer shelf life; I actually cut the entire tray into tiny squares and freeze most of them, so we can have a small treat as and when circumstances call for it. Millionaire’s shortbread isn’t an everyday pleasure, but it’s lovely to have a little bite of something sweet every so often.
So rich! So delicious! Enjoy with strong, hot coffee.
Have a good week, friends, and perhaps bake yourself a treat, too.
P.S. If you’re not feeling the tahini in this variation, you can find a more traditional millionaire’s shortbread here, here or here. Please note that we have tested none of these!
It seems winter in Colorado has been canceled this year, considering that it was nearly seventy degrees (21C for our international audience) when we took these photos. In December. And on one hand, this is delightful, because driving in the snow is truly one of my least favorite activities, despite being a born-and-bred Colorado native. And on the other hand, these disconcerting weather patterns freak me out in a serious fashion. But I’m working on my anxiety, and my ability to “accept the things I cannot change.” So let’s make a cake.
This lovely cake has all the flavors of winter: tangy, bright cranberries and citrus, plus sharp, spiky ginger. And pomegranates. Oh, pomegranates. Is there any fruit I adore more? I think not. When these babies are in season, as they are now, I often eat one a day. Somehow their tart sparkle seems to apologize for the misery of endless winter – or whatever season it is we’re currently having. The cake isn’t excessively sweet, either, which pleases me; if you had a strong, dark honey on hand, I imagine that might be compelling here.
Any time you’re making a light, delicate cake, friends, please be careful not to overmix the batter – it’s a sure way to achieve dense, tough gumminess. This is even more key when baking at altitude, as we are here. Assemble all of your ingredients in advance, then place your liquids in one bowl, your dry ingredients and the fruit in another, and whip the egg whites at the very last minute, when everything else is ready. Never pre-whip your egg whites then go back to put together the other components – their ethereal fluffiness is exactly what you need. (Tossing dried, fresh or frozen fruit with flour helps keep it from sinking to the bottom of the cake, and from bleeding its juices, though that effect can actually be quite pretty. If you’re using frozen fruit, never let it thaw first but just throw it in frozen. And move quickly.)
As before, make sure your pan is prepped and your oven is preheated. Once the batter is together, it needs to go straight into a hot oven. This is not the time to dilly-dally.
This recipe as written makes for quite a moist cake, which is lovely here in Colorado as it stays fresher for longer in our dry climate. I reduced the leavening by 1/4 tsp. and added 1/4 cup extra flour, as is often done when adjusting baking recipes for altitude. If you’re at sea level, you may need to use a total of 3/4 tsp. baking powder. You can probably reduce the whole wheat pastry flour by 1/4 cup at sea level, too. Make sure to check carefully for doneness with this cake; I found that I needed a bit more baking time than the recipe indicates. Ovens vary; adjust accordingly.
Pomegranate, Cranberry and Ginger Cake (written for 5,300 ft. elevation)
For The Cake
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup mild olive oil
2 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
2 tbsp. freshly grated orange zest
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
5 tbsp. crystallized ginger, chopped
1 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup fresh or dried cranberries
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, plus more for garnish
2 tsp. confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan; line with parchment paper and butter and flour the parchment.
In a small bowl, stir together honey, olive oil, egg yolks, zest, juice and 3 tbsp. crystallized ginger. In a large bowl, sift together both flours, baking powder and salt. Gently fold cranberries and pomegranate seeds into dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat egg whites and a pinch of salt with an electric mixer until soft peaks form, about 1-2 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold honey mixture into flour mixture, then fold in egg whites until combined. Do not overmix.
Pour and scrape batter into prepared pan and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Allow cake to cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes; run a knife around sides of pan to loosen cake and turn it our onto rack. Remove paper and allow to cool completely.
To serve, sift confectioner’s sugar over cake and garnish with remaining crystallized ginger and additional pomegranate seeds.