STURBRIDGE, Mass. -- Heft a warm muffin. Is it almost too hot to hold? Good! Gingerly pull it into halves and let sweet steam curl into the air and mingle with the smell of morning coffee. Quick, now, dip a knife into softened butter and dab it on -- but carefully: Muffins are fragile; one mustn't press too hard. Merely allow the butter to melt, infusing the quivery, tender nooks with luxury.
Some of us wouldn't dream of starting the day without a muffin. For others, they are a special-occasion treat. Muffins aren't quite cake, and they aren't quite bread. Different muffins sport different personalities. There are minuscule gem muffins for elegant afternoon tea, nut-and-fruit behemoths for Sunday brunch, broad-beamed buns to accompany a hearty supper, sweet cakes for a nursery snack and fiber-laden oat-bran muffins for when we want to feel nutritionally virtuous.
Nearly everybody has his favorite; and each region of the country has special muffins all its own, from the big, rugged loaves served in New York City luncheonettes (corn, bran or blueberry) to sunny carrot muffins served in health food restaurants on the West Coast.
The best news about muffins is that they are a snap to bake, whipped up from batter that is leavened with baking powder instead of yeast. In fact, food lore says that they used to be standard breakfast fare on bread-baking days, because they could be prepared in a jiffy between sessions of serious dough mixing and kneading.
Muffin-making technique consists of a few basic rules, the first of which is never overmix the batter. Combine the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately. Stir them together with a gentle touch, and quickly -- not more than 15 or 20 seconds -- just long enough to mix. Don't even worry about a lump or two in the batter. Tenderly fold in any fruits or nuts. Once the batter is mixed, it should be poured into the muffin tins and baked immediately. The second rule is that even non-stick tins should be lightly greased (including the flat area between the cups). The easiest way to grease a muffin tin is with spray-on vegetable oil.
For normal-looking muffins, each cup should be filled about 2/3 full with batter. If you like crusty muffin tops more than cakey bottoms, fill the cups higher, and as they bake, the tops will run together across the tin. (To get the muffins out, you will need to separate their baked-together tops with a knife.)
One of the best places we know to eat muffins, especially this time of year, is the Publick House of Sturbridge, Mass., where the old wooden floorboards creak with 206 years of tradition and the menu is a rib-sticking lesson in Yankee culinary history -- from lobster pie to Indian pudding. Publick House bakers specialize in onion popovers (to accompany prime rib), old-fashioned apple pies and muffins of every kind, including these sweet, nutty autumn favorites:
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup light vegetable oil
3/4 cup canned pumpkin
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously grease a 12-cup muffin tin. Mix sugar, oil, eggs and pumpkin. Separately, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and spices and salt. Quickly stir together both mixtures. Fold in raisins and walnuts. Fill prepared muffin cups 2/3 full and bake 18 to 20 minutes, until golden brown. To test for doneness, use a sharp knife or broom straw. When the knife or straw comes out clean, muffins are done. Remove from oven and let them cool a few moments in the pan before removing. Serve warm with butter or honey butter.
Publick House, Route 131, Sturbridge, Mass. 01566; (508) 347-3313.
Universal Press Syndicate