Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Great Muffin Debate

I remember when I first came to England twenty years ago, people were aghast that I ate muffins for breakfast. Coming from somewhere that a muffin was something that usually contained bran or oats and was good for you, I found this very confusing. Confusing, that was, until not long after I arrived when a colleague at work offered me a muffin one afternoon. When I accepted, I was presented with a muffin shaped chocolate cake full of chocolate chips.

I was flabbergasted. As far as I was concerned, this was no muffin; it was a (very large) cupcake. It had no icing, but it was incredibly sweet. In my opinion its flavor and texture could only be described as cake, albeit a very dry version of one. Of course, I said nothing, but the penny began to drop. No wonder people were taken aback by my professing to like muffins for breakfast. Even I would struggle to eat something like the chocolate extravaganza I had been presented with early in the morning. In fact, I was finding it kind of hard to eat it at three o’clock in the afternoon.

You see, it bore no similarity to any sort of muffin I had ever had before. My idea of a muffin was banana bran, or oatmeal blueberry or carrot, not death by chocolate. So I decided to check out some “muffin” recipes in British cookbooks. I found it very hard to located even one, and when I did, it was for something very similar to what I had eaten at work.

Not long after that I was in the grocery store and noticed a package labeled “blueberry muffins”. As I had not been able to find actual blueberries for sale, this perplexed me a bit. I was tempted though, so I bought them, intending to have one for breakfast the next morning. I was really looking forward to my muffin, and the telltale blue dots in it looked delicious. However, my first bite confirmed that I was definitely eating a cake. Not only that, but the blueberries were not like any I had ever eaten before. They were like little lumps of blue sugar. (I found out later they were dried blueberries.) Again, this was something I would definitely have labeled a cupcake.

When I began to discuss this with other folks, suggesting that muffins here in England might more appropriately be labeled cupcakes, most people responded rather angrily. “Cupcakes are American,” most insisted. “These are muffins.” Being Canadian at the time I was a bit upset. I really did not think America had the franchise on cupcakes - although I had eaten many a delicious one in the States. My Mom used to make me some gorgeous cupcakes to take into primary school when it was my birthday and she was one hundred percent Canadian. Frankly I didn’t think cupcakes had a nationality.

So I decided to fight fire with fire and begin to bake some of my own favourite muffin recipes. I started with Raisin Bran Muffins. I whipped up a recipe and decided to test it on my friends, offering them round with a cup of tea one afternoon. Although most liked the taste of my offerings, there was a lot of shock going round the table. “These are not muffins; they’re not sweet” they insisted. So later that same week, I baked some devil’s food cupcakes and repeated the experiment. “Wow, great muffins,” was the consensus. At this point, I was tempted to find a wall to bang my head against but I refrained.

Over the years though, things have changed. Chefs like Nigella Lawson have made cupcakes fashionable in England – and by this I mean the lovely little cakes that are what I think of as cupcakes. I’ve managed to find some peace about the issue as well. When I want muffins, I make my own. My husband and son are happy to eat muffins for breakfast – and when we have guests I just make sure there is another choice on offer as well – although more often than not most of them enjoy my muffin recipes. They like my cupcakes too, and I know what they mean when they ask me to make my chocolate muffins with white icing for dessert.

Life is too short to fight something you can’t change and as long as folks enjoy what I cook, I guess I have nothing to complain about. But please, if I ever ask you for a muffin, don’t give me one of those huge death by chocolate extravaganzas!

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