Category Archives: breakfast

Buttermilk Biscuits and Vegetarian Gravy

a vegetarian dish even an omnivore could loveWhen I first became a vegetarian, one of the few things I missed was my mother’s fried chicken dinner. And it wasn’t so much the star of the meal I longed for—although her chicken was great. What I craved was the milk gravy she’d make from the pan drippings to ladle over the mashed potatoes and biscuits she always made to accompany the chicken. I could have called it "onion and nutritional yeast pudding" but somehow I wasn't sure that'd have the same appeal

This vegetarian version of her gravy is one of the first recipes I figured out mostly on my own. Instead of relying on the pan drippings and scrapings from some kind of cooked meat, I start by frying some cracker crumbs and spices, roughly based on what my mom used to bread chicken. That provides a flavorful base for the gravy and a little bit of texture, just like pan scrapings. I add milk and simmer for a few minutes, and then thicken it with a corn starch slurry. It’s essentially just a savory milk pudding, and you can flavor it however you like. The only constants in mine are nutritional yeast, black pepper, and onion powder (or crushed fried shallots), but I often add a pinch of sage and rosemary, a little bit of bouillon, and just a shake or two of paprika and cayenne.

When I was vegan, I found that it adapted to vegan fats and milks quite well. Since returning to an omnivorous diet, I’ve made a number of gravies and pan sauces with actual pan drippings or sausage—Mexican chorizo in particular seems designed to be a gravy base—but honestly, I still like this version better. The combination of onion and nutritional yeast is so savory and umami and the gravy itself is creamy and satisfying, but just not as overwhelming as meat-based gravies. As far as I’m concerned, chorizo gravy, as delicious as it is, can only ever be a side dish. This gravy, I can eat as a meal. Also, it’s simple and quick enough to be thrown together in the 10-12 minutes it takes to bake a batch of biscuits, which makes it perfect for an easy weekend brunch. No fried chicken required.

the sharper the cutter, the better the biscuits will rise notice that the one in the bottom right didn't rise as much because it was hand formed from the scraps rather than cut

Recipe: Buttermilk Biscuits (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (or 2 1/4 cups cake flour)
  • 2 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt
  • 6 T. butter (or lard or shortening)
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or milk soured with 2 t. lemon juice)*

*If you want to substitute a non-sour milk, leave out the baking soda and increase the baking powder to 3 t. Baking soda is alkaline so you need an acid to counter it. The baking powder-only version may be a tiny bit less fluffy because baking soda has more rising power than baking powder, but it shouldn’t be noticeably so.

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 450F.

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.

3. Cut the butter or other solid fat into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter, two crisscrossing knives, or a few pulses in a food processor, just until the largest pieces of fat are the size of peas.

pure butter, no lard this time. lard/shortening will make a flakier biscuit because it doesn't have the water content of butter/margarine butter like peas

4. Add the buttermilk and stir just until most of the flour is moistened and it begins to come together and form a dough.

5. Press the floury scraps together with your hands a few times—like a cursory kneading, just to make it coherent, you don’t want a lot of gluten to form—and then scrape it onto a lightly-floured surface. Press into a disc between 3/4” and 1” thick, and cut into squares or triangles with a knife or into rounds with a cookie-cutter or the mouth of an empty jar or drinking glass about 2” in diameter.

6. Place the biscuits on an ungreased pan. If you want the tops to brown more, brush with milk or beaten egg.

ready to bake just out of the oven, and out of focus

7. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until browning on the top and bottom.

Recipe: Vegetarian Milk Gravy (adapted from my mom)

  • 2 T. butter
  • 6-8 saltine crackers
  • 1 (heaping) T. fried shallot, crumbled slightly or 2 t. onion powder
  • 1/2 t. black pepper, ground
  • 2-3 T. nutritional yeast (optional, but delicious)
  • 1/2 t. paprika—sweet, hot, or smoked, or chili powder or cayenne (optional)
  • a pinch or two of ground sage, dried rosemary, thyme, and/or parsley (optional)
  • 2 cups + 2 T. milk
  • 1/2 cube or 1 t. vegetable bouillon (optional)
  • 2-3 T. cornstarch
  • salt to taste

Method:

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet. 

2. Crumble the saltines (or other crackers) into the pan and stir to coat in the fat.cracker crumbsbrowning with the spices

3. Add the shallot or onion powder, pepper, and any other spices you’re using. Stir until golden and fragrant.

4. Add the milk (except for the 2 T.) and the bouillon if using and stir well, scraping up the cracker crumbs and spices into the liquid. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning to the bottom of the pan.

I found the hippiest jar possible to store my nootch in. You can get this at any "natural foods" store, often in the bulk section. It's also great as a popcorn topping. Do not substitute brewer's yeast, which is also nutrient-rich, but is horribly bitter-tasting.  just after adding the milk, alraedy close to a simmer--bubbling at the edges

5. Make a slurry of the cornstarch and the remaining 2 T. milk. Make sure the mixture is smooth and then add to the gravy, stirring constantly. It will immediately begin to thicken. Cook for another 1-2 minutes and then remove from heat.

 cornstarch, amount eyeballeddissolved in milk--if you don't do this, it will form lumps when you add it to the gravy thickened

6. Salt and taste for seasoning.

spoon the gravy over hot, split biscuits and serve

Sourdough English Muffins: Of nooks and crannies and double-entendres

hot, buttered muffins

“Oh, no, my muffin hasn’t had a cherry since 1939.”
Betty White on SNL

Not to belabor the SNL references too much, but the “English muffin” presents us with a quintessential Coffee Talk paradox: the “English muffin” is neither English nor a muffin. (Discuss! By gum, I think I will…)

Do you know the muffin man?

The words “English muffin” appeared in print for the first time in 1842 in Great Western Magazine, a publication of a British railway company:

"In the deep well of a blue-edged plate..is disclosed that dream of farinaceous enjoyment, the *English muffin.” (from the OED, which does not explain the asterisk)

The fact that it shows up for the first time in a railway magazine may suggest that no one thought to specify its national origin until they were taking it outside of its supposed “home” country. But the only place outside of England that the Great Western Railway went was Wales, which is, coincidentally, where the type of bread represented by the “English muffin” probably originated sometime in the 10th C. Perhaps the increasing continental interconnectedness represented by the railway prompted a bit of mistaken culinary nationalism?

when you place them on the hot griddle, you can actually watch them rise up as the yeast frantically pump out gasthen you flip them, they deflate a little, like you've crushed their little yeasty ambitions. I must have some kind of bread schadenfreude--I really love watching them poof and then fall.

From Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 103, December 24, 1892 ed. Sir Francis Cowley Burnand via WikipediaAside from that one instance, yeast-risen rolls griddled on both sides to create two flat, browned sides and a pale band about the waist were generally just referred to as “muffins” on both sides of the Atlantic until the end of the 19th C. The word derived either from the Middle Low German word “muffe” (pl. “muffen”) meaning “little cake” or the Old French “moufflet” meaning a soft or tender bread. It was probably the kind of bread peddled by the “muffin man” of nursery rhyme fame and along with its close relatives, the crumpet and cross-bun, was  customarily served with butter and jam at mid-day tea, a tradition that began in the 17th C. and reached its height in the Victorian Era.

Hannah Glasse included a recipe for small, griddled yeast breads in The Art of Cookery (1747) titled “Muffings [sic] and Oat-Cakes” which instructed that they be split with a fork rather than a knife so “they will be like a Honey-Comb” instead of “heavy as Lead.” Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter recorded a similar recipe for “Monticello Muffins” in her unpublished cookbook manuscript. It calls for a dough of flour, water, and yeast to be shaped in “little cakes like biscuit” and baked on a griddle “before the fire” rather than inside the stove. Those were probably the same muffins Jefferson was referring to when he wrote to his daughter Martha from the White House:

"Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method [referring to Peter Hemings, the head cook at Monticello]. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”

One of Jefferson’s great-granddaughters recorded an anecdote regarding their proper consumption echoing Glasse’s warning not to cut them with a knife. The Benjamin Franklin in the story is one of Jefferson’s grandsons, not the bespectacled founding father, and Mrs. M is Dolley Madison, the fourth First Lady:

"On one occasion little Benjamin Franklin  . . . seated next to Mrs. M. found himself unequal to the management of his muffin. Mrs. Madison’s aid being invoked, she took the knife to cut it, but a little hand was laid on hers, and an earnest voice exclaimed, ‘No! No! That is not the way!’ ‘Well, how then Master Ben?’ ‘Why, you must tear him open, and put butter inside and stick holes in his back! And then pat him and squeeze him and the juice will run out!’ Mrs. Madison, much amused, followed his directions. Any lover of the English muffin will appreciate their wisdom!"

Notably, the story also seems to mark the transition from “muffin” to “English muffin.” What for the late 18th C. or early 19th C. Master Ben was just a “muffin,” was for Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Harrison, who lived from 1823-1897, an “English muffin.”

American Muffin

The need for a distinction was probably prompted by the growing popularity of quick breads, which was facilitated by the increasing availability of chemical leaveners. The New World turned out to be a great source of potash, which could be refined into pearlash, an alkaline salt used in some bread and cake recipes in Andrea Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery. Chemically-leavened breads really took off after the first factory to produce baking soda was established by two New York bakers in 1846. A 1879 domestic handbook titled Housekeeping in Olde Virginia includes two recipes for “muffins,” the first of which would have produced something like an English muffin, and then:

“Another recipe for muffins…make the batter the consistency of pound cake, and bake in snow-ball cups as soon as made” (foodtimeline.org).

Although a butter and egg-rich cake called “pound cake” was also made in England, the one that’s traditional to the American South is lighter specifically because of the inclusion of baking soda. As quick breads became more common, especially in the American South, the older, yeast-risen style of “muffin” may have been associated with the Old World. It was apparently sold as a distinctively “English” bread at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A recipe in Richard Baxter’s Receipt Book for Bakers (1896) claimed: “These are the genuine English Muffins that were introduced into Chicago during the World’s Fair.” Furthermore, the first person to mass-produce them was an honest-to-God Englishman. 1950s Thomas' ad--before "nooks and crannies" were their slogan--the small print describes the "wonderful texture of ridges and valleys that toast to a golden perfection...eagerly soak up butter, jam or marmalade"

Samuel Bath Thomas emigrated from Plymouth, England to New York in 1875 and began selling yeasted, griddled rolls at his Ninth Avenue bakery in 1880. An article on Wolferman’s website claims that Thomas invented the “English muffin” and the fork-splitting technique that preserved their “nook & crannies” better than knife-slicing, which seems to confuse Thomas’s advertising campaigns with history—the phrase “nooks and crannies” actually comes from 1970s Thomas English muffin ads. But Wolferman’s does have the essential Americanness of the term right—when Unilever bought the S.B. Thomas brand in the 1990s and began exporting “English muffins” to the UK, consumers there were totally bemused by the name.

So the “English muffin” is essentially American—or, traditionally, Welsh—and it’s completely different from the other kind of bread Americans typically call “muffins.”

Just bluffin’ with my muffin

Lamenting the substitution of “English muffin” for “crumpet” in the American versions of the Harry Potter books, Michael Quinion of World Wide Words argues that “crumpet” has unique cultural associations, even though young Americans might not know them. In particular, he mentions the crumpet’s slang connotations:

In the 1930s, the word became British English slang for a woman regarded as an object of sexual desire. No doubt men remembered their schooldays and associated female pulchritude with something tasty….

is "muffin" really not a slang term in the UK? is this cheeky smile really just for the American audience? or does Michael Quinion live under some kind of rock where women can be crumpets but not muffins?But of course, “muffin” has a similar connotation in America. It can refer to attractive people of both genders, usually preceded by “stud” for men, and is also used to refer to female genitalia—although as a primary rather than secondary sex organ, it’s a matter of some dispute whether that counts as “an object of sexual desire” (see Civilization and Its Discontents p. 63). In any case, it’s probably the perfect substitution for “crumpet” for American readers.

The usual explanation for the slang use of “muffin” has less to do with the tastiness of muffins or “female pulchitrude” than the phonetic similarity between muffin and “muff,” as in the winter accessory made of fur. “Muff” was adopted as a slang term for vagina in the late 17th or early 18th C. for anatomical reasons highlighted by this lyric from the 1707 Merry Songs & Ballads: “The Muff between her Haunches, Resembl’d..a Mag-Pye’s Nest” (OED).

By way of unfortunate synecdoche, it eventually became a slang term for a woman or girl, especially if considered promiscuous or a prostitute. According to Cassell’s, the extension to “muffin” as slang for either woman or vagina in the U.S. happened in the 1960s, at which point its primary culinary referent would have been the quick bread baked in a instead of the griddled, yeast-risen roll.

That just makes it all the more curious that “crumpet” would have acquired the same slang meaning overseas without the phonetic tie to “muff.” Is it just the fact that that both crumpets and muffins—both English and American—are round? I guess the words bun, pie, tart, cupcake, and dumpling all have similar slang meanings. Even biscuit is apparently a slang term for a young woman—who, if unappealing, is a “cold biscuit.” Not so for the toroidal bagel, twisted or rod-shaped pretzels, square petit fours, crackers, and brownies,* or flatbreads—there are no entries in Cassell’s for pita or naan, and pizza’s associations are primarily dermatological. I’m left, somewhat uneasily, with the conclusion that round breads and pastries are just inherently yonic. A question for you, dear readers: Are there any round baked goods that haven’t become slang terms for women and/or their genitalia?

*The Girl Scout level is taken from the mythical fairy-like creature known in Scotland and parts of England as a brùnaidh popularized by Canadian author Palmer Cox not the name of the baked good, which refers to the color of the chocolate bar cookie-cake. And even when deployed colloquially it refers primarily to someone being naive, not necessarily female.

What are you waiting for stupid? Eat it!

Even if all round breads are yonic, I guess I’m just more sensitive to the slang meanings of “muffin” than I am to biscuits or pie. It seems ridiculous, for example, to tell you how much I think you will delight in eating these muffins. Or, worse, how much I like eating these muffins. Or to exhort the delights of yeasty muffins.

But it’s the truth. These are some tasty muffins. (See? It’s terrible!)

A few notes on the recipe:

My starter alone doesn’t have enough rising power to create “nooks & crannies” in 10 minutes of baking time, which is why I use a recipe that calls for active dry yeast on top of the starter. If your starter will rise a loaf in less than 2 hrs, feel free to leave the packaged yeast out.

The sourdough flavor will depend on your starter and how long you let the dough rise. If you want a pronounced sourdough flavor, let the dough rise 8+ hrs. If you’re just trying to use up some starter, 2 hrs for the first rise should be plenty. If you don’t have a sourdough starter, double the amount of yeast and add 2/3 cup water and 2/3 cup flour.

When I make larger muffins, I sometimes bake them for 10-15 minutes after griddling them because otherwise they’ll remain doughy inside. To test them for doneness, you can try tapping the browned edges—if they sound hollow, they should be done all the way through; if they sound dense, they may be better if they’re baked. My preferred “testing” method is just to rip one open while it’s still warm off the griddle. If it’s doughy inside, I toast it. If not, I just butter it and go to town.

Recipe: Sourdough English Muffins
makes 12 smaller muffins (~68 g or 2.4 oz) or 8 larger ones (~100 g or 3.5 oz)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sourdough starter (100% hydration)* 
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or more white flour)
  • 1 t. active dry yeast (or about 1/2 packet)
  • 2 t. salt
  • 2 T. softened butter or oil
  • 1 T. sugar or honey
  • 2/3 cup lukewarm milk
  • 2-3 T. cornmeal for dusting the pan

*If not using starter, double the amount of yeast and add 2/3 cup water and 2/3 cup flour.

Method: 

1. Make a “sponge” with the instant yeast by combining it with a pinch of sugar, 1/4 cup flour, and 1/4 cup milk warmed to 110-120 F (or 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup warm water). Let sit for 5-10 minutes—it should get bubbly and increase in volume.

a "sponge" tests to make sure the yeast is aliveit's not strictly necessary--if you know your yeast is active, you can just mix all the ingredients together after 5 minutes: bubbling up nicely

2. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the cornmeal, and mix until it starts to pull away from the bowl and form a dough. After I’ve heated the milk for the sponge, I add the butter so it will melt while the sponge is blooming.

this makes it softer and richer than dough made with just flour and water, although based on the Jefferson stories, you could try that too  all the ingredients together--I doubled the recipe, which is why this looks like so much more than the recipe above would make.

2. Scrape the mixture onto a lightly floured surface and knead around until it’s a well-defined ball that’s tacky but not truly sticky, adding more flour if necessary. I love the way the Jefferson daughter’s cookbook manuscript describes this step, and the process of making bread by feel rather than measured amounts: “Mix . . . the flour up with water so thin that the dough will stick to the table. Our cook takes it up and throws it down until it will no longer stick.”

 in-process kneading pictures are complicated by the sticky, floury hands problem ready to rise

3. Lightly oil a bowl—I usually just use the same bowl I mixed the ingredients in with as much of the dough scraped out as possible. Place the dough in the bowl, turn to coat with oil and cover with plastic wrap or a towel.

4. Let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hrs (or more if you want a more pronounced sourdough flavor).

more than doubled is fine--even leaving it overnight isn't going to hurt anything deflated for the first time: foreshadowing

5. Punch the dough to deflate, remove to a clean table and knead gently until most of the air pockets have been released.

the first four--I weigh the dough to make sure they're even, which isn't necessary but does make for perfectly equal muffins16: again, a double batch

6. Divide into 8-12 pieces and form each one into an even ball by rolling between your hands or on the table. If they’re sticky, dust with a little flour. Cover them as you make them and set a timer for 30 minutes after you finish the first four (they’ll be ready first, so they’re the first ones you’ll two batches of 4 done and cooling, one on the stove, the last 4 on deckgriddle).

7. If making only 8-10 muffins, preheat the oven to 350 F because you’ll probably need to bake them. If making 12, I’d skip this—griddling will probably be sufficient.

8. With about 5 minutes left on the timer, preheat a skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Just before adding the first four muffins, sprinkle it with cornmeal.

9. Starting with the first balls you made, gently put them in the skillet. They should puff up visibly. After about 5 min, flip them and cook them for about 5 min more on the other side. Adjust the heat if necessary—if they’re not browning much after 5 minutes in the pan, turn the heat up. If they’re browning too quickly, turn the heat down. If the “on deck” balls start to rise too much, you can pat them down a little bit.

10. Option: if they’re not done after being griddled, transfer them to a baking sheet and put in a 350 F oven for 10-15 min.

11. To serve: perforate the edge with a fork and gently tear open. Toast (or don’t, your loss).

split with a genuine fork light as honeycomb instead of heavy as lead

Polenta with Cinnamon-Orange Prune Compote

I decided "Pruney Polenta Porridge" was a little too Precious

The Michigan weather gods have been teasing us with a premature Spring, which is glorious in the way that 50-degree sun can only be north of the 40th parallel. But I know it’s not going to last. Californians might be able to look forward to the first asparagus this month and fresh peas not long after, but here the only things “in season” for months to come are kale and cabbage and trucked-in citrus. So here’s one of my favorite winter porridges, adapted from World’s Healthiest Foods. The polenta offers a nice change of pace from oats and simmering the prunes in orange juice and cinnamon until the sugars begin to caramelize makes a tart, spiced topping that’s both sunny and comforting on cold winter mornings, which I’m sure we still have a few of to look forward to.

And no, before noon, I do not grate my own cinnamon. Don't let that stop you, though. It’s remarkably quick and easy to throw together, largely thanks to the instant polenta. I just toss the prunes, orange juice, and cinnamon in a small saucepan set on high heat and a minute or two after I’m done microwaving the polenta, the compote is ready. If you’re more ambitious than I usually am before noon, you could use regular polenta. Russ Parson wrote recently about a stir-and-bake method method that supposedly produces the “deep, toasted corn flavor of a true long-stirred polenta” without the long-stirring. But instant polenta is a far cry better than instant oatmeal, and for a simple, hot breakfast cereal, it does well enough for me.

The recipe is also endlessly adaptable—you can use different juices, spices, fruits, and/or nuts. The original recipe includes apricots, and I throw them in when I have them on hand. I love  cardamom and almonds in place of the cinnamon and walnuts. Dried blueberries and cherries with nutmeg would probably also be great. Milk of any kind—cow, soy, almond, coconut—can be used instead of the water to make a richer polenta. If you were really hurting for summer, you could make a tropical version by doing one or more of the following: cooking the polenta in coconut milk, topping it with pieces of dried mango and papaya simmered in guava juice with allspice and a piece of fresh (or pinch of powdered) ginger, sprinkling it with shredded coconut and macadamia nuts.

But this is how I usually do it:

Recipe: Polenta with Cinnamon-Orange Prune Compote

  • 4 T. instant polenta
  • 1 cup water
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 5-6 prunes
  • generous pinch ground cinnamon
  • small handful of chopped walnuts
  • 1 T. honey (optional)

    a little blurry from the steam

1. In a saucepan, heat the orange juice, prunes, cinnamon, and honey over medium-high heat.

2. Combine the polenta, water, and salt in a bowl and microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until thickened (about 2 minutes).

3. When the juice has reduced to a sauce and is beginning to caramelize and the prunes are softened, pour it over the cooked polenta.

4. Scatter walnuts over the top.

April still can't come soon enough