Do you know the muffin man … the muffin man … the muffin man? Well, if you mean the one who lives on Drury Lane … Yes, I know the muffin man! I am dating myself now, quite certainly, by recalling this childhood song. I doubt any millennials can sing it, or have ever heard of it. But one thing I do know is that I love English muffins. Doesn’t everyone? Splitting an English muffin in half, toasting it and spreading it softened butter and jam has to be one of the best breakfasts I know of … although they weren’t originally intended to be eaten that way.
In America we think of ‘muffins’ s as small hearty, cake-like breakfast items, which may or may not be made with fruit and nuts. These are not to be confused with English muffins, which we sometimes call “crumpets”. Although both did originate in England and both are griddle cakes, technically, a “crumpet” is a bread-like dough using baking powder as its leavening agent, while “muffins” use the same bread-like dough but with yeast as its leavening agent. Also, crumpets are meant to be eaten without slicing open … muffins are sliced open. Confusing, I know.
If you’ve watched Downton Abbey, or Upstairs Downstairs, you know that all wealthy aristocratic families had their own kitchen staff which, depending upon the size of the household, included cooks and bakers. The “muffin” or “crumpet” originated from the leftover dough the bakers would be baking that day. He or she would take the leftover bits, roll them up into a ball, flatten them and toss them onto a hot griddle. These would then be enjoyed by the “downstairs” staff at tea time. These crusty morsels were such a tasty hit, the “upstairs” family wanted them too. It wasn’t long before these bready treats were also being served “upstairs” at tea time.
The word quickly spread about these delicious, small, round grilled rolls. And soon bakers everywhere were making them and peddling them on the streets to the working classes. At that time it was far too dangerous for city homes and apartments to have an indoor working oven. As a result most people could not do their own baking. So this inexpensive bread roll became an easy breakfast to grab and go while on the way to work. Early in the morning, on the streets of London, with a wooden board balanced on his head and a bell in hand, the “muffin man” would walk up and down the “lanes” ringing his bell to signal his arrival.
And now that we know who the muffin man was, let’s make some muffins! I’m using British bread baker, Paul Hollywood’s recipe. Not quite sure how they are going to turn out, but let’s have fun trying.
Makes 8 to 10 good-sized muffins. Prep time: about 2 to 3 hours.
2-1/3 cups white, bread flour
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 medium-sized egg at room temperature, beaten
2/3 cup milk, warmed
This makes a VERY wet, soft and sticky dough and can be tricky to handle. Should it get too sticky while kneading, let it rest for ten minutes. The gluten will relax and then go back to kneading.
In a large mixing bowl with a paddle attachment (or by hand), mix all the dry ingredients together. You may want to dissolve the dry yeast in the warmed milk, or not. It’s up to you. If you dissolve the yeast in the warmed (not hot) milk, it will shorten the proving time a bit.
Add the milk (yeast mixture), beaten egg and softened butter. Beat all the ingredients together until smooth, glossy and the dough has formed a ball. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and let it rest for ten minutes.
After ten minutes, begin kneading. It will be STICKY. Don’t add more flour or you will change the structure of the dough. Continue kneading (scraping the board if necessary) until the dough has stopped sticking and is smooth and shiny. This will take about 15 minutes.
Place the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place to double in size. If you want to make the dough at night to cook in the morning, just place the dough into the refrigerator. This will slow down the proving process.
When the dough has doubled in size, tip it out onto a lightly floured board which has been dusted with corn meal. Roll the dough out like a pizza to about 1″ thick. Using a biscuit cutter, dusted with flour (or tuna fish can, which is what I use), cut out the ‘muffins’. You should get between 8 and 10.
Place the muffins onto a parchment lined sheet which has also been dusted with corn meal. Cover the muffins lightly with plastic wrap and let them rest for about 30 minutes.
Preheat a stove-top griddle over medium heat. Lightly oil the griddle. If you prefer to oven bake them, preheat the oven to 350° and use a heated pizza stone. When the griddle is ready, toss the biscuits onto the surface and cook them for about 10 minutes or more on each size, depending upon the thickness of the muffins. Baking will take about 25 minutes (flipping them over half way).
When done, move them to a wire rack to cool. Then put the kettle on, get the butter and jam. Slice one open and lash on the goodness. You deserve it. Honestly, once I realized how to work with such a sticky dough, they were quite easy. Now they are going to be a weekly treat … perfect for a weekend breakfast.
Ella Fitzgerald can even make this little ditty sound good. Listen ……
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References: Kitchen Project, The Foodies Companion, Bread Through History, BBC Food
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