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Muffing the muffins

Does it help, knowing we are all in the same hopeless boat, adrift on a sea of uncertainty and disarray?


I mentioned in the Post next to this one, that my muffins refuse to rise. By which I mean, they don’t develop those big overflowingly generous-looking tops.


I started with a recipe from Delia Smith, doyenne of homely cooking and centrefield mastermind of Norwich United FC. Go, the Canaries.  It was a miserable failure. Could it have been that she specifies plain flour with a teaspoon of baking soda? But all I had was Allinson’s self-raising wholemeal, with the bran sifted out? Would that have made the difference?

All the ingredients were fresh off the supermarket shelf. The egg was Free Range. I first macerated the expensive fruit, as recommended. I measured carefully, everything except the oven temperature. I have no idea how to set the oven temperature on my cooker. I need a new cooker, with a temperature setting thing, not a random digital counter. So I just got it pretty hot, about halfway up. Heat is heat, right?

I used crinkly paper cups, in a muffin pan. I made sure not to under-blend the wet-n-dry ingredients. I made sure not to over-blend them (it’s Be Kind to Gluten Week). My batter was deliciously partly-mixed and chunky. Raw, it tasted wonderful. I spooned it with sticky difficulty into the cups, right to the top as directed. Finally I followed Delia’s advice to put the tray in the top of the oven.

What I got 40 minutes later were six small cakes. They tasted fine, I’m still eating them, but no way could you call them muffins. The bits of expensive fruit had burned around the edges. And the cakes had to be scraped off the paper cups, leaving most of the outside behind. My cakes were overdone on top, and soggy in the middle.

Something was wrong.

Next, I turned to Claire Ptak, she of the Velvet Bakery in London. I had had a bit of a torrid time with her Plum Victoria Sponge last week, as the quantities in the recipe were so clearly off-kilter. 700 ml of whipped cream, for one 18 cm sponge? There was a bucketful left over even after I’d splodged a half-inch or so layer for the filling. You don’t measure liquid milk, surely, in dry grammes? And it was still runny after the recommended max. 40 mins cooking time. That turned into an hour and a half.

The ladies at choir that night were a-flutter with praise for my Plum Sponge, but I knew Claire’s over-heavy sponge didn’t deserve it.

Claire’s muffins were even worse than Delia’s, and more expensive, blackberries being hors du saison in March. Just for the hell of it, I folded some of the spare cream into the mix, which made them taste fluffy and delicious for one evening, but rubbery and sour the next day, as if I had forgotten the sugar. They still didn’t rise. Was one egg enough? And a teaspoon of baking powder added to the self-raising flour? Was that too much? Was I using the right blend of baking powder?

Yet again, cakes. Burned on top, and fluffy, going-on rubbery in the middle.

Today I changed the flour. I bought bog-standard McDougall’s Plain. I suppose I should have sieved, but I’ve never found a single lump in a McDougall’s bag. I tossed instead, and doubled the quantity of baking soda and – on Yotam Ottolenghi’s advice – added a pinch of bicarb, which I am now unhappily farting. I filled the cases right to the top. The mix was suspiciously runny.

Confidence was low, as I was conscious of the fact that, on the next page of Ottolenghi – the pages have all stuck together after my wild success with his Apple Cake with Olive Oil the previous week, where it came out looking exactly like in the photograph and grown women wept at my feet – he was going to ask me to put in FIVE teaspoons of baking powder. One tastes bad enough (do these culinary celebrities read their own stuff, one wonders, idly?).

Forty minutes later, the muffins haven’t risen again. They don’t look at all like Yotam’s riotous explosions. They look flat, with hard tops and soggy middles. The expensive blueberries are again burned. The cakes are again decimated by firm, irremovable adherence to the crinkly paper. I think I’ll drop the crinkly paper idea, especially if the muffins are not going to form perfect domes above it, like in Costa Coffee.

What can one do, but turn to the Interweb Thing? Keying plaintively: ‘Muffins won’t rise’ produces literally hundreds of Help fora on the subject. Gratifyingly, it seems that no-one in the entire world’s muffins will rise. And no-one really knows why not, to judge by the shot-in-the-dark answers from self-styled experts.

There are only six key ingredients in a muffin, and it is even a help that they should be inexpertly blended. Flour, sugar, egg (Yotam recommends using several), milk, melted butter, raising agent – plus your choice of flavouring. What’s to go wrong?

Well, there are only four base-pair combinations in the human genome, and we haven’t run out of strange faces yet.

But I’m not giving up, nossir. Someone recommends putting the tray in the bottom of the oven, after an initial blast of searing heat. Someone else says not to use too much raising agent. Someone else says it’s cheaper and easier and much, much less time-consuming to buy muffins from the cake shop… Oh, yes, that’s me!

Try that next. Saves washing-up.

Try anything.

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