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blackberry lavender muffins

My nesting instinct has kicked into high gear. For the last couple months I’ve been squirreling away home-cooked food in the freezer and pantry, preparing for the long-distance sprint of the early weeks of parenthood when–I’ve been warned–we’ll live our lives in foggy 45 minute increments between feedings and diaper changes, lucky if we get a chance to shower or feed ourselves.

make ahead muffin ingredients

In my quest for foods that are comforting, nourishing, and most importantly can be eaten with one hand, I’ve found myself on a bit of a muffin bender. In lots of ways muffins are the perfect food. I’ve been tinkering with the recipe to sneak in a little whole wheat flour, cut back a bit on the sugar, and generally come up with something that I don’t feel (too) guilty about eating for breakfast every day. And now that I’ve got the basic recipe perfected–not too sweet, moist and cakey in the middle, crusty on the outside, golden brown on top–I’m having fun improvising with the flavors. Blackberry-lavender, mango-ginger, blueberry-almond…the possibilities are endless.

Blackberry muffins from the oven

Muffins are also the perfect thing to make early in the morning while the sun comes up. As my belly expands and the discomforts of pregnancy make it harder to sleep, I’ve been catching quite a few sunrises these days. (And I suspect there will be more sunrises to enjoy in my future, as the days of sleeping in are surely numbered.) Our kitchen faces east, and for some reason, it just feels right to be making muffins as I watch the marsh outside our windows change colors in the first light of day.

Mill Valley Sunrise

When I sit down with my coffee in those early morning hours, waiting for the muffins to puff up in the oven and to fill the house with their promising smell, I contemplate what the future holds. And not just the near-term future I mentioned above of exhausted days and sleepless nights. But the good stuff. The stuff that makes it all worth while. I wonder what he’ll be like. That little person growing inside me. What will it feel like to hold him in my arms? What will his personality be? Will he be serious, or funny, contemplative, fastidious? Will he look like his dad? What little quirks will he have? Will he someday stand on a stool next to me at the kitchen counter and crack the eggs and lick the muffin batter off the spoon? Which kind of muffins will be his favorite?

Delicious thoughts of anticipation as I wait patiently for those muffins in the oven…

Barefoot and pregnant with muffin

The Ultimate Muffin Base (and a few of my favorite variations below)

Adapted a bit from the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. Makes a dozen medium-sized muffins.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
ground spices (see variations)
1 cup plain yogurt (I used full fat versions, Greek or European style. If you try with low-fat, let me know how it works)
1/2 cup milk (I used 1% because that’s what we have in our fridge. If you use low-fat yogurt, you might need whole milk)
citrus zest, juice and/or grated ginger (see variations)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened slightly
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
vanilla or other extract (see variations)
fresh fruit, dried fruit, and/or nuts (see variations)
extra sugar, spices and nuts for topping (see variations)

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees and generously grease muffin tins with butter. Mix first five dry ingredients (plus spices, if using) in a medium bowl and set aside. Mix yogurt, milk (and zest/juice, if using) in small bowl and set aside.

Using a mixer (fitted with a paddle attachment, if you have a standing mixer), beat in a large bowl until fluffy: butter, white sugar and brown sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time, and extract, if using. Turn mixer speed to low and mix in yogurt mixture and dry ingredients, alternating to fold in about 1/3 of each at a time, mixing gently until just blended. Turn off mixer and add fruit/nuts, gently folding in by hand.

Scoop muffin batter into greased muffin tins. (An ice cream scoop with a spring handle works wonders for keeping your portions even and minimizing drips.) Sprinkle the tops of muffins with sugar, spices, nuts (see variations.) Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to rest in muffin tin for 3-4 minutes, but not too long–the texture will be better if they don’t steam in their tins for more than a few minutes. As soon as the tops of the muffins are cool enough to handle, run a butter knife around the edges of each muffin and gently pry them out and place on a cooling rack to cool.

Enjoy at least one while still warm (that’s a must!). For any that you don’t eat the same day you bake them, wrap in plastic and freeze. To re-heat, wrap muffins in tin foil, leaving the tops slightly exposed and heat in 325 degree oven ~15 min, or until warm in the center.

Variation #1: Mango Ginger Muffins

Follow recipe above, with these variations:

Add to dry ingredients: 2 teaspoons ground ginger, 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Add to yogurt mixture: 1 teaspoon zest and a tablespoon or two of juice from an orange, 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
Add to batter after eggs: 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Fold into batter by hand: 1 1/2-2 cups fresh diced mango (from about 2 medium-sized mangoes)
Mix in a small bowl and sprinkle on top of muffins before baking:2-3 tablespoons sugar (I like to use turbinado or raw sugar), 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Variation #2: Blackberry Lavender Muffins

Follow recipe above, with these variations:

Add to dry ingredients: 1 teaspoon ground ginger
Add to yogurt mixture: 1 teaspoon lemon zest
For butter/sugar mixture: use 1 cup of white sugar (omit brown sugar)
Add to batter after eggs: 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon lavender extract
Fold into batter by hand: 1 1/2 cups fresh blackberries (one basket), cut into half
Sprinkle a little sugar on top of muffins before baking (I like to use turbinado or raw sugar)

Variation #3: Blueberry Almond Muffins

Follow recipe above, with these variations:

For dry ingredients: Use 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, and 1 cup ground almond meal (I bought mine at Trader Joe’s, but you can also just grind whole almonds in the food processor.)
Add to batter after eggs: 1 Tablespoon almond extract
Fold into batter by hand: 1 1/2-2 cups fresh blueberries
Mix in a small bowl and sprinkle on top of muffins before baking:2-3 tablespoons sugar (I like to use turbinado or raw sugar), 1/4 cup sliced almonds (break them up a little with your fingers) and a couple of dashes of ground cinnamon

Variation #4: Cranberry-Apricot-Orange-Pecan Muffins

Follow recipe above, with these variations:

Mix in a small bowl and set aside: 2/3 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped, 1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped, 2 teaspoons orange zest, 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Add to dry ingredients: 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, dash or two of freshly ground nutmeg
Fold into batter by hand: Cranberry apricot mixture, 2/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans
Mix in a small bowl and sprinkle on top of muffins before baking:2-3 tablespoons sugar (I like to use turbinado or raw sugar), 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans

Blackberry lavender muffins

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Last week, my mother-in-law visited from Connecticut. She had only one request for her time in California: a trip to the farmer’s market. A request that I was more than happy to oblige. It was a deliciously gorgeous spring day and I savored the excuse to wander more slowly than usual, stopping at every stall to admire the bounty with the appreciation of outsider’s eyes.

We selected quite a haul for our Sunday dinner. A fresh chicken and carrots in assorted colors for roasting, potatoes for mashing, and sugar snap peas for munching. But the score of the day was definitely the strawberries. Luscious perfumy little jewels that seduced us at first bite. We picked up three baskets so we’d still have plenty left to make a dessert after we had greedily eaten our fill over the sink.

When we got home from the farmer’s market, I lugged a few of my favorite cookbooks out to a sunny spot in the backyard and we poured over recipes for a while (sorry friends, blogging is fun, but there are times when there is no substitute for the satisfaction of a heavy book on your lap), finally settling on the Rhubarb Strawberry Pudding Cake recipe from the Gourmet Today cookbook by Ruth Reichl.

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Making this cake with my mother-in-law in the kitchen was one of my favorite moments of her visit. She did the dry ingredients, I did the wet. And we shared the delight in the heavenly smell of the cake in the oven. Sweet, bright and comforting, like family when you need it most.

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This is a really easy, no-fuss kinda cake, and it’s more delicious than it is photogenic. I guess they call it pudding cake because it’s so moist you could eat it with a spoon. The note in the cookbook says you can modify the recipe to use almost any fruit your heart desires, and you can bet I’ll be trying it with peaches come July. (Plus raspberries, perhaps?)

The only modification I made to the recipe was to add a little citrus zest (orange + lemon) because we had a few from our backyard trees that weren’t juicy enough for anything else, and it seemed the right thing to do. We served the cake warm with a dusting of powdered sugar, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a few slices of fresh strawberries.

I’ve heard the leftovers are great for breakfast. I’m not saying I’ve tried it, but it tastes great with coffee.

Rhubarb Strawberry Pudding Cake
from the Gourmet Today cookbook by Ruth Reichl. Recipe can also be found on Epicurious.

Makes 6 to 8 (breakfast or dessert) servings

1/4 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar
2 cups chopped fresh rhubarb stalks
1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon+ of citrus zest (lemon and/or orange. Optional. This part is Ms. T’s addition–not in the Gourmet recipe.)

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. Butter an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish.

Stir together water, cornstarch, and 1/3 cup sugar in a small saucepan, then stir in rhubarb. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, then simmer, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in strawberries.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl.

Whisk together egg, milk, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Add citrus zest.

Reserve 1/2 cup fruit mixture, then add remainder to baking dish and pour batter over it, spreading evenly. Drizzle reserved 1/2 cup fruit mixture over batter. Grate a little more citrus zest on top. Bake until a wooden pick inserted into center of cake portion comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes before serving. (Can be made a few hours ahead of time and served at room temperature or re-heated.)

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I’m not ready for pears yet. I’m still trying to get my fill of peaches, corn* and juicy ripe tomatoes. You know, the summer stuff. Turning my attention to pears and apples feels like packing away my summer sandals before I’ve even had a chance to wear them. But even though I’m not ready for pears yet, the pears are definitely ready for me. The little pear tree in our backyard has already dropped about sixty of them. They drop on the ground one at a time with a little thud, and roll down the stone path towards the house, practically knocking on the kitchen door. They can no longer be ignored. It’s time to get cooking.

Pear Ginger Walnut Muffins
Makes one dozen medium-sized muffins. Recipe adapted from Applesauce Spice Muffins recipe on Epicurious, which are also delicious, and one of my favorite recipes for when the apples start falling off our tree–which I hope won’t happen until I’ve figured out what to do with all these pears.

For pear ginger sauce:
2 cups diced pears from about 4 small, ripe pears. I’m not 100% sure what variety my tree is, but I think it’s Bartlett or something similar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons grated ginger (I keep my peeled ginger root in the freezer and grate it with a microplane when I need it, which tends to make the gratings a little fluffy. So if you’re using fresh, unfrozen ginger, you might want a little less)

For muffins:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup pear ginger sauce
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

For topping:
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts

Make pear ginger sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When butter is melted and frothy add pears, tossing with a wooden spoon to coat. Add 1/2 cup of sugar, stirring to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Add grated ginger and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, until pears are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 15-20 minutes. You can make the pear ginger sauce ahead of time and store it in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for a few weeks. The quantities listed here are perfect for one batch of muffins, but I usually double or triple the pear sauce recipe and keep some in my freezer for the next batch of muffins, or to serve over crepes, french toast, or ice cream.

Prepare muffins:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. Grease muffin pan.

Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, ground ginger, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together eggs and sugar in a large bowl until combined well, then add butter whisking or blending with electric mixer until creamy. Stir in pear ginger sauce, then fold in flour mixture to combine. Stir in nuts and divide batter among muffin cups.

Make topping and bake:
Stir together sugar and ground ginger and sprinkle on top of muffins, along with chopped walnuts. Bake until muffins are golden and toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then remove muffins from pan and cool slightly. Enjoy with coffee, preferably barefoot in a sunny spot in the backyard, because the apples are coming soon and you might not be able to get away with this much longer.

Once cooled completely, the muffins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature 1 day, or in the freezer for about a week.

*Speaking of corn, even though all 19 people who read this blog are surely sick of hearing about it by now, I would be remiss not to devote a little space on this page for a squeal of delight at my recent win on Food 52. It’s been ridiculously and disproportionately thrilling to be publicly recognized for something I love to do so much. Just a few months ago, I set myself on a path to devote a little more time and energy to this passion of mine, just to see where that path might take me. Hence this blog, the contests, some fun coffee dates with professional foodies and lots of kitchen daydreaming. The encouragement I’ve received from friends, family and even strangers around the world who share my passion is intoxicating. Thank you all for being a part of that.

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The idea of starting a blog has been simmering on the back-burner of my mind for longer than I care to admit. Just a place to keep track of my various kitchen experiments and the flavors that linger in my memory after the meal is over. Every time I fall in love with an ingredient all over again, the post is half-written in my head. But then the moment comes and goes and life moves on. Let’s face it, the first post is intimidating.

But you have to start somewhere, so why not start with breakfast? My mother always told me that breakfast was an important way to start the day, and there was a breakfast a few weeks ago that I can’t stop thinking about. The inspiration was a few nectarines from the farmer’s market–fragrant and gorgeous, but fading fast and screaming to be used immediately. What is sadder than throwing away fruit that used to be perfect, but is now past its prime? So, height-of-summer fruit on a sunny morning, combined with a killer view overlooking the ocean from our weekend rental house, and the opportunity to cook for three of the people I love most in this world, well, that pretty much sums it up.

French Toast with Warm Cherry & Nectarine Sauce


3 ripe nectarines, pitted and cut into bit-sized chunks
1 1/2 cup cherries, pitted and halved
2 Tbs butter for sauce, plus a generous pat or two for pan-frying french toast
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tsp ground ginger
1/4 cup water
2 Tbs fruit jam (I used a lovely peach and lavender jam that I found at the farmer’s market)
pinch salt
8 thick slices of crusty bread (I like to use a country white or light wheat, slightly stale)
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup sugar

Heat 2 tbs butter in medium saucepan over medium heat until melted. Add 1/2 of the fruit and cook for a few minutes until it begins to soften, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Add 1/4 cup sugar and ginger, stir to combine and cook for another minute or two, until things start to get nice and gooey. Add water and jam and stir well. Bring to low boil, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for about 10 minutes until some water has evaporated and you’ve got a nice syrupy sauce. Add remaining fruit, and cook for another minute to heat through. Total cooking time for sauce should be about 15-20 min. Turn off heat and cover to keep warm.

Whisk eggs, milk, vanilla and 1/4 cup sugar in a large, shallow baking dish. Bathe first 4 slices of bread in egg mixture, turning so they soak for a minute or two on each side. Heat a generous pat of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat, until melted and frothy. Add your egg-logged bread to pan with a satisfying sizzle and cook for a about 2 minutes, until golden brown on bottom, then flip for another two minutes on the other side. Remove from skillet and keep warm in oven. While your first batch is in the pan, soak the remaining slices in egg mixture, and then repeat pan-frying.

To serve, place two slices of french toast on each plate and douse with a few generous spoonfuls of warm fruit sauce. If you feel like getting fancy–and can stand to wait an extra minute before digging in–sprinkle with a little powdered sugar to make it look pretty, and maybe even add a sprig of mint.

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