Thursday, August 03, 2006

Homemade English Muffins: A Surprisingly Good Idea

We recently moved to a small town on the other side of the country, and neither of the convenient grocery stores carried my style of English muffin. I like English muffins with a little butter and jam for breakfast sometimes, but I prefer the Oat Bran ones, and all I could find were Honey Wheat or 12 grain. So I decided to make my own. I have no idea why I went with the idea of making my own, instead of deciding to just switch flavors. Time must have been hanging heavy on my hands. I made plain whole wheat initially, but now that I’ve found the experiment to be successful, I can buy my own bag of oat bran and make the kind I can’t find here.

I wasn’t at all sure they would turn out, you understand. I used a recipe from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and as I was putting the dough together, it seemed questionable. First it called for one and three quarter cups of liquid to three cups of flour. When I mixed this up, it didn’t seem very promising. It said to let the dough rise until it doubled in bulk. This first rise wasn’t so much a rise as an unimpressive bubbling. At least I knew the yeast was working, even if it didn’t seem like I would wind up with anything that even vaguely resembled English muffins at the other end.

The second rise was also unpropitious, although it did do something that more closely resembled doubling in bulk. I also added and extra half a cup of flour beyond what the recipe called for because the dough seemed awfully sticky. When I patted out the dough and cut out the muffins it was still sticky. I used a lot of flour to keep them from sticking to the cutting board, and even had to use a spatula to scrape them up so I could move them around. (Now I use more flour than the recipe calls for, adding it by quarter cups until the dough can be handled easily, and use less on the board when I cut them out.)

English muffins cook on a griddle or in a skillet, rather than being baked. I used a 10” skillet we have—regular, not nonstick, but sprayed with cooking spray to keep them from sticking. And they cook for a long time—about 10 to 15 minutes per side. They just get cooked over a very low heat so they don’t burn. My big fear was that they’d be done on the outside, but still raw in the middle. I must say that when they were cooked, they looked a lot like English muffins on the outside. And surprisingly, they even tasted like English muffins. It looked like an English muffin! It tasted like an English muffin! It even split in half the way the ones from the store do! I was pretty thrilled that I had managed to produce a real, live English muffin.

There are some things that we buy in the grocery store that we wouldn’t really think of making at home. Yogurt springs to mind (I make this too). Hot dog or hamburger buns. Ketchup. Sausage. I’m sure there are people who make these things from scratch, but until I made English muffins, I never thought of myself as one of them.

Since making these muffins, I’ve found a cookbook that actually suggests you make them for guests for a weekend breakfast. A year ago I would have scoffed at this idea. Now I’d consider trying it. As with any yeast dough, you can slow down either of the rises by refrigerating the dough, so you could mix it up the night before through the second addition of flour, put it in the refrigerator for the second rise, then cut them and cook them in the morning. And rather than giving a recipe here, I’d just say go check out Fannie Farmer, and use your best judgment as regards dough texture—never mind how much flour she says to use; it should look like dough, so after the first rise (but before the second) add enough flour until it does.

I cut mine out using a juice glass that’s about 2 ¾” in diameter (the last of a set of six I liberated from a company I used to work for that had actually gone to the expense of having their logo silk screened on juice glasses and coffee mugs for executive meetings—ah the excess of the 1980s). But you could also just pat the dough out and cut them in squares (not traditional, but less trouble than actually cutting them out with a round cutter). It has also occurred to me that they’d be wonderful cut out small—maybe 1”—cooked, and served with soup, or as the bread for some kind of little sandwich on a buffet. I’ve made ham biscuits a number of times, and served them with several different mustards, but little English muffins could either be split and made into pizzas, or used as the outside around some kind of sandwich filling (turkey or ham, or even something like chicken salad).

While they take a bit of time to make, it’s unattended time, for the most part. Even when they’re cooking, you can wander of for a few minutes at a time. I don’t recommend leaving them cooking and going off to shower, but certainly you could go check the mail, change over a load of laundry, or let the dog out (possibly even all three, if the dog didn’t take too long outside), and get back just about the time the muffins were cooked on one side. As for that underdone in the middle fear, even if they are a tad doughy in the center, toasting them will cook them that last little bit. It’s not the solution for really underdone muffins once they’re split—I don’t think there’s any hope for them, except perhaps to bake them in the oven for a little while at 350—but the toasting will finish off a muffin that came off the griddle slightly too soon.

I classify my English muffin experiment as a huge success. I haven’t had the courage to tackle ketchup yet (it’s not really tomato season here yet anyway), and I may never (things that need to go in sterilized jars or bottles kind of intimidate me, frankly—botulism is such an ugly thing). But one of these days I’ll make homemade English muffins for my weekend guests or in place of biscuits on a buffet, and be able to say truthfully “Oh, they’re simple, really.”

No comments: