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culinating :: the terrible truth about muffins [and the happy secret about baking]

because someone has to ruin everything and it might as well be me...

me :: honey, have you seen the 9x13 baking pan?

dom :: the one that you used to put the leftovers in?

me :: yes.

dom :: it's in the fridge with leftovers in it.

me :: oh, ok.

dom :: does that mean you can't bake the cake until we eat all the leftovers?

me :: nah. can you just hand me the muffin pan from up there? [points to a space somewhere high in the stratosphere of our kitchen]

dom :: it'll work as muffins?

me :: of course. the only real difference between cake and muffins is the pan you bake them in.

i'm sorry. i know that we all like to cling to the idea that muffins have some sort of intrinsic healthiness to them, that they're a carb-y but not dessert-like option for breakfast. but the major difference between them and a cake is that they come in individual portions.

in this case, i was making a variation of a molasses spice cake that i kind of made up a few years ago. i say "made up", because i just picked a bunch of ingredients i wanted to use and found a decent generic cake recipe that i could adapt. people tell you that baking is something that you have to do in accordance with a recipe, but that's not quite true. you have to get your ratios right, but you do have more room to play than you would think. my advice? stick to a recipe the first couple of times you try something, then let yourself experiment. generally, if the texture of the batter feels right, you'll do fine. [and by the way, in my experience it's a good idea to stick to recipes when you first try anything, because they're generally written by people who know what they're doing.]

the cake recipe i used for these muffins goes a little something like this:

2/3 cup brown sugar [i like it as dark as possible]
2/3 cup molasses
2/3 cup boiling water
4 tbsp butter
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg [beaten]
1.5 cups flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger [dry, powdered]
1/4 tsp cloves

however, it turned out that i only had about half the required molasses- and normally i add a little more than is necessary to make it nice and dark. i like dark. so in this case, i grabbed a jar of plum jam that i had an threw that in. i figured that molasses and jam are similar consistencies, so there was probably a good chance the switcheroo would work. as it turns out, i was right.

the addition of boiling water is done to melt the butter, but i don't think i've ever done it that way. i just soften the butter in the microwave and use something other than water. many, many years ago, a school friend of mine who could bake shared a secret: substituting just about anything for water in a cake recipe will make the end product moister. in this particular instance, i used some bolthouse farms juice that i had in my fridge- carrot, mango and ginger blend- which gave the final product a taste more akin to a carrot cake, without going all the way. in the past, i've used orange juice and even coffee. next time, i'm thinking of using earl grey tea.

for the spice blend, i find the suggested mix a little mild. since i had ginger in the juice as well as on its own, i didn't adjust that amount [in previous iterations, i've added more], but i did throw in about half a teaspoon of nutmeg and about a quarter teaspoon of garam masala. yes, you read that right. garam masala. i've also thrown in a pinch of cayenne before. using mulling spices and apple juice would probably work really well.

finally, i realised as i was going that we'd used the last of our baking soda to deodorize the litter pans a while back. so i shrugged and used baking powder instead. baking powder is essentially baking soda plus an acidic compound. both are leavening agents, which release carbon dioxide as they are heated and cause the cake, bread, pancake, etc. to rise and become light. so it's actually perfectly acceptable to substitute baking powder for soda, as long as you don't have too many acidic ingredients like citrus, honey or buttermilk. [baking powder combined with a more acidic mixture will give your final baked good a bitter taste.] you can substitute soda for powder as well, but it's a little trickier, since you'll need to add an acid as well as the soda. [a small amount of vinegar can do the trick.]

so there it is. baking is less mysterious than you may have thought, but the bad news is that all baking is about equally bad for your diet no matter what shape in comes out.

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