One consequence of catering to picky eaters (i.e., children) is that certain food groups are neglected for years on end. Another consequence of catering to picky eaters is that they grow up and come home with an appetite to match their status as much bigger people. This new appetite begets requests for foods that were banished during their childhood. The disenfranchised food group in question here is muffins, even bakery-bought cake-like, lollapalooza muffins. But living away from home (in New York City for example) broadens one’s tastes apparently. Muffins are back.
Questioning why a picky eater turns up his nose at something is an exercise in futility. There is no rhyme or reason to explain the capriciousness of children. Should you indulge them? I struggled with the question, landing on the side of indulgence more often than not, deciding that battles at the dinner table were secondary to other skirmishes pertaining to child rearing. Luckily, it all turned out okay. Nature took its course. The muffin is now being reinstated, along with many other foods that were once excluded.
Truth be told, I was never much of a muffin maker. With low demand and a perverse insistence on my part to keep them healthy by cutting back on sugar and fat, the muffins I produced were nothing to write home about. They were flat. They were dry. No wonder they languished on the counter until they were stale enough to be relegated to the compost heap.
When I revisited muffin making recently, I made a decision to renounce my Spartan ways. Still, my leanings are always towards whole-earth-crunchy, and these chocolate zucchini muffins reflect that. I used whole wheat pastry flour and barley flour. I incorporated a vegetable (!) I added chocolate—for its health benefits, of course. There was little I could do about the sugar or fat though—these are essential to making muffins taste good—the key is to exercise moderation in eating them.
I punished myself by investigating some of the ingredients. What I found (via internet research, so don’t hold my feet to the fire on this) is that sugar is sugar is sugar. It is not all that good for you—in fact, studies point to sugar as a much greater health risk than fat. There are no really “healthy” sugars—so pick your poison: white, brown, natural cane sugar, evaporated cane juice—any one of them will do. These muffins are only moderately sweet. If your taste buds lean towards sweetness, then I suggest adding an additional 1/4 cup sugar to the recipe. To me, they are just sweet enough as is.
As for fat, I used butter and coconut oil. I started with a small amount of fat, but it kept creeping up. I know that vegetable oil in cakes produces a moist texture—everyone is familiar with carrot cake—so I thought I’d try using coconut oil. I used whole kernel coconut oil in its solid form (right out of the jar.) It has plenty of flavor but is not too assertive in the final product. It is more like pleasant background music. I cut it into the flour with the butter, as you would do for biscuits. The results were good, so I stopped there, but next time I will try melting the butter and oil. I’ll post an update when I get to that iteration.
I roughly calculated that each muffin is 350 calories. No, muffins are not health or diet food. But you knew that. And we both still want to eat them.
TEN TIPS FOR MAKING GOOD MUFFINS
1. Before you start measuring, butter the muffin tins or line with paper liners. In either case, butter the rims and top of the muffin tin so batter overflow won’t stick.
2. Always preheat the oven.
3. Use the fluff and scoop method to measure dry ingredients: Fluff up the flour in the canister, scoop it into a dry measuring cup (i.e., a measuring cup with a flat handle, not a spout) and level excess with a knife.
4. Don’t over mix the batter. It should just come together without any traces of dry flour.
5. Get the batter into the muffin tin as soon as it is mixed. Both baking powder and baking soda are activated immediately by liquid ingredients, and then again by the heat of the oven.
6. When the batter is thick, you can fill the muffin tins fuller, thus producing rounded tops and a hefty muffin.
7. Use a 2 1/2-inch wide ice cream scoop (level when filled with batter) to produce the exact perfect amount for each muffin in this recipe.
8. For the best oven spring to produce domed muffin tops, use a hot oven (400 degrees) to start and then turn down the temperature (375 degrees) after 10 minutes. (Since I am not good at remembering to do that, I sometimes break that rule and bake muffins at 375 degrees and they are fine, but I have not done a scientific comparison.)
9. Let muffins rest in the pan for at least 5 minutes before removing them to keep them from crumbling.
10. Eat muffins while they are warm.
I did not mention that muffins, if not consumed on the day of baking, can be stored in the freezer in a sturdy plastic bag for up to about 6 weeks. They are perfectly safe after that, though perhaps not at their best. I am not above eating any I have found neglected in my freezer for longer. In fact, as I write this, it is all I can do to keep myself from rushing down the basement stairs to the freezer right this minute. That basement freezer was meant to be a deterrent to impulsive consumption, and it is not working very well.
These muffins are not too sweet, which makes them fine for breakfast and actually, good for mid-morning or late afternoon snacks. Or for right now. They are moist enough, but not too cake-like or cloying. The fancy pants topping—pistachios and turbinado sugar—gives them an extra-special crunch with each chocolately bite.
Chocolate zucchini muffins
Makes 12 to 13 muffins
Softened unsalted butter, for the muffin tin
1/3 cup cocoa powder (preferably best quality Dutch process cocoa)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 cups barley flour
1 cup sugar (or 1 1/4 cups if you have a sweet tooth)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick or 2 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into slices
1/2 cup coconut oil (in solid form)
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups grated zucchini
1/4 cup chopped pistachios
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position, and heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Generously butter a 12-cup muffin tin. Butter the rims and top of the pan. If using paper liners, butter the top of the pan.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, sift the cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Add the whole wheat flour, barley flour, and sugar. Run the machine to thoroughly mix the dry ingredients. Add the butter and coconut oil. Pulse the machine briefly, until they are in pea-size pieces. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. (Without a food processor, sift the cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into a large bowl. Whisk in the flour. Cut the butter and coconut oil into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter or a whisk, until they are in pea-size pieces.)
3. Make a well in the center of the bowl and break the eggs into it. Add the milk and vanilla. Beat with a fork to break up the eggs. With a rubber spatula, stir together until the flour is incorporated.
4. Stir the zucchini into the batter, until well combined. The batter will be thick.
5. Use a 2 1/2–inch wide ice-cream scoop to portion the batter. Fill it and scrape it across the edge of the bowl to level the batter. Fill the muffin cups in a standard size muffin tin with the rounded side up. If you have a little extra batter, spoon it into a buttered ramekin
6. Sprinkle the muffins with pistachios and turbinado sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin emerges with just a few crumbs.
7. Set muffin tin on a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Remove the muffins from the pan and cool on the rack.