The goal was to find an easy breakfast treat that would be healthy and ready-to-go on a busy work and school day. The trouble? Even the best recipes for bran muffins yielded something that's only pretty good the day it's baked, and barely edible the next day.
photographed by John Lok
DEVELOPING A new formula for an old recipe can be an exercise in frustration, or it can be a pathway to new and sometimes unexpected delights.
Not long ago, I determined to find a better way to make a bran muffin. I wanted an easy breakfast treat that would be healthy and ready-to-go on a busy work and school day. The trouble was that even the best recipes for bran muffins yield something that’s only pretty good the day it’s baked, and just barely edible the next day.
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And no matter how streamlined you make the process, there is nothing quick about baking from scratch on a hectic weekday morning. I wanted something I could bake ahead and look forward to.
Several attempts to solve the problem on my own led to some pretty firm conclusions:
A little extra fat and sugar make for a better bran muffin.
I like molasses.
Raisins are an important part of a good bran muffin, but when they’re surrounded by cakelike crumbs, they’re more distracting than comforting.
The real revelation, the key to the whole puzzle, came from a recipe in Nancy Silverton’s book, “Pastries from La Brea Bakery.” To make her bran muffins better than ordinary, Silverton simmers raisins in water then purées them in the food processor. This step stopped me in my tracks. The process reminded me of a recipe I developed years ago for a molasses cookie with an extra-chewy quality that had proved somewhat elusive until I read the ingredients of a commercially made iced molasses cookie that included raisin purée.
Raisin purée may not sound particularly thrilling in itself. But I’m here to tell you that in baked goods, especially baked goods containing molasses, it can make a world of difference. I had been trying to create the perfect molasses cookie for years when I stumbled upon that revelation.
It all began with a childhood trip to Texas. My father was raised in the hill country of central Texas, and by the time I was born, his family was spread out from Houston to Longview and Dallas. Once a year or so, my father would pile us all in the family station wagon and drive across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to his home turf, and we would drop in on all our Texas kin.
On one trip, we went to see his grandmother, a tiny woman who was about 90 years old. She lived with her daughter, my great Aunt Lois, in a white clapboard house in a town called La Marque near the Gulf Coast. Because both women were getting on in years, they kept the house very warm, and because the heat came from a gas-burning furnace below the house, a metal grate in the center of the house pumped out a strange, toaster-like smell that comes back to me whenever I think of them. But I digress.
Suffice it to say that a homesick and baffled little boy was made to feel happy and at home when his great aunt gave him a chewy molasses cookie, and when he grew up, he spent considerable effort trying to recapture that moment of cookie-induced bliss. Raisin purée was the key to unlocking that puzzle, and as soon as I read Nancy Silverton’s formula for bran muffins, I knew she was onto something, too.
But if the raisin purée was a stroke of genius, other aspects of Silverton’s recipe were daunting. Her formula included the tedious step of toasting the bran, yet omitted the molasses, an element I consider essential. What’s more, the recipe made more batter than 12 muffin cups would hold. Not exactly what I was looking for. But armed with the idea of puréed raisins, I was ready for another go.
This time, I nailed it. Cook the raisins, purée them with sugar, oil and molasses and you’re on your way to a bran muffin that’s likely to prompt nostalgic reveries of its own. This is a breakfast bread that’s not only fairly quick and easy, it holds up for several days in the bread box and each one induces a sense of satisfaction that will easily last until lunchtime.
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Molasses and Raisin Bran Muffins
Simmering the raisins in water then puréeing them in the food processor provides a rich, satisfying foundation that elevates these bran muffins above the commonplace. They are crisp on the surface, light and sweet on the inside.
1 cup raisins
1 cup water
1/2 cup canola or corn oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups wheat bran
1. Put paper muffin liners in the cups of a 12-cup muffin tin. Lightly spray the papers with nonstick cooking spray or brush them with a light coat of canola oil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the raisins and water. When the water begins to boil, reduce heat to low and let the raisins simmer until they are plumped and soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer the raisins and their cooking liquid to the work bowl of a food processor and process until the mixture becomes a rough purée. With the motor running, stream in the oil, the sugar, the molasses and the egg.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, then stir in the wheat bran. Add the raisin mixture all at once to the dry mixture and stir just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Do not overmix.
4. Distribute the batter evenly in the prepared muffin cups and bake until the muffins are browned on top and springy to the touch, about 20 minutes.
5. Cool the muffins on a rack for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Greg Atkinson, 2011