Muffins are one of those foods that I usually avoid. Like grocery store birthday cakes, they contain too much fat and sugar and not enough flavor. Only rarely are they worth their calorie count. I always feel like a bit of a chump when I have to pay money for one, which occurs from time to time (most often when I visit the local coffee shop and want just a little something to go with my cappuccino).
As with many other baked goods, muffins aren’t really difficult to make and call for ingredients that are usually on hand: flour, butter, milk, eggs. There are, however, a few fairly rigid rules that must be observed when making muffins: mix with a light hand to obtain a tender texture and eat them almost as soon as they come out of the oven to enjoy their fleeting splendor. A muffin turns to stone even an hour out of the oven and tastes about as appetizing.
The fact that most commercial bakers ignore these rules means that you’re really better off making your own at home, which is what I did on Sunday. I followed a recipe from my favorite muffin cookbook, The Joy of Muffins: The International Muffin Cookbook by Genevieve Farrow and Diane Dreher.
I like a lot of things about this cookbook. I like that it has a subtitle; I like that it features all kinds of muffins for all kinds of purposes: sweet, savory, breakfast, main course, dessert, and microwaveable (yikes!). I like that it features recipes that are, as the title implies, internationally inspired. I like that the authors often succumbed to whimsy when naming their muffins: “Johnny Appleseed Fudge Muffins,” “Gilroy Garlic Muffins,” “Yankee Economy Muffins,” and “Hungarian Hussar’s Muffins,” to name a few.
But the thing that I like most about the book is that you can open it to any page at random, choose a recipe, and invariably wind up with delicious muffins. This is exactly what happened on Sunday, when, after a quick flip through the book, I settled on “Hungarian Hussar’s Muffins.”
How could I not make muffins named for Austro-Hungarian mercenaries?
Well, actually, they take their name from a traditional Hungarian cookie called Huszarcsok, or Hussar’s Kisses, which are a bit like the thumprint cookies that I once made in a high school home economics class (is this course still offered as an elective in public high schools?). I like the idea of eating a muffin inspired, however indirectly, by a group of highly efficient mercenary soldiers, so if anyone asks, I’ll just pretend that I don’t know anything about the kisses.
The muffins turned out to be very worthy namesakes, every bit as impressive as their military counterparts. They were light, airy, and only a little bit sweet (the muffins, I mean). They also house a surprise — a bit of jam inside of each muffin. Of course, my jam sunk down to the muffin bottoms, but they were no less delicious for it. I adapted the recipe just a bit and included a new favorite secret ingredient, Fiori di Sicilia, which is a combination of vanilla and citrus oils and smells like the most incredible perfume you’ll ever encounter. It’s available from the King Arthur website, but be forewarned, if you like baking at all you’ll spend entirely too much time and money there.
I served the Hussars with grapefruit sent by my lovely sister-in-law for Jim’s birthday, but hastily and greedily enjoyed by all three of us. Here are all 18 of the grapefruit nestled cozily in our refrigerator on Thursday night:
I’m only a little bit embarrassed to confess that today, Monday, only 4 remain.
Hungarian Hussar Muffins (minimally adapted from The Joy of Muffins)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. grated lemon rind
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 large egg, beaten
4 tbs. butter, melted
1 cup butter milk
2 tsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. fiori di sicilia
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a standard sized muffin pan. Mix flour, sugar, lemon rind, baking power, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, whisk together egg, butter, buttermilk, lemon juice, and fiori di sicilia. Make a well in the dry ingredients and quickly add liquid ingredients. Fill greased muffin tins one-half full, then add 1 tsp. jam to each and cover with batter. Sprinkle tops with almonds and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.
Finally, here’s a very welcome harbinger of Spring, a tiny daffodil picked from our friend Angie’s garden and brought home to me by my daughter. Surely, this sweet gesture deserves the gratitude of a mother as well as the kisses of a Hussar.