Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.
It was in Morden, on a bitter cold day, hands tinged red with cold even underneath my gloves, that I found a shop selling quince: large, fragrant, knobbled, with firm skin and hard flesh. In both Lewisham and Elephant and Castle, shops like this – selling all manner of interesting food not necessarily found in local supermarkets, serving various communities – were fairly common. Less so in my neck of South West London, and indeed I’d never expected to find quince at the end of the Northern line.
In addition to a large bag full of yellow fruit, I came away laden with a bag of prune plums (also known as Lombard plums), the deep purple of a tired evening, covered with a delicate, icy bloom that mimicked the frost on the ground. Inside their flesh was soft and golden.
Yet how rapidly these plums became my millstone. They quickly ripened, but then I fell ill; by the time I recovered, they were past their best for eating out of hand. I turned to baking. I did end up baking a lot of things, because I had a lot of plums, but the first recipe which intrigued me was Deb Perelman‘s recipe for plum and poppy seed muffins. For one thing, she specifically called for the prune plums I had bought. For another, she used browned butter. And, most importantly, I had every single ingredient necessary to make them in the house already, without having to take a single step outside the house. When you are recovering from a feverish few days, this is important. (And yes, this does mean I have a bag of poppy seeds just hanging out in my cupboards. This is why my cupboards are overflowing).
Perelman is probably best known as the author of the Smitten Kitchen blog, which I have read for years and years; I consider her to be, basically, the most successful food blogger in the world. The story of how she devised this recipe has been well-reported, often cited as an example of her perfectionist approach to recipe development. In the end, Perelman was partly inspired by a desire to free poppy seeds from their usual culinary twin, lemon. Poppy seeds have a slight bitterness, she notes, which contrasts well with sweet and juicy plums. Actually, my boyfriend commented on the bitterness of the seeds and said that he would have preferred the muffin without them; you may wish to follow.
For her muffins, Perelman uses sour cream; I had half a tub of sour cream, half a tub of buttermilk, so used a half and half combination of them in order to use them up, and I think it worked perfectly. The buttermilk gave the muffins a very delicate tenderness, almost a fragility – not something usually associated with muffins. Finally, inspired, I topped each muffin with a few hazelnuts, letting them get toasty and browned in the oven, mimicking the sweet nutty flavour of the browned butter in the muffins.
- 85g unsalted butter
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 50g granulated or caster sugar
- 50g light brown sugar
- 90g sour cream
- 90g buttermilk, well shaken
- 60g wholemeal flour (not self-raising – and it might be sacrilege but I used bread flour)
- 125g plain flour
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1/4 tsp fine sea salt
- large pinch ground cinnamon
- slightly smaller pinch/grating of nutmeg
- 2 TBS poppy seeds
- 340g plums, weighed and then pitted and diced
- A handful of hazelnuts (I used unblanched but you could use blanched/skinned ones if you have them to hand) – to be precise, somewhere between 36-48 hazelnuts
- Preheat your oven to 190C and line a 12-hole muffin tin with liners
- Brown your butter. To do so, melt the butter in a small pan, preferably a metal one so you can see how the colour develops, rather than a pan lined with black non-stock liner, over a medium-low heat. The butter melts, foams, then goes a clear gold colour, and finally starts to turn an amber brown, smelling sweetly nutty as it does. Once it has started browning, keep an eye on it as it can burn rapidly. Once the colour is a uniform amber, remove from the heat. I then pour it carefully through a tea strainer, leaving behind the milk solids at the bottom, into a bowl to cool. And it will need to cool, or it will cook the egg when you whisk them together.
- Whisk together the egg and both sugars into a large bowl. Stir in the cooled brown butter, the sour cream, and the buttermilk.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and poppy seeds. You do not need to sift it but if the baking powder is lumpy, do rub it between your fingers to remove them.
- Stir the flour mixture into the sour crea/buttermilk mixture, stirring just to combine. Lumps are fine but do go over the mixture careful to ensure you don’t have large pockets of flour.
- Fold in the chopped plums.
- Portion the batter into the twelve lined muffin cups. Top each muffin with 3-4 whole hazelnuts. Bake for 15-22 minutes, until the tops of the muffins are golden and dry, a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, and the hazelnuts on top are a little golden and toasty underneath their (splitting) skins. Rest the muffins in the tin on a cooling rack for two minutes, then remove them from the tin onto the rack to cool completely.