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.