Okay. This year, I’ve decided, is going to be the year of The Breakfast Book. I’m allergic to resolutions, so let’s not use that word. Let’s just say that if I do nothing else in 2011, I would like to spend more time with one of the worthiest books on my shelf, one that has never done me wrong, one authored by she of the famous yeasted waffle, the esteemed Ms. Marion Cunningham. There is no one I trust more on the matter of breakfast. There is also no one else that I know of who has managed to wedge a treatise on manners into a chapter on quick breads. Witness a selection from “Breakfast Table Civility and Deportment” (page 53):
3. Clean fingernails, please.
5. Sit up straight and try to be cheerful.
7. Because everyone is defenseless at breakfast, there should be no contentiousness or crossness.
13. And don’t answer questions in a saucy manner.
I’m hoping to master #13 within the year.
This is Marion Cunningham’s fresh ginger muffin, the best muffin I have made in memory. Possibly ever. I like muffins, but often, I wind up leaving half of the batch on the counter, uneaten, until they’re stiff and dry and I throw them away. I’m more of a scone person than a muffin person. However. I will tell you that in the less than 48 hours since I made a batch of said ginger muffins, eight of them are gone, and of those, only one was not eaten by me. If you give me another hour, a ninth might disappear.
I’ve never seen another ginger muffin, cake, cookie, or other sweet that uses the method this one does. It starts with a knob of fresh ginger root with the skin on, a perplexing and maybe even off-putting detail that, it turns out, works very well.
You mince the ginger in a food processor, and I think this is why you want that skin: without it, the ginger would probably fall apart when confronted with a whirring steel blade. The skin helps the ginger to hold its integrity, so that it reduces to small, discrete bits, not something with the consistency of a smoothie. Then you take those bits and put them in a skillet with an equal measure of sugar. The sugar melts to syrup, and warmed in that syrup, the ginger cooks just enough to lose its sting. Then you take it off the heat, add lemon zest and a little more sugar, and there it is: a lot of flavor in a small, ugly, turmeric-colored heap, ready for mixing into a bowl of batter – which, in this case, is sagely moistened with buttermilk.
The resulting muffins are tender and pale yellow and look a little like cornbread. Mine wound up with humps like madeleines, which is weird, because I’ve never been able to consistently make madeleines with humps like that. Totally unfair. Anyway, the crumb is damp and sturdy but not heavy, and if you eat them while they’re warm, you’ll find that the top has a lacy edge that gives with a crackle. That’s nice.
And then the flavor comes: that quiet, breathy, slow-building heat of fresh ginger root – more a feeling than a flavor, almost. If you eat three muffins in an afternoon, as I did yesterday, you may actually experience a burning sensation at the back of your throat, which I tell you not as a warning, but because it’s awesome. Also: I didn’t notice any obvious ginger skin as I ate, in case you wondered. I imagine it’s good fiber for the digestive tract, if you don’t mind thinking of it that way.
Having now eaten these for breakfast and dessert, I’m thinking they might make a great cupcake – maybe with lemon cream cheese frosting? If you try it, please report.
A word of warning: before beginning, take care to wash the ginger root well, checking its crevices and wrinkles for dirt.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease a muffin tin.
Cut the unpeeled ginger root into large chunks. If you have a food processor, process the ginger until it is in tiny pieces; alternatively, mince by hand. Measure out ¼ cup – or a little more, if you like. It’s better to have too much than too little. Put the ginger and ¼ cup sugar in a small skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has melted and the mixture is hot. Don’t walk away from the pan: this takes only a couple of minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon zest and 3 tablespoons of sugar. Add to the ginger mixture.
Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or, a mixing bowl, if you plan to use handheld beaters or mix by hand). Beat the butter for a second or two, then add the remaining ½ cup sugar, and beat until smooth. Add the eggs, and beat well. Add the buttermilk, and beat until blended. Add the flour, salt, and baking soda, and beat just until smooth. Add the ginger-lemon mixture, and beat to mix well. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Serve warm.
Yield: 12 muffins