MuffinsPosted: July 8, 2011
No, not those kind of muffins – the other sort!
Think bready, not cakey.
In fact, not just bready, but fluffy pillows of enriched bread dough – and a world apart from those beige hockey pucks wrapped in plastic that lurk on the supermarket shelf. Best of all – no oven required! Muffins are cooked on top of the stove on a flat griddle or heavy pan.
Bread muffins are quintessentially and traditionally British and have a very particular appearance – golden brown on their flat tops and bottoms, with a broad band of pale softness around the middle. Recipes can be found at least as far as the mid 18th century, but there seems to be a lack of anything older. I suspect the reason for this is that muffins were traditionally made by bakers as opposed to the home cook, and therefore had no place in domestic cookery books. So – a professional baker might well have been the original source of Hannah Glasse’s muffin recipe.
Heroines of Cookery: Hannah Glasse (1708 – 1770)
Hannah Glasse is best known for her cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747 and constantly in print for almost 100 years – although her authorship was allegedly only definitively established in the 1930s. She wrote in a very no-nonsense manner, advocated the use of fresh, seasonal, inexpensive ingredients and made her opinions regarding pretentious and wasteful foreign cooks known in no uncertain terms:
“So much is the blind folly of this age, that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby than give encouragement to a good English cook.”
The Art of Cookery covers all aspects of food preparation in a straightforward and concise manner. Impressively, Hannah also includes chapters on preserving meats, bottling and pickling, tips on how to buy fresh produce at market and also includes a seasonal calendar of fruits and vegetables. Free digital copies of her famous book are available here and here.
I think Hannah must have been quite a character. Her recipe is entitled “To make muffins and oat cakes” – but in enthusing about the proper way to make muffins, she wanders off at a tangent and gets so distracted, that the oat cakes are never mentioned again. She even goes so far as to include instructions for building the cooking surface upon which you are supposed to do your muffin cooking. On one point, however, she is most clear: knives should not be used on muffins. Toast them whole and then tear them apart by hand, and be rewarded with pillowy-soft, honeycombed centre, but…
“…don’t touch them with a knife, either to spread or cut them open, if you do they will be as heavy as lead…”
*saluting* Yes, Ma’am!
Having said all this, the recipe I’m going to share is not actually Hannah’s – she lost me right about stove-building time – but this recipe is both simple and straightforward, so I think Hannah would still approve.
UPDATE October 2013: Whilst they are nice for consistency of size, rings aren’t absolutely necessary unless you’re very particular about the size/shape of your bakes. If you don’t have any baking rings, simply shape the dough into balls and set aside. Move carefully to the pan to bake by sliding a thin slice underneath. The dough will naturally settle when the muffins are turned and still have the recognisable browned and flattened tops and bottoms with the pale band of dough around the sides.
Muffins – makes 12-15 small muffins
420ml whole milk
1 tsp salt
2 tbs granulated sugar
1 large egg
3 tbs potato flour 
400g strong white bread flour
1 sachet instant yeast
rice flour, for shaping (optional)
semolina, for cooking
Stand mixer with paddle attachment.
Improvised baking rings 
Griddle pan or heavy (cast iron) frying pan
- Cut the butter into small dice and add to the milk. Heat gently (microwave/saucepan) until the milk is warmed and the butter melted.
- Put all ingredients except the semolina and the rice flour in the bowl of your stand mixer and stir slowly to combine.
- When thoroughly mixed, increase speed to medium and beat for 5 minutes.
- If the dough is looking stretchy and shiny, then cover and leave to rise for 1 hour. If not, add more(3-4 tbs) flour and beat for another 5 minutes. Cover and leave to rise.
- Tip out the dough and knock it back (i.e. pat it down to deflate).
- Divide dough into 80-100g pieces, depending on the size of your rings. NB You want the dough to fill no more than half your baking ring. Any thicker and the muffins will turn out too thick and lose their characteristic shape during cooking.
- Shape the dough into balls and drop into your greased baking rings. No second rise is needed.
- Heat your pan over a low heat. Do not add any grease or oil.
- When the whole pan is of an even heat, scatter semolina into the bottom of the pan.
- Use a fish slice/spatula to move the muffins (inside the rings) into the pan. Depending on the size of your rings and also your pan, you can probably cook several at a time. 
- Cook gently until the undersides are nicely browned – between 5-8 minutes, depending on the size of your rings – then use your spatula to turn over the muffins. Remove the rings once the muffins have been turned – they should hold their shape. If they don’t, and they start to sag, then the dough must have been too thick and so you might want to re-portion the remainder.
- Cook the second side for a slightly shorter time. If you’ve made a test muffin, you can pull it apart to check the insides are fully cooked.
- The semolina helps keep the muffins from sticking to the pan, but it does get very browned, so wipe the pan clean after every batch and add fresh semolina before the next batch.
Cost: £1.40 (July, 2011)
 Available at health food stores, Holland & Barrett, Oriental food shops.
 I got this tip from Elizabeth David’s book English Bread and Yeast Cookery. The rice flour dries the surface of the muffins without making them sticky or leaving clumps, so the excess is easy to brush off. If unavailable, substitute with cornflour or just use regular flour.
 If you’ve got the real deal, then that’s great! I, however, don’t – and I have no immediate plans to fork out £3.50+ per ring. So I’ve improvised and gone to my local supermarket and curb-crawled up and down the aisles looking for suitable tins. I was wanting to make mini muffins, and I found a small tin of processed peas for £0.21 – so I bought a dozen and opened both ends with a can opener and vwa-as they say-la! Bargain improvised baking rings AND a whole heap of peas! Nom! Can you do any better? 😉 Other suitable tins (depending on what size you’re going for) include tuna tins (medium) and steamed pudding tins (jumbo!).
 At this point you might want to try a test-run on just one muffin, just to see if the quantity of dough is correct.