A couple of weeks ago when blueberries were plentiful and inexpensive, I set out to make some blueberry muffins. I don’t do a lot of baking these days. I was happy to have a reason to spend a morning in the kitchen.
Since it had been so long, I had to search for a recipe through the many dog-eared recipe books and magazines from back in the days when I could whip up something for the heck of it (baking is therapeutic for me) and take the final product to the faculty lounge, where it would be gone before second period.
For the past five years I’ve worked with a nice enough bunch of people who’ve been together for many, many years. When I would bring something in to share, they were kind enough in thanking me, but always made sure to give props to Nancy, because Nancy is the real baker in the group. Nancy’s so good at baking. Have you ever had her (insert name of whatever I’d made)?
Eventually I stopped taking things to share because I was getting the message that only Nancy was allowed to bake or to receive baking props.
Teachers aren’t nearly as loyal. If it seems edible and you leave it in the faculty lounge, they are most appreciative, if evidenced only by the fact that it will be consumed immediately and with gusto, no matter who made it. If you do something nice for teachers, they make sure you know you are more than good enough.
I’ve recently changed to working with a new group of people. Same place, new department. Among the many things I like about my new colleagues is the fact that they are young. They don’t yet have a Nancy or any loyalty thereto. And they are in that sweet spot of their lives where metabolism and freedom from life’s bigger responsibilities allows them to eat whatever they want because if they haven’t already run 10 miles or put in a couple of hours at the gym, they will be later.
Doughnuts, cookies, home-made PopTarts, bags of candy are in constant rotation. They go on daily milkshake or Slurpee runs. . . There’s a constant stream of sugary-goodness all day long and they are all fashion-model thin.
I would resent them if I didn’t remember my own sweet spot of life so fondly. Being around them brings those days back to mind. Despite all the time I spend at the gym, and all my will-power in avoiding a high calorie lifestyle. I’m not that which I once was. But, I’m good enough and that will just have to do.
The simplest blueberry muffin recipe I could find had nutmeg in it. I was surprised to learn that I didn’t have nutmeg on hand. This was when I started to realize that, although I don’t think I pay much attention to the cooking and baking competition shows on television, they have started to affect my sense of baking self-worth in the same way that every facet of media has affected every other aspect of my self-image.
There was a time, before repeatedly being told that I’d never be Nancy, that I felt good enough about my baking abilities. I made things. People ate them with gracious approval. I felt good about baking things and sharing them.
In those days, I’d have probably just skipped the nutmeg. Now here I stood, frozen with indecision, contemplating the possibility that these muffins would not be good enough.
Should I make the effort to go to the store to buy nutmeg or should I try to find some other substitution? Should I use cloves or allspice or cinnamon? What kind of baker doesn’t know which one of these is an acceptable substitution for nutmeg?
Suddenly every batch of everything, every cake, every pie, any piece of lovin’ that had come from my oven had not been good enough. It had been created by someone without the proper baking credentials. I thought about all the cakes I’ve decorated, going all the way back to my first job in a bakery, and how they wouldn’t come close to what you see on television these days. I was not
Is the cinnamon obvious?
It occurred to me that I’d seen enough of these shows to know that creativity counts and I’ve been told I’m creative. Sure, that’s probably a euphemism for bat-dropping crazy, but whatever. I decided I wasn’t giving up! I challenged myself to look through the cupboards for something different, something to make these reality-show worthy blueberry muffins.
It was when I stood there seriously considering whether to go with BOTH the lemon-pepper AND the chocolate syrup that I decided sometimes a blueberry muffin should be just a blueberry muffin and that should be good enough.
But I did toss in some cinnamon, just in case.
When the muffins came out of the oven, my new inner reality-show critic piped up:
Oh, they didn’t rise consistently. They don’t look uniform. I’m going to have to take off points for presentation.
When I tasted one, it wasn’t for the joy of biting into a warm, freshly baked blueberry muffin. It was to check the sponge. I don’t even really know what “sponge” is, but it was a big deal on The American Baking Competition, one of the few shows where I’ve sat through an entire episode.
I carefully peeled away the baking cup, watching judgmentally for how much crumbiness there was.
You might be a good enough baker if Paul Hollywood likes your sponge. — photo from CBS, “American Baking Competition”.
I’m not sure what the standard for crumbiness is, but I figured I’d know if they were sub-standard. I took a bite of the muffin and — I am not making this up — waited in suspense . . .for my own decision.
How was the texture? Did I get it right? Too moist, too dry? More baking powder? Less? What? WHat? WHAT???
My inner reality-show critic is brutal. These muffins were just not good enough. There was no consistency in appearance. There was nothing special about them, nothing that made my taste buds pop.
They were just muffins.
I took them to work anyway and left them in the ever-rotating snack area. An hour later they were gone.
Despite the fact that they weren’t uniform in height. They might or might not have had the proper sponge. They didn’t have nutmeg or lemon pepper or chocolate syrup or hot sauce. They weren’t good enough.
One of my new colleagues, the tall, graceful. swan-like one, turned to see me walking past and gushed, “Did you make those muffins?!? OMG! They were SOOO good! Did they have cinnamon in them? I thought I tasted cinnamon. That was brilliant!!!”
Hmm.Turns out sometimes a muffin is just a muffin and that is good enough.
Bonnie’s Blueberry Muffins
– from my dog-eared copy of the April / May 1994 issue of Taste of Home Magazine. I don’t know Bonnie, but her blueberry muffins are more than good enough.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries*
Additional butter or margarine, melted
In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, beat eggs. Blend in milk, butter, nutmeg and vanilla; pour into dry ingredients and mix just until moistened. Fold in blueberries. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups two-thirds full. Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Brush tops with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar. (*If using frozen blueberries, rinse and pat dry before adding to batter.) Yield: 1 dozen.