I have been wanting to bake muffins for WEEKS. Ever since we went apple picking and tried to pry ourselves out from under the Great Apple Deluge of Aught-Eight, I have been dreaming of apple muffins. With nuts, without nuts. With cinnamon, with nutmeg, with ginger, with cardamom, with five spice. With maple glaze. With craisins. With cheese. With caramel. So many apples, so many kinds of muffins, so little time and stomach space.

This 5-Spice caramel sauce could also be used as a sensual accoutrement, but you didn’t hear that from me.

It was therefore somewhat upsetting to find that the muffins became a barometer of my sanity level. Feel pretty good today? Why yes, I think I might make some muffins later! Convinced that (1) life is falling to pieces and I’ll have to move into my in-laws’ basement and (2) that that is a GREAT IDEA? Who the fuck can make muffins at a time like that? ARE YOU INSANE? ARE YOU TRYING TO SEND ME OVER THE TOP WITH THESE GODDAMN MUFFINS? LAY OFF. (My anxiety may have been interspersed with irritability.)

It was like that little pain scale they use in hospitals, with the cartoon faces ranging from ecstatic with joy to destroyed with terror. Except with muffins. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you feel like baking muffins right now? Only a 2? Here’s some more Klonopin and a fifth of gin.”

And still, I’m thinking of going apple picking AGAIN. Because I am a glutton for punishment.

So it should be a strong indication to you of how things are going chez TNS: I HAVE BAKED THE HOLY LIVING FUCK OUT OF SOME APPLE MUFFINS.

Apples. Apples. Apples. Apples. Say it with me, until we both reach the point where the word loses all meaning and becomes a motley collection of randomly arranged letters. Apple.

I made not one but FOUR kinds of apple muffins, using a great all-purpose muffin base and a bunch of mix-and-match mix-ins. I know if I tried harder I could avoid using the word “mix” two times in such proximity in the same sentence, but I’m not what you’d call a “try-er.” Anyway, this base makes a great neutral, not-too-sweet with a moist but substantial crumb that can hold up to a variety of additions. It’s the only muffin recipe I bother with anymore; I just remember the proportions and chuck in whatever fruits, nuts, prescription medications and other additives I feel like.

I wish I could say I invented it but I didn’t. It came from a magazine, although I can no longer remember which one – Fine Cooking, maybe? I tweaked it a bit – I like muffins to be not super-sweet, because then I know that deep down I’m really just eating a cupcake with some bran sprinkled on top and I like to keep that knowledge buried – but the basic proportions are essentially the magazine’s. So thanks, Fine Cooking, I guess.

I’m reading Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef right now and am getting a little anal about my mis en place.*

Since the muffin batter itself is painfully easy – mix the dry in one bowl, the wet in another, dump together and stir until just combined – these are really about deciding what you’d like to add and having that ready.

In the interest of testing my newfound sanity showcasing the versatility of these muffins, I made four versions. Not four batches, but four versions – that is a single batch of a dozen muffins, 3 kinds of each version. I’d scoop what my eyeball estimated to be 3 muffins’ worth of batter into a smaller bowl, add my mix-ins and portion the muffins into the tin, then repeat with a new combo of additives.

I wanted to play around with sweet and savory (apples and cheese are one of my favorite snacks) as well as with warm fall flavors, so my additive options, pictured above, were:

  • raw diced apple
  • diced apple sauteed in a little butter and brown sugar
  • toasted hazelnuts
  • cinnamon
  • nutmeg
  • sharp white cheddar
  • aged gouda
  • Chinese 5-spice caramel**

*If you haven’t already read it – which you probably have, I’m like the last foodie on earth who hasn’t yet read his books – you should read it. It alternately makes me want to drop my whole life to go to the CIA or cook nothing but tuna casserole using canned cream soups for the rest of my life.

**A variation of Elizabeth Falkner’s recipe for Spiced Caramel Sauce in Demolition Desserts.

This is the prototype for my new “Apple Muffin Bingo” game.

My ultimate combos (see above running clockwise from the top left, or below from right to left) were:

  • Raw apple + cinnamon + nutmeg*
  • Raw apple + aged cheddar + maple glaze
  • Sauteed apple + aged gouda + toasted hazelnut, and
  • Sauteed apple + 5-spice caramel + Caramel drizzle

*Because you have to have something somewhat normal that you can rely on to be edible if the other shit turns out to be too weird.

I have gone to 11 on the muffin scale. HOORAY FOR MUFFINS! MUFFINS ARE THE NEW PROZAC!

35 minutes in the oven, and the house was filled with a warm, apple-y, spicy smell that made me want to go outside and roll around in a pile of dried leaves until I remember what kinds of things there probably are in Jersey City leaves.  (Dead kittens, poop, Jimmy Hoffa, etc)


I let them cool in the tin for a few minutes before popping them out so I could glaze them while they were still warm. The 5-spice caramel got a quick drizzle of the very same, while the apple-cheddar got a quickie glaze made of maple syrup with confectioners’ sugar.

Now, I can’t report on every single muffin, because I did eat dinner tonight and was thus unprepared to eat four muffins. I can report that (1) the simple apple-cinnamon is delicious as always and (2) the sauteed apple-gouda-hazelnut is really freaking good. Like, give me a nice salad and that muffin and I’m a happy lunchtime camper. I can also report that if you yourself were making these muffins and realized, when you reached the portioning-the-batter-into-tins stage, that you had completely forgotten to add the sugar to the batter, you could hurriedly mix it in at the last minute with virtually no loss of texture, so hardy are these muffins.

And now, I can say it and mean it!: How do you like THEM apples?

ETA: apple + white cheddar + maple = possibly my favorite one yet.

Simple Muffin Base
makes 12 standard-size muffins

3 1/2 c. AP flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. sugar
10 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted but not hot
1 c. whole milk
1 c. + 2 tbsp. sour cream
2 large eggs + 1 additional yolk

Pre-heat your over to 350. Spray the top of a muffin tin with non-stick spray (or oil it lightly with veg oil) and stick paper cups in the tin.

Sift the flour, baking powder and soda and salt together in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl, whisk all the remaining ingredients together. If you’d like to add liquid flavor extracts or oils, do that here.

Dump the wet ingredients into the dry. Mix until just incorporated; it will still be thick and lumpy. Fold in any additional ingredients you like (fresh or dried fruit, nuts, citrus zest, candied ginger, chocolate chips, etc), up to 2 cups of “stuff.”

Portion the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for approx. 35 minutes, until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clear. Let the muffins rest in the tin for 10 minutes, then remove them to a cooling rack.