I Just Had To

[The sky the other night, February 2009.]

Probably one of the last things you’d think of doing after being out for a solid 12 hours of the day is to bake — but last night, walking home from my bus through the cool darkness, I knew I just had to (I mean, look at that sky!). I started thinking a bit dreamily about the morning’s first cup of coffee (yes, I am a creature of habit and no, I cannot mind) and that maybe I’d like to have a little sweet to go along with it. But what kind? A pastry? I didn’t want to buy one (trying to cut back on extraneous expenses) and I’d already made a banana bread earlier in the week. I didn’t feel much like cookies and brownies I think are more for an afternoon snack. Coffee cake? I didn’t want to dig up a recipe and really, I never eat coffee cake anyway. Oh, maybe I’d just give it up altogether! But no.

Mentally I surveyed the contents of my fridge and cabinets. I knew I had fresh eggs, plenty of good milk, probably enough flour and sugar, a lot of lemon juice. Blueberry muffins? Well, I definitely knew I didn’t have blueberries, neither fresh nor frozen, and I absolutely

knew I didn’t want to go to the store (my bus drops me right across from my little organic market and I know myself well — if I went in ‘just’ for a bag of frozen fruit I’d probably emerge with marinated tofu, brussels sprouts, a bunch of radishes, maybe some baby spinach, a few clementines, you know, the essentials) so a batch was out of the question. Yet, muffins, I thought … Muffins are delicious, quick to make, and just the right amount of sweet to go along with my morning cup. And I had a lemon that had been kicking around for a bit staring my in the face begging to be put to good use, as well as some poppy seeds leftover from the holidays so really, I had no choice.

Lemon-poppy seed muffins it was, then — almost like it was meant to be.

[Lemon-poppy seed muffins, February 2009.]

Muffins always seem like the kind of thing you’d want to eat in bed on a weekend morning propped up with pillows with the paper or a book spread out all around you, with a proper cup of tea and miraculously no crumbs. It might be sunny, in early spring perhaps, and the city would be still and quiet so the sounds of the birds would come in clear and sweet through the windows. Or it might be a rainy one, the light in your room blue and ethereal and soft. You’d nibble your muffin and snuggle down further into the blankets and not have anywhere to be for awhile.

Then again, muffins might be something you’d want to eat while out on a brisk walk. Even if homemade, you’d pop one into a crisp little bag, tuck it into a pocket, and head off into the day, sneaking little crumbs every so often as you industriously climbed San Francisco’s (seemingly endless) hilly streets. You’d stop for a cup of coffee, as strong as possible, please, but no pastry today because you had your own you see. You’d pat dogs — especially friendly, because they smelled a treat — and tie your scarf a bit tighter and window shop and think about what you’d like to make for dinner.

Then again, maybe muffins should be saved strictly for vacations. The everyday workday calls for bowls of oatmeal or granola or even a piece of toast and peanut butter (hold the jam), with coffee gulped down quickly on the walk from bus to office. But vacation days … oh, vacation. Vacation mornings can be late and lazy, to be savored (they can, of course, also be bright and early and full of the sunrise; the point is that they’re yours) with a frappe and a swim in the ocean. They can be spent at a campground along the coast; they can be spent in your childhood home; they can be spent in the most exotic of locales. Pretty much, they are elusive and perfect and sought-after — something which the ordinary muffin clearly is not. Yet if if can create a sort of vacation-feeling, perhaps not so ordinary after all?

Now, I can’t say the muffins I baked last night made me feel today as though I was on a vacation, but the thought of them certainly helped me walk to my bus with a lighter step than I’ve had in a few days. (This is not to say those darn Emirates Airlines ads in the BART — nonstop from San Francisco to Athens, the Philippines, the Maldives. Kate! — don’t make me want to throw practicality out the window; they do.) Still and all, my wee cake this morning was a decent consolation. Lemony and sweet-tart, rich with butter and laced with poppy seeds, these are the kind of muffins that could make almost any day seem like a day off, even when it’s not.

If a few weeks ago I had one of those days, today I am having quite another. I woke up in the night to rain pouring in through my perpetually cracked-open bathroom window and stumbled sleepily in to pull out the screen (it’s one of those sort of 1/4-window screen things) and push down the glass; when I woke up again for work it was still raining and thus nearly impossible to get myself out of the house. And then, predictably, I got soaked coming in to work but, you know, we need the rain so very awfully I somehow didn’t mind. I put the ipod on shuffle and Madredeus came along in the cycle (it’s the perfect music for a chilly, drippy winter morning) which in turn made me think of my beloved friends who introduced me to their music in the first place (now in Leiden and Spain) and so I sighed a little in missing them — and then suddenly there I was at work, with coffee and a lunch date in my immediate future.

So really I didn’t mind the rain too much, damp shoes and all. Can I blame the muffins? Oh fine, I will. Make a batch and see if you can, too.

ps: check out the questionnaire I did for cookthink! It was fun to do (and yes, clearly I am obsessed with vegetables) — feel free to share your own foodish loves and non-loves.

Lemon Poppy seed Muffins, adapted from foodnetwork.com

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
Zest of one lemon, plus 4 tb. juice
2/3 cup granulated sugar, plus up to 1 tablespoon for topping the muffins, if desired
2 large eggs, at room temperature
4 teaspoons poppy seeds
1/2 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly brush a 12-cup muffin tin with butter and set aside. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or with an electric hand-held mixer in a large bowl, cream the butter, zest, and 2/3 cup sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Stir in the poppy seeds.

Fold the flour in 3 parts into the butter mixture, alternating with the milk in 2 parts, until just combined. Take care not to overmix the batter. Divide the batter evenly into the muffin tin and sprinkle the tops with sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cool muffins in the pan on a rack. Serve warm.

Join the Conversation

  1. one more muffin recipe is always a welcome addition to my life, especially when the recipe looks as gorgeous as this one does. thanks for sharing these delicate looking muffins! I am looking forward to baking a batch.

  2. Is that an heirloom teacup and saucer? Your creation looks lovely :)

  3. Loved the questionnaire! Brilliant. And I guess I’m not the only one who craves the first cup of morning coffee even the night before.

  4. John C Abell says:

    “Miraculously no crumbs” — beautiful!

  5. Absolutely lovely! I’ve been known to do the same thing (bake because I was craving a sweet or make ice cream cuz it would taste great following dinner) but never as eloquently as you!

  6. Muffins that can give me a quick vacation feeling and make me more practical? Want. Need.

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