“Last night I actually had a dream some kidnappers stole my sac of flour and started sending me muffins in the mail.” – Niles Crane, on Frasier, when he was carrying around a sac of flour to emulate what it would be like to have a baby.
When you’re hungry, and you’re active, and you’re really, really busy, sometimes even too busy to go to the store, that’s the time when you need to practice the art of improvisation.
Most of us probably think of improvisation in terms of acting or comedy routines, but if you look at your own life, I’m positive you will find many instances when you “improv” your way through.
Think about your best laid plans for your career, saving money, following an exercise routine or sticking to a “DIET.” We often have plans as to how we will meet our goals in all of these aspects of life, but as the saying goes, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
I did a little research to learn about that quote which comes from a Robert Burns poem. The poem is about a man who accidentally plows over a mouse’s home at a time of year when it is too late for the mouse to rebuild. So even though that diligent little mouse built his shelter in time, it was destroyed. Burns tries to assure the mouse that he will be OK. That his fear is only in the present compared to Burn’s own regrets of the past and fear of the future.
In the end, none of us knows what lies ahead. We can plan and prepare all we want, but hopefully, over our lifetimes, we learn not only how to plan and prepare, but also how to take whatever comes our way.
When it comes to nourishing our bodies, it helps to understand the fundamentals of cooking and nutrition. With this basic knowledge you can improvise some sort of nourishment to at least get you through your present tasks and provide you with good energy to take you to your uncertain, yet inevitable future.
The word “improvise,” according to dictionary.com, means: to make, to provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available. Dictionary.com even used the word in this very apropos sentence: “We improvised a dinner from yesterday’s leftovers.”
Two types of recipes that I love to improvise are muffins, and soups or stews. With these two basic recipes, you can make big batches and really nourish your body for at least the next five days, longer if you freeze leftovers for later.
For those who may be new to cooking, allow me to explain the very basic ratios of ingredients for these types of recipes. Knowing the basic “formula” of certain types of recipes means that you should be able to make sustaining and sustainable energy sources out of whatever YOU have on hand, not just what a specific “recipe” requires.
For example, if you glance at the muffin recipes below, you may notice that the ratios of a basic muffin recipe, including fruit, are approximately 2 ½ cups dry ingredients mixed with 2 ½ cups wet ingredients. If you like a lower sugar muffin, you can use less “added sugar” and more fruit. Or you can add pureed vegetables such as canned pumpkin or shredded carrots or zucchini, which will dilute the sugar content per muffin. I count those types of “moist” ingredients in the “wet” ratio.
I find it easier to decrease the added sugar when using a “liquid sugar” such as honey, molasses or maple syrup, which all offer more nutrition than any processed sugar. When you decrease these concentrated liquid sugars, you can increase the volume of fruit. Fruit works as a less calorie dense and more nutrient dense sweetener. With blueberries, for example, you get powerful anthocyanin antioxidants which are essential for brain health. Blueberries also offer bowel friendly fiber.
If you use extra pureed, or mashed fruit in place of your sweetener, you can also consider it a substitute for some of the oil, or fat, in your muffin recipe. However, I have never made a muffin recipe without any oil. Fat pulls flavors together. So keeping some fat mixed into your muffin recipe will make a difference in the taste of the final product.
That may seem like a lot to absorb when you’re reading this and not yet making your own muffins, but hopefully once you are “hands-on,” this information will all come together.
I find that manipulating ratios works much better when you make larger volumes. Instead of making only one dozen muffins, I typically make at least two dozen. Often times when you are doubling recipes, there is no need to completely double spices and other flavor enhancers such as extracts. Perhaps that’s why the improv method works so much better in larger quantities. You use slightly fewer ingredients in the long run. Either way, if you make more muffins than you will healthfully be able to eat in a week, give some to friends or freeze them for future nourishment.
Basic muffin recipes vary depending on your source. From my experience, muffin making is not an exact science. A true baker may disagree. I find that as long as the ratios of wet to dry ingredients are about even, then the muffins will turn out.
However, there are two ingredients that must be used in specific proportions in every muffin recipe. That is, if you want the muffins to rise. These ingredients are: Baking POWDER and Eggs. Please don’t confuse Baking Powder with baking soda. Baking soda requires an acidic ingredient to help it work and to offset its bitter aftertaste. To help you, and me, remember which one to choose, “Powder” comes before “Soda” in alphabetical order. So when in doubt, use Baking Powder first!
The amount of baking powder is relative to the amount of flour. The most common ratio of baking power to flour, in a muffin or quick bread recipe, is ONE teaspoon of baking powder for each ONE cup of flour.
For eggs, use ONE egg for every TWO cups of flour. So, the proportions of baking powder to flour to eggs are not negotiable. You need 1 teaspoon baking powder + 1 cup flour + 1/2 egg. From this three part ratio you can manipulate the other ingredients such as the sugar, fat & flavoring agents. These are the raios that work best for me. Since I buy only pasture raised eggs at $7 a dozen, I don’t want to use them all in a muffin recipe, but instead prefer to eat one a day throughout the week. I’m reading a book called “RATIO,” by Michael Ruhlman, who is a much more seasoned chef than I. He uses a ratio of 1 teaspoon baking powder + 1 cup flour + 1 EGG (not 1/2 egg). He also uses 1/2 more liquid than I. I’ll admit my ratios are my own formula, but they always work for me, and I get more uses out of my pricey, but SUPER-Nutritious, PASTURE-Raised EgGs!!
According to professional bakers, the ideal ratio for EGGS and OIL are equal parts; one to one. For example, one egg, or two egg whites, equal approximately 1/4 cup in volume. Therefore, you would also add 1/4 cup of oil for a one to one ratio. Michael Ruhlman, in his muffin ratio, uses 4 ounces of eggs (2 large) per 4 ounces of butter (1 stick). I love butter, but no way am I using a whole stick for a dozen muffins. OMG! My HEART! Plus… I buy the best butter I can find from pasture raised cows and it’s not cheap. Therefore, I make it last.Whether shopping at the Santa Monica Co-op or at the Whole Foods in Venice, the best butter is from the Straus Family Farm.
You can, if you like, decrease the oil and substitute with pureed fruit such as bananas, soaked & pureed prunes, or applesauce. Your total volume for this fat replacement should be about 1/4 cup. As I stated earlier though, I never cut out the oil completely. Use at least one tablespoon of oil in your recipe to help pull the flavors together.
The more you “improvise” your muffin recipes, the more flavor variations and nutrients you will receive. Don’t be afraid to add any variety of chopped nuts, or granola, or sesame seeds, all of which add calorie density as well as lots of energy yielding nutrients.
If all else fails and you lose track of your ratios, as I myself have done, just let your oven balance things out. Adjust your cooking time. Bake your muffins for 20 minutes. When the timer goes off, insert a knife in the center of one of the muffins. If it comes out clean, they are done. If the knife comes out with moist batter on it, place the muffins back in the oven for another 3-5 minutes or as much time as is needed so that a knife inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Essentially, if your muffins are too moist, the heat from the oven will “dehydrate” them.
Remove muffins from the tins soon after taking them out of the oven. Set the muffins on a cooling rack. If you don’t have a cooling rack, use oven mitts to remove a rack from the oven. Run it under cold water and dry it off. Set the oven rack on top of a table or counter top and use it to cool your muffins.
Once cool, place your muffins in an airtight container in the refrigerator. I often reuse my organic salad/spinach containers for this purpose. These also work well for when you’re giving muffins to friends. You won’t have to worry about getting back your container. Label and date the containers and eat or discard your muffins within one week. Label and date the container for friends as well, a little education goes a long way to preventing foodborne illness.
Muffins left at room temperature will go bad after about 2-3 days. Muffins can be safely stored in the freezer for up to three months. Prior to freezing, wrap muffins tightly in aluminum foil or freezer wrap and place in an airtight container or freezer bag. It’s ideal to label the muffins with the Type of Muffin, the Date Prepared and the Expiration Date. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget things we’ve labored over in the past. Also, if you’re really diligent, list the ingredients on the container as well. If you use nuts in the recipe you may not remember three months later, but with proper labeling, everyone will be safe. In my case, I need to know if the muffins are gluten-free.
After you read the Basic Muffin Recipe, you will see a recipe for my “Improv Gluten-Free Vegan Pumpkin Muffins.” I am not a vegan but I ran out of eggs and I always keep a gluten-free egg replacer in my freezer for this exact instance. You can adapt this recipe if you are able to tolerate gluten. Simply replace the “gluten flour mix” with your favorite whole grain flour, and omit the xanthan gum.
Despite the chastising by a true “vegan” for using honey and calling my muffins vegan, I’m not changing the name. It’s comments like that which keep some “flesh eaters” from trying “vegetarian” foods. Lighten up please.
As for the Gluten-free thing. Not everyone needs to jump on that bandwagon either. Believe me. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t absolutely HAVE TO. It’s a literal pain in the TUCAS.
When I worked as a Dietitian at a Diabetes Center back in PA, I worked with a nurse who’s husband has Celiac Disease. I started distance running around that time and I could eat absolutely anything I wanted and maintain my weight. So the idea of eliminating bread and pizza and cookies… Oh, My!! But a few years ago I started breaking out in these painful rashes which developed at every joint on both sides of my body. Sometimes I would itch so bad and scratch so much that I would bleed. I was speaking to a fellow Dietitian who specializes in Food Sensitivies and she said, “It sounds like Celiac Diseas.” She was correct. I’ve been Gluten-free four years and if ever I stray, those painful symptoms pop up. I even cut back on my running for a while, in part, because I was having trouble eating enough gluten-free foods to maintain my energy. Hence my motivation to create gluten-free muffins.
For those who aren’t fully aware…Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten is also found in products made from these grains, and it is often added to foods as a source of protein, or as a stabilizing agent. Gluten gives elasticity to dough. It also helps dough rise and keep its shape, giving the final product a “chewy texture.”
When a recipe, which is supposed to rise, is made with gluten-free flour, a “sticky” substance must be added. This is where the xantham gum comes in. Xantahm gum makes up for the missing gluten but without causing the adverse reactions experienced by those who are gluten-intolerant. If you use whole grain flour AND add xantham gum to your muffin recipe, you will likely create something that you can bounce off the walls.
You just learned a lot about making the Best Basic Muffins. But reading doesn’t compare to getting in there and just doing it. Below are some basic muffin instructions along with my Improv Muffins. Have fun creating tasty nourishment for your active bodies!!
Best Basic Muffin Recipe
Yields 12 muffins
Dry Ingredients: (equals 2 1/2 cups dry ingredients + 3 ½ teaspoons)
2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Wet Ingredients: (equals 1 1/2 cups liquid + 1 cup of fruit if desired = 2 ½ cups total)
1 cup milk
1/4 cup oil
Add-ins: (to be mixed into the batter)
1 cup chopped fresh or dried fruit or 1 cup thawed & drained frozen fruit
1 cup mashed banana (2 large bananas)
1 cup canned pineapple
1 cup shredded carrot
1/2 cup canned pumpkin or sweet potatoes (less because it’s concentrated)
1 cup chocolate or peanut butter chips
1 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped nuts
2 Tbsp poppy seeds
Flavorings: (to be mixed into the batter)
1 teaspoon vanilla, almond, lemon or orange extract
1 Tablespoon finely grated lemon or orange zest
1 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger or allspice or a combination of these spices
1 teaspoon of fruit preserves to top each muffin
1 teaspoon finely chopped nuts
1 teaspoon granola
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Dash of cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spray cooking spray into muffin tins, or add a thin coating of oil, or use paper liners.
3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center.
4. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the wet ingredients and whisk together thoroughly using a wire whisk or a fork.
5. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Use a fork to gently combine the ingredients until the dry ingredients are moist. Do not beat the ingredients. The batter will be lumpy.
6. If you want to add fruit or nuts, gently fold them into the batter at this stage.
7. Pour about 1/4 cup portions into muffin tins.
8. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.
9. Insert a knife in the center of a muffin. If the knife comes out clean, the muffins are done. If there is batter on the muffins, put them back in the oven for another 3-5 minutes and perform the knife test until it comes out clean.
10. When the muffins are done, remove them from the muffin tins and place on a cooling rack.
11. When cool, store muffins in a container with a lid to be kept in the refrigerator. Or wrap the muffins in foil or freezer wrap, and store in an airtight container or freezer bag. Label and date the packing. On your label, include the type of muffin and the ingredients, the date prepared and the expiration date. Refrigerated muffins are good for seven days. Muffins stored in the freezer will last for 2-3 months.
Improv Gluten-Free Vegan Pumpkin Muffins
Makes 24 muffins
Dry Ingredients: (equals 4 ¾ cups)
4 ½ cups gluten-free all purpose flour mix (see recipe for flour mixture below)
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
Wet Ingredients: (equals about 4 1/2 cups)
1 Tablespoon freshly ground ginger
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup molasses
1-14 oz can light organic coconut milk OR 1 1/2 cups dairy or soy milk if you prefer
2 eggs OR egg replacer servings (I use Ener-G foods egg replacer because it is gluten-free)
2 heaping Tablespoons ground flax seeds mixed with 6 Tablespoons water before adding to recipe
1/4 cup grapeseed or Spectrum canola oil
1 (15 oz) can of pumpkin puree
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350° F
1. To make flour, combine the following: 3 cups millet or brown rice flour + 1 cup cornstarch + 1/2 cup tapioca flour = 4 ½ cups all-purpose gluten-free flour
2. Lightly spray two 12-cup muffin pans with cooking spray.
3. In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients and whisk together to thoroughly combine.
4. In a medium mixing bowl combine coconut milk, honey, molasses, eggs, flax & water mixture, oil, pumpkin puree and vanilla. Stir to thoroughly combine- use a knife or a whisk, not an electric mixer.
5. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir to combine.
6. Fill each muffin cup with 1/4 cup of muffin batter. Bake in preheated oven for about 18-20 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.
Makes 24 servings
Cost per serving: $0.42
Nutrients per serving (1 muffin/ 2.5 oz/ 72g): Calories: 159, Fat: 5g, Carbs: 28g, Protein: 3g, Fiber: 2g, Sugar: 5g, Sodium 270mg
% Daily Value (DV):
Vitamin A: 41%, Thiamin-B1: 8%, Riboflavin-B2: 6%, Niacin-B3: 4%, Vitamin B6: 2%, Vitamin B12: 1%, Vitamin C: 2%, Vitamin D: 1%, Vitamin E: 4%, Folate: 2%, Pantothenic Acid: 2%, Calcium: 8%, Copper: 6%, Iron:15%, Magnesium: 4%, Manganese: 11%, Phosphorus: 4%, Potassium: 7%, Selenium: 4%, Zinc: 1%
Omega-6: 800mg, Omega-3: 350mg 2.3:1