New Version Buttermilk Muffins - The Story Continues
My Life in Muffins
Original Buttermilk Rhubarb Lawsuit Muffins accidentally launched my baking career – when I was a very green, young baker, employed at a health food, bookstore-café called Terre Etoile, (Earth Star in English, of course, but to those of us who experienced it, simply and fondly, TE).
Terre Etoile was a unique venture that featured the most decadent (but 80’s California healthy which is to say…still decadent) baking which I am proud to say, was all created by me. I was given a mandate and off I went. The place was very special to me and it echoes in alot of my work, on this site, in my cookbooks, and sometimes, even in my personal life. I say it accidentally launched my career because my intention at the outset, was to create a recipe that was a formulae that would sell well and I could keep my job as a bakery manager. I had no notions of copyright (well, not as a baker), the Internet and what lay ahead for me in professional terms. My goal was simple: A) stay employed. B) do something I like and can be good at. But the story goes back a few months prior to my bakery job and muffin debut.
20 years and a few months ago or so, was when I first created my first batch of Buttermilk Muffins, I was a 20-ish new bride (I know, what was I thinking?). Wondering about what I would become As Being An Adult took up a great deal of my thoughts and I was somewhat surprised to find out that married life was hardly a career. One still had to do something. I wasn’t making any great inroads as a writer (no drama had yet been lived and survived and I am a first person sort of writer) and I was consistently drawn to baking. So, one dark and stormy mid-winter night, I found an average Apple Muffin recipe in a food magazine. It had too much salt, no vanilla, and too little streusel. It only had baking soda in it (and too much! It tasted quite soapy at first and lacked heft and height). It called for buttermilk and said the yield was 14 muffins. I studied the recipe for a bit and then set to baking in the quiet afternoon, in our well-worn, rented duplex that doubled as a bakery (unbeknownst to my landlord).
I tanked it up with vanilla, added cinnamon to the streusel, lowered the soda, added baking powder, doubled the fruit, made the muffins mammoth, and baked up a batch. They were superb. Tender inside, crusty on top, wafting such incredible flavor that it could make a grown man meow. Now, I like muffins well enough but these caused an even greater undue reaction with everyone else around me. No matter who I gave them to, it was like I handed over miracle food.
Don't forget to load these muffins as high as you can before baking.
Months later, I got my first (I don’t count the first one where I was fired after 15 days) baking job. I was supposed to make muffins, chocolate chunk cookies, and carrots cakes for a new age restaurant which was so exceptionally ahead of its time, it was landmark. It was architecturally gorgeous, and featured a restaurant, a café, a skylit upstairs, a book and gift shop, and an in-store bakery. I had a month or so before we opened this new restaurant and struggled with not only using new ovens but actually choosing and ordering them, mixers, baker’s table, smallwares and ingredients to set sale with for a few months. I hired a staff and got everyone (all without baking experience) prepping, mixing, scooping, baking, and serving. It was sort of like a baker’s academy; we were all so callow but it felt like the best time at a the beginning of landmark summer, at a very special camp.
When we launched the Terre Etoile bakery, I touted corn muffins, a bran, and the apple buttermilk ones. Only the latter seem to sell. I didn’t know much about baking and retail but I quickly and instinctively responded by switching over the entire muffin line-up to variations on a theme and launched The Old Fashioned Buttermilk Muffin Collection. I think words like ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘collection’ are so key. What you don’t want in a bakery is to sell little bits of a lot. You want to sell a lot of one thing. It is more logistical in all ways and also creates a brand. My Old Fashioned Buttermilk Muffin collection and I had blackberry, raspberry, plum, banana, blueberry, apple, rhubarb, cranberry orange, and apricot. It mostly depended on what fruit was available. If raspberries disappeared, then I used strawberries.
But that was the start - all sorts of things could and did happen, any given day.
One day, the dairy fellow forgot out buttermilk order. Yikes! I soured 30 quarts of regular milk and that worked out fine but then I researched back-up (should an emergency come up again) which is when I discovered buttermilk powder. I created dry mix of the muffins using buttermilk powder for days we kept outselling muffins almost faster than I could make the batter. I got up at 4 am for months and raced into town to make those muffins and oversee my bakery. One day, I was so bleary, as I left my street parking spot, I backed my yellow Capri into the Harley Davidson (owned by our macho neighbor) behind me and it crashed in a loud, metallic heap on the pavement. I left a note on the bike apologizing and of course, paid in more than muffins to repair the bike.
One week, I slept in for a few days. The muffins on those days were increasingly horrid – greasy, weird bundles. I investigated. One of my bakers, a sweet but chronically depressed girl, thought leftover muffin batter was like sourdough starter. So as not to throw out un-used batter, she would simply add more oil and flour to the leftover, (aka simply very old batter). By Day Three, she had created toxic waste with fruit and streusel. There were noxious fumes rising from the muffin batter buckets. I got dizzy. When I questioned her about her methods, she broke (not surprisingly) into more tears and confessed her waste-not/want-not approach to recouping muffin batter. Brilliant, I told her, it was fine – just a particular logic one never would have thought of (for it doesn’t work). I told her to take the afternoon off and then threw out all the grungy batters. The next day, I immediately returned to work for 5:30 am from then on. I also spent a lot of time comforting this particular baker as she cried her woes but casually wondered, as she wept, if she had in fact poisoned anyone with salmonella a week or so before. I scanned our regular customers each day to see if someone was missing from our clientele ranks, and breathed a sigh of relief when nothing seemed amiss. All still standing. But you see, you have to add these adventures to the recipe to also know - that is part of their special flavor. It is not je ne sais quoi - trust me. It is all the je sais stuff.
Of course, my muffins weren’t my only fame. Carrot cake, chocolate sour cream cake, cheesecakes and giant chocolate chip cookies did a fast business alongside the house specialty of vegetarian pate. I felt like a star - I had found my calling. I loved nothing more than being than early and baking and then going upstairs to mingle and see peoples' pleasure in the baked goods.
It must be said the Terre Etoile bakery/bookstore/cafe/restaurant took the city by storm; it was a fascinating place, with dynamic people, riding a wave of things that are only now becoming mainstream. However, it was brief, and it ended in fire; but it was opportunity like no other. Strangely, friends I met years afterwards who are still friends, report having gone to the restaurant in those early days. They were just as drawn, as I was, to the uniqueness of its offerings. No doubt, we passed each other for a time before life parted and reunited us. I am not surprised in some ways that the people I know now, I knew (but didn’t know I had already ‘met’) then. As for restaurant/bakery itself, some of us (even customers!) talk about a reunion and I am happily in touch with the original owner. That should tell you - that from such drama, can come such fondness and smiles - how magical then, are these muffins still. These muffins have more than a magical pedigree. I would call them blessed.
How successful were the Buttermilk Muffins? We sold 60-80 dozen a day – that is about 6 times what the average mall muffin kiosk does – and all they sell is muffins. As for other hot-water recipes – Oreo Cheesecake, created for Calories Restaurant in Montreal brought Nabisco to my door asking I refrain from calling it Oreo Cheesecake (so it became Black and White Sandwich Cookies Cheesecake); My Beaver Tail recipe similarly triggered letters from the Beaver Tail company somewhere in Canada and my version of a Derby Pie (a chocolate pecan pie) garnered me (and anyone who calls their chocolate pecan pie Derby Pie which is the official name but the Derby Pie company prudently bought the name/patent ages ago) a visit from the Derby Pie folks. Other recipes, like my Matzoh Buttercrunch is now part of the common food parlance of Passover. Bloomingdales in New York bakes it up and that recipe has also be presented at the Smithsonian, appears on blogs (of course) and most lately, in colleagues cookbooks (with attribution). Interesting fare, as they say.
What happened to the place it all took place is that like things ahead of its time, it morphed into a Tex Mex restaurant called Carlos and Peppy's and stayed that way for many years. Then one day, it became Java U, a lovely cafe that sells muffins and on occasion, my scones and healthfood cookies (where do you think some of the amazing recipes in A Passion for Baking were taste tested?). Java U still has the original brick walls of my bakery. I often sit there, and have Green Mountain Nantucket Coffee, and read, or journal. I always feel warm and happy - knowing that is still a place rich with energy and the vibes of what I know see as an opportunity that gave me my life's path. It is also where I not only learned pivotal life lessons but met people I still keep in my heart. I've had lunches at Java U with old friends, new ones and it is always alive, in the best way, with a sense of things, then and now.
Are Lawsuit Muffins Unique? Muffins, the state of the art...
Since Lawsuit Muffins in particular are really an example of a simple muffin recipe, done right, and whose time had come, it makes me wonder – what makes a recipe special? Did I invent something new with Lawsuit Muffins?
Well, yes and no.
Here’s the thing.
It’s been two decades since I created Lawsuit Muffins, originally known as Rhubarb Buttermilk Muffins and segued to Any Fruit Will Do Buttermilk Streusel Muffins. In two decades, any baker worth her whites, improves her baking and muffin expertise. It certainly should give rise to new inspiration. Such are my Post Lawsuit Muffins. These are bigger, bolder and filled with 20 years of baker savvy, artist’s spirit and magic, and sweetness and wisdom that comes with many batches of muffins and life, lived. This recipe is available here for one week. Because if they stay online any longer, no doubt they will find their way into someone else’s blog or cookbook. Not that I can control that but why not keep something special close to home and close to my heart, special for at least a little while.
But people do ask – it is only a muffin- how unique can it be? And how original are mine, or anyone’s recipes? That is a good question. William Shakespeare had the same words at his disposal as anyone else but his arrangement and use was so inspired he just about re-invented the English language. That is art. That is inspiration. In recipes, you can invent new things by taking the elements that exist and re-arranging them or doing new things in new ways. Which is how flatbreads probably made it to brioche once upon a time. And chocolate nibs birthed hot chocolate and chocolate bars. Or plain old bread dough became hotdog buns and someone figured out that baking powder is not fake yeast but a wonder leavener that rewrote North American baking history. Coke was just a pharmaceutical tonic until it became a marketing dream.
In recipes and recipe writing, it is more than the recipe, the physicality, the science and the food. It is a simple muffin recipe, done in a certain way, that makes 70 dozen fly out the door of a bakery. It is writing up a recipe in a way that makes the world want to try it. It is creating something that is so well documented, anyone can have success with it. It is writing up a recipe in a way that makes the world want to try it. It is writing with such heart, enticement and passion that you make a mere muffin recipe shine like a beacon. In showcasing a recipe, you make it shine like a jewel no one ever noticed before. You touch it up this way and that, you add to the luster, you create a stage for it. You make the flavors dance on the palate. Essentially, it all becomes part of the whole effort. Otherwise, recipes sit in books or on blogs and websites like words on paper – and dry words at that. So in fact, can any ‘invention’ or thought – we all have them. Those that make them into a lively, viable thing, product, novel, movie, symphony, deserve at least, a nod.
Moreover, how many of us have an exceptional brownie or soup or salad dressing recipe? For every Newman’s Own Salad Dressing, there are millions more, dreaming entrepreneurs. Some make an effort to see their dreams become realize but most of the time, we don’t. Those that do – and are successful – there is a reason for it. All things being equal (the product, recipe, tune, art) is great – it is also about the contagiousness of passion and energy of word of mouth. That is what makes a mere muffin or tonic of Coca Cola – so much more than it is. It is taking ideas and making them live - in part of our lives or our culture. That is not accidental. It takes drive as well as dreams.
So can you invent a new muffin? Better yet, maybe figure out what it is that makes a recipe travel so widely, be the subject of lawsuits and blogs and in my case, still trucking, in yet other ways, for two decades. Just a muffin? I would have thought so but 20 years later, this is still the one people talk about.
My Original Buttermilk Rhubarb Lawsuit Muffins is free this month but there is also the sequel, Post Lawsuit Muffins.
How are the New Muffins Different?
As for how is Post Lawsuit Muffins recipe different from the original? I could count the ways but suggest you just try the recipe. For those who will discover it is sumptuous and amazing but not life shifting (as one Baking Blogger suggested ‘these were awesome but frankly….” …Remember – it is a muffin after all.
Muffins, happily, much like lawsuits (unhappily), have their place and position in our lives. Always good to remember what’s important and what’s real. That said, to paraphrase the narrator/writer/voice of a wonderful film (discounting the fact it features a baker being audited by the IRS), Stranger Than Fiction,
‘Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Buttermilk Muffins*. And, fortunately, when there aren't any muffins,, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort..’
Such is baking really. It’s not about lawsuits, it was about creativity in a comfort food. A modest muffin. Who would have figured for all the fuss?
Original Buttermilk Rhubarb Lawsuit Muffins Free
New Edition Famous Lawsuit Buttermilk Muffins
My Muffin Story, Part One Free
* (Actually the recipe in that quote was Bavarian Sugar Cookies which sound wonderful but despite having tried to contact screenplay writer Zack Helm, I still have no idea what he meant when he came up with Bavarian Sugar Cookies.
But you have to, have to, have to rent that movie. It’s one more movie about food (to some extent) but writing and bakers – how could I not love such a film? If you know what Bavarian Sugar Cookies are (and how they might differ from a classic European style butter cookie) please let me know.