This winter break has given me ample time to experiment in the kitchen. My days have been filled with royal icing, chocolate chip cookies, vegan red velvet, cinnamon-apple waffles, and a venture into a world in which I am an extreme novice: bread. I have made but a small number of attempts to make basic white loaves over the years, but have not journeyed far into Paul Hollywood’s land. But this vacation I decided to try some new things. As I flipped through my books and browsed the internet for some yeasty inspiration one day, I first thought I found my destiny with a challah recipe, when I came across Mary Berry’s English muffins.
I have been interested in making homemade English muffins for years. I first came across the idea as a youngster watching Good Eats with Alton Brown and was intrigued, as they looked like beautiful pillows and were cooked via frying pan rather than oven. However, Alton’s always stuck in my mind as long and complicated, and our house tends to want English muffins reliably at the ready for making Eggs Benedict. But as I read Mary’s recipe, it seemed much simpler than the ones I had seen before. Instant yeast, a simple mixing of the ingredients, only one hour-long rise, and a quick fry? No overnight waiting or obscure ingredients? My decision was made, and fresh English muffins we were going to have!
I read the recipe a few times through before beginning. It is well known that cooking can be adjusted more to taste while baking is more of an exact science. As we have found these past few weeks, bread is the most exact of all (our quest for ciabatta has been harrowing and not yet fully successful. The day I conquer ciabatta there will be a rollicking scream of joy and shock heard around the world!) so I was all about preparation. I measured and mixed and waited with watchful eye for the dough to come together into a wet mass as directed. Yet, the dough seemed far too dry. It was more of a mass of shaggy bits than dough, there was no chance of this coming together in a way that I could roll out and cut. I added 50ml more milk to see if that would help, and while the dough did come together a little more, it still didn’t look right. I looked at the recipe again for guidance and to my horror, found my error: I had mistakenly only put 250ml of milk in originally, and the recipe called for 450ml. How I had misread the measurement time and again and had my mind reduce the measurement by half, I do not know. What I did know was that I had an almost-dough already kneaded for a few minutes and 150ml more milk to try and get in there. I did as such and ended up with a lumpy, un-cohesive dough that looked unlike anything I had seen before, and certainly unlike what I had seen in previous English muffin instructional videos.
Upset with myself and upset with the Brits’ foreign proclivity for measuring in milliliters, I considered my options. Should I abandon my venture? Should I try and restart? Try and knead it out? Stop kneading and just try and roll it out in its weird firm yet wet state? Why is bread so mean? Why is it doing this to me? Why do we even eat bread? Gluten can suck it!
I was clearly and quickly descending into madness. How else could a negative thought towards gluten cross my mind? Regaining my wits, I decided the dough must go on, and forged ahead. I looked the dough in the eyes, squarely, with disdain. “You will not conquer me,” I said. “I WILL knead you into submission!”
And knead I did. By hand with a sprinkle more flour on the bottom and on top, I kneaded until something of a biscuit dough came about. I thought perhaps if (when) this utterly failed to produce a muffin via frying, I could possibly try baking them into something edible to salvage what was left of my culinary dignity.
Luckily, the dough easily rolled out to its requisite 1 cm height. The next challenge was cutting it into 3 inch rounds. As we are not regular biscuit makers, there was no appropriate biscuit cutter for this task on hand. Various cups and cans were measured and our Barrington Stage Company tumbler (Shout out to my summer internship home!) fit the bill almost perfectly at just a half-inch more. But at this point, I was in no place to be picky with measurements. What’s a half-inch over at this point? While the tumbler obviously did not have sharp enough edges to make cutting the yeasty dough a swift task, it was done with a bit of effort and each round was placed onto a well-floured, rimmed baking sheet and covered with a tea towel. I set them in my top oven with no heat so they would be safe from draft while undergoing and hour-long proof.
An hour passed and I went to check on the rise of my muffins, fully expecting little to no change. However, to my surprise I was met with enlarged, pillowy dough rounds. How that mess of a dough produced dough with any rise I have no idea, but I was not gonna question it. I dusted the tops with semolina and fired up the skillet. Nervously, I placed a couple muffins-to-be on the pan. With another surprising act, they browned just as an English muffin should, even rising a bit more than they already had. While the recipe called for seven minutes fry a side, the first side was already blackening up a bit after only seven four minutes. Not wanting to burn what had already miraculously come so far, I decided to flip it before the seven minutes was up and cook to looks rather than the specific time given by Mary. This seemed to work as I worked my way through each round, and before too long I was met with a rack full of beautiful English muffins.
Naturally, my mom and I couldn’t wait until the next morning to see if my disaster had turned into true English muffins. We did the signature piercing with a fork and pulled it apart. Low and behold, we had nooks and crannies! A full-fledged English muffin was in our midst. We put a pat of butter on each half and took an exploratory bite. Not only did it look like an English muffin, it tasted like one, too. Crisp on the crust where it was touching the pan, soft and warm all inside. The butter was all that was needed to create absolute perfection.
The next morning, we had to try more. A classic breakfast of English muffins and eggs gave us the perfect excuse to dig into the muffins with some jam, this time with the added pleasure of them being toasted to add a little crisp to the top. We did find that some of them were still a bit doughy in the very center. This may be because the frying temperature was too high, so the outside looked done while the inside still needed more time to cook through. But the beauty of toasting English muffins is that this cooked the last little doughy bits.
What began with disaster ended with a dozen beautiful muffins tastier than I could have imagined. I will hopefully be trying again soon and starting out right from the beginning to perfect the recipe. I highly recommend giving them a try if you’re an English muffin lover. They’re well worth the effort, and even occasional hair pulling.