Little Black and Blue Berry Cakes (or the Postmodern Muffin)

It all comes down to this.  There are some very, very strong opinions on the matter of Muffin v. Cupcake. 

Nigel Slater alludes to this in his recipe for spelt and blueberry “muffins” in Ripe.  Note the quotes.  He first creams the butter and sugar together: giving his muffin batter the cake treatment.  He says:

Muffin makers will quickly spot that my blueberry muffin is a muffin only in looks, and bears little resemblance to the traditional recipe in either method or ingredients.  In some ways, it is more like a cupcake (the butter and sugar are creamed together here, rather than the butter being melted and added at the end) …

It is clear Nigel is well aware of the great muffin—cake divide.   (The quotes are his and his alone.)  I was curious as to what others thought about muffin semantics. 

Thus, I googled.   But I was left scratching my head.  A little more confused about muffins, cupcakes, and the people who eat them.

So my next step was to easel and Sharpie it out.  Here.  On this blog.  Fair warning.  The questions I raise are not for those who easily offend, have a strong muffin and/or cupcake propensity, spit at postmodernism, maintain a nervous disposition, or dislike Frank Zappa.

If none of the aforementioned applies to you, forge on.  It’s time to question The Institution of Muffin …

Does a muffin cease to be a muffin if it is iced?

If an overmixed muffin falls on the floor, will it thud? If there is no one there to witness this, did it thud?  Is it really overmixed?  And is it even a muffin?

Will a frostingless cupcake eaten for breakfast become a breakfast cake or a muffin? 

True or false?  There is naught—nor ought there be—nothing so exalted on the face of god’s gray earth as that prince of foods … the muffin! 

Where does one find a Perkins chocolate chip muffin?  When did we flashback to 1992? And where are my paisley print stirrup leggings?!

Why are muffins being made the size of enthusiastically filled water balloons?   And—for the love of this recent legging resurgence—will you please stop? 

How come women got muffin top and men got stud muffin?

Why do so many men claim to not like cake? How do men feel about muffins?  And is this a matter of frosting?

Can a woman named Candy ever be wrong when dealing in matters of cupcakes and muffins?  (Not likely, unless Candy is a stripper name.  Then all bets are off.)

Would I be someone who corrects grammar in an online muffin forum? (Answer: yes, yes I would.)

What is your “muffin” philosophy? 

Should they contain a crunch of demerara sugar?

Have you a special place in your heart for berries?

Do you prefer the term "little cake" over cupcake between the hours of six and ten am?

Might you enjoy a morning dose of wholegrain without over-the-top wholesomeness?

Would you fancy a breakfast that’s easily made and takes kindly to freezing?

If yes, this is your muffin  cake  whatever.  They’re good.

Little Black and Blue Berry Cakes
Adapted from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
4 tbsp butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
scant ½ cup plain low fat yogurt (or buttermilk)
¾ cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
¾ cup black raspberries (fresh or frozen)
demerara sugar, for sprinkling
a dusting of oats


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Sift together the flours, baking powder, and baking soda.  Add in the salt.  Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer until it is pale yellow in color and light and fluffy, scraping down the inside of the bowl if needed.  Slowly add your eggs to the creamed mixture, one at a time, while the mixer is running on low speed.  Then add the vanilla extract and yogurt.

Slowly add in the flour mixture, while the mixer continues to run on low, and then turn off the mixer as soon as all the dry ingredients have been added in.  Use a rubber spatula to mix in the flour (be careful not to mix too much, only a few turns of the spatula should be needed here).  Fold in the berries.

Drop the batter into muffin tins lined with paper muffin liners.  (The batter will be fairly thick.)  Top each muffin with a little demerara sugar and a scattering of oats.  Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean.

Let cool on a wire rack.

Makes a dozen muffins

-Any combination of berries will work here.  I liked the black and blue concept (plus those were the berries that were lurking in the freezer).  I’ve also made a triple berry version with some leftover frozen cranberries that was very enjoyable.  If you are using frozen berries, don’t defrost them before you add them into the batter.

-The original recipe calls for 1 cup spelt flour.  A number of whole grain flours would do well here.  I chose white whole wheat flour because I had it around.  It’s a whole grain, but it will produce a muffin that is lighter in texture compared to many other whole grain flours.

-These muffins have almost a biscuit or shortcake quality that I’ve become quite taken with.  They’ve quickly become a favorite muffin. Which, in this moment, is a term that I’m I am using interchangeably with little cakes.  Sigh.

-I’ve been on a bit of a demerara bender, I know.  If you don’t have any you could probably, ahem, borrow a few of those Sugar in the Raw packets from your local coffee joint.

-I am also on a bit of a Nigel Slater bender.  I don’t know when this will stop exactly.  But it’s not looking good.


A Bourbon Sour or Three, Gone with the Wind

We’re all friends here, right?  So I can share that I’ve already drunk three of these suckers. And the only thing stopping me from having another is that I’m out of mixer.

Specifically, I’m out of what was introduced to me as “lemon sherbet,” also known as a proper oleo saccharum.  The sherbet is a key component to classic punch recipes according to liquor historian, David Wonderich.  (Not to be confused with the icy confectionary namesake.)

It’s a liquid.  Its essence is an intense citrusy syrup made from lemon peel and sugar.  And it infuses some serious aromatics into your cocktail(s). 

The sherbet’s raison d'être is the drink. And once you’ve had it, your raison d'être may very well become the drink.  Don’t fret about that.

The recipe came to me via Ted Gallagher of Craigie on Main.  “Cocktails should be drank cold, and fast,” he said with the conviction of Rhett Butler.  And I can’t disagree.  (Remember my three friends from above?)  I’m a lady  broad who loves her bourbon.  And old-timey items like whiskey sours and things that require a little elbow grease.   

So lemon peels and sugar were tossed into a bowl and mashed with the end of a rolling pin every quarter hour from seven to nine-thirty on a recent weekday night.  Later in the week, eggs were cracked, lemons were squeezed, and bourbon was poured.   Oh, and there was a cocktail shaker, a narrow glass, some ice cubes … and a pink umbrella.  For flare.  Not that this drink needs any of that.  But sometimes a gal needs a pink umbrella in her drink for no good reason. 

And so the bourbon sour was made.  Whether you add ice cubes into your cocktail is a matter of preference. Just know that it should be drank cold, and often. And by someone that knows how. 

Bourbon Sour


2 egg whites
3 ounces bourbon
3 ounces lemon sherbet (see recipe below)
1½ ounces fresh lemon juice

For the lemon sherbet
Adapted from Ted Gallagher via David Wondrich

2 large lemons
4 ounces (½ cup) sugar
Juice of two lemons (or in equal parts with the sugar)


For the lemon sherbet

Prepare the lemon sherbet at least 2-3 hours in advance.  Remove the peels from your lemons. (Be sure to remove all of the white pith; you can do this by running your knife along the inner peel of the lemon, like you were filleting a fish.)  Place the zests and sugar in a large non-reactive bowl.  Using a muddling stick or the end of a blunt object, like a rolling pin, press down on the peel and mash it into the sugar; continue this for a few minutes.  (You want to do this to release the essential oils from the zest.)

Continue this muddling process every 15-20 minutes for the next 2-3 hours, or until enough liquid is released that it forms a gel.  Once the liquid is the consistency of runny marmalade and smells of intense lemon, it's ready.

Juice your lemons (you’ll need about ½ cup of juice) and add the juice to your lemony sugar liquid.  Stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves (this will likely take a few minutes); eventually, no sugar should remain.  You may wish to let the liquid sit a little longer if you are having a hard time dissolving all the sugar.  It will come with time.  Remove the peels prior to using or storing the sherbet.

For the bourbon sour

Place your egg whites into a cocktail shaker and shake them for a minute or two (be sure to do this dry, with no ice: it helps with the texture of the drink).  Once your whites are frothy, add the bourbon, lemon sherbet, lemon juice, and a generous amount of ice cubes.  Shake another minute or so and pour into glasses.

Add ice cubes to your cocktail, if that’s your thing.  I tried it both ways and, though the picture above is sans cube, I've found I prefer ice.  Run a little lemon peel around the rim of the glass, if it's readily available. Garnish at will.  Perhaps with a cherry; I like these.

Makes 2 cocktails (the lemon sherbet recipe will make enough for about two rounds or a tad more)

-The sherbet can keep in the fridge for about a week.  And it can be done with any number of citrus fruits.  You can also increase the yield by scaling up the amounts: just keep the proportions the same.  This is a ratios game.

-This isn’t an impulse cocktail.  It does require a few hours of advanced planning to make the sherbet.  (But I promise it’s worth it.)  Seems like a lot of instruction for a cocktail, I know, but it’s a special drink and a fairly easy one to recreate at home.  Also, for those at home, know that an average-sized shot glass is about an ounce and a half.

-This drink uses egg whites, like other sours, such as the pisco.  (In a flip, as in a brandy flip, you'll want to use the whole egg.) 

-Some may be concerned about the use of raw egg.  I like to think the alcohol solves this problem, but I can’t guarantee it.  All I can say is that I’ve been drinking them with abandon.  And I'm still here. (And so is my drinking buddy.)

-I saw Ted Gallagher at the Institute of Contemporary Art of Boston’s Talking Taste summer series.  It’s an annual favorite.  And Gallagher was terrific.  

P.s.  A Plum was featured on Saveur this week, so check me out!


Whole Wheat Stone Fruit Marmalade Cake, Only a Minor Mess

There is no socially acceptable way to eat an August peach.  Especially in an office setting.  Believe me, I’ve tried. 

I’ve tried one-handed with a paper towel cupped under the fruit.  I’ve tried hovering in the corner, hunched over my miniature garbage can like Quasimodo.  I’ve tried the three-bite approach. (Definitely not recommended unless someone is standing by, Heimlich-ready.) 

I’ve found the best way to eat a peach is with the office door closed. And to be far, far away from the keyboard so as to prevent an unfortunate incident where the letter F gets sticky and remains this way no matter the number of disinfectant wipes used. 

But such problems assure that you’ve found a good peach.  You know instantly.  Something happens on a chemical level. Much like you know when you’ve found a good mate. (Note: if said person brings you espelette pepper jelly for no apparent reason; suggests you watch Harold and Maude; and doesn’t balk at your lack of AC in a July heat wave, you can be pretty sure he’ll be around for longer than a summer peach.)

But back to fruit.  You can’t take the dribbles and soft, perfumed flesh away from the peach.  At least, you shouldn’t.  Of course, this messiness is not limited to peaches alone.  Just the other day it happened with a pluot.

So stone fruits, they drip summer.  Great for eating.  Not so great for adhering to office breakfasting etiquette.  I knew there had to be a way to circumvent this between nine and five.  And—like many problems needing mending and romances worth their weight—it involved cake.

Full disclosure: the version pictured was made with apricots; apricots have now faded from view here in New England.  My suspicion is that the Italian prune plum would be dynamite here, perhaps with a little addition of cardamom and pistachio.  And don’t forget, our lady peach is still reigning. In fact, I suspect any number of the usual stone fruit suspects would do well in this role. As would apples—which is what the original version calls for—if you’ve sworn off your oven for the remainder of August. 

While apricots tend to have less juice than some other summer fruits, I believe this cake to be a very good way to use up office-problematic varieties.  And because the recipe uses whole wheat flour, calls for marmalade, and comes to you in a loaf pan, it can easily be coaxed into a perfectly acceptable breakfast option.  In fact, I was one step away from calling it a bread because—despite the multiple sugar sources in the recipe—it is not super sweet.  But the addictive demerera crunch on top and the cake’s slight butterscotch notes kept me from downgrading it.

Though—and I should be clear here—regardless of what it is called, I still get its crumbs in my keyboard.  But that’s probably just me.

Whole Wheat Stone Fruit Marmalade Cake
Inspired from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard  by Nigel Slater


2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 heaping tsp baking powder
few pinches of salt
pinch of cinnamon
heafty pinch of allspice
3-4 fresh apricots (or other stone fruit), pits removed and chopped between ¼-½ inch-sized pieces (about 1 cup, give or take)
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp of a citrus marmalade
zest of 1 lemon (or orange; you can mimic whatever citrus your marmalade is made of)
½ cup butter, at room temperature
a scant cup light muscovado sugar
1/3 cup olive oil
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup chopped walnuts
demerara sugar, for sprinkling


Preheat the oven to 325.  Line 1-2 loaf pans (depending on their size) with parchment paper, allowing the paper to hang over the long sides of the pan. Butter the parchment paper and any exposed inside pan parts not covered by the paper.  (Alternatively, you could use an 8-inch round cake or springform pan.) 

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and spices into a medium bowl.  In a small bowl, combine the apricots, marmalade, and lemon zest.

In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until they start to get lighter in color and then slowly pour in the olive oil and continue to beat until well mixed. Slowly add the eggs, one at a time, while the mixer is running on low, until the eggs are fully incorporated.  (Things may start to curdle, keep going.)  Add in the vanilla. Then, with the mixer running, slowly add in the sifted flour mixture until just combined. Remove the bowl from the stand and fold in the apricot marmalade mixture, along with the walnuts.

Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan(s) and toss a few spoonfuls of demerara sugar on top.  Bake for 75-90 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the cake.  Cool on wire rack before removing the cake from the pan(s).

Makes 1-2 loaves, depending on the size of your pans (see note), or one 8-inch cake

-A few things.  My loaf pans are long and narrow.  I have yet to measure their volume.  If you decide to use a loaf pan, you’ll want to fill it only about 2/3 of the way up with batter, regardless of its size.  If you have leftover batter, you can pour it into smaller tins to bake.  Alternatively, you could make a round cake.  Your cooking time may vary slightly, depending on what you use, so just keep a watchful eye.

-I used this recipe for the marmalade.  It’s my favorite.  And I still have one remaining pint in my freezer from February.

-If you don’t have muscovado you can use brown sugar (don’t tightly pack it).

-A wide variety of nuts could work here.  I love walnuts with stone fruits.  I imagine pistachio would be particularly nice with plums and almonds with peaches, as well.

-It’s a bad habit, but I very rarely measure my spices in snack cake recipes.  The original cake (which contains apples) calls for ½ tsp cinnamon and no other spices.


The Song of Young Roasted Onions with Balsamic, Cream, and Lemon Thyme

Ah, August.

You know August, the month of Sundays.  The month of last gulps of rosé and drippy kitchen sink peaches.  Pretty soon I’ll be replacing words like “tequila happy hour” with words like “trajectory.” Instead of saying, “Dude, pass me the salt and a lime,” I’ll be saying, “Please pass me that book. I have to read 200 pages on restaurant ethnography.” But for now, the dog days are upon us, tripping lazily along. 

I’m out to enjoy all the hot bits while I still can.  So I’m leaving my summer soundtrack of music to chop by.  And a list of dishes I’ve had on repeat.  Feel free to shake it in the kitchen. Let things get a little unruly.

The Sound

“We are the Tide” Blind Pilot
 “Silver Coin” Angus and Julia Stone
 “Sugar Man” Rodriguez
“Hold the Line” Toto
“Stars” The xx
“The World is Going Up in Flames” Charles Bradley
 “Ghosts” The Head and the Heart
 “I Ain’t the Same” Alabama Shakes

The Dishes

Shredded kale tossed with a bastardized Caesar dressing
Roasted young onions with balsamic, cream, and lemon thyme

A word about the onions.  I make them in the early morning before my kitchen steams and the earth heats up.  I don’t have air conditioning, but I believe in the power of roasting onions.  This late in the summer, the onions you’ll find at farmers’ markets will no longer be green in the figurative sense.  No matter. I’m quite certain you could quarter regular onions and have things sing. This would also be the time to take advantage of Vidalias.  You could even try this roasting and creaming business with scallions. 

Hardly worth fussing over specifics.  What I have for you is barely a recipe.  But it’s something that is spectacular with morning eggs or tossed in a raw kale salad at lunchtime.  Again, let things get a little unruly.  These guys are difficult to mess up.  And their little onion souls pair fantastically with the Alabama Shakes.

Young Roasted Onions with Balsamic, Cream, and Lemon Thyme


A bunch of young onions or about four small onions
Olive oil, enough to coat the onions
Salt and pepper
Few sprigs of lemon thyme
A few douses of balsamic vinegar
A splash or two of heavy cream


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Place the onions in a baking dish and generously coat them with olive oil until they glisten; season with salt and pepper.  Drizzle with balsamic vinegar, maybe a few tablespoons worth when all is said and done.  Tuck a few sprigs of lemon thyme in between the onions and bake until the onions are tender and start to caramelize, about 20 to 30 minutes or so (you will probably want to check on them occasionally). 

Once the onions are fairly well caramelized, take them out and add a few splashes of heavy cream; stir to combine the cream and place back in the oven.  Continue to cook the onions until a sauce forms (it will start to thicken a bit); this will take about 5-10 minutes more. 

Makes a few cups of onions

-If you are using the whole onion with its green parts, the tops might get frizzled a bit.  I enjoy eating these parts, if you don’t, well, don’t.

-I know, technically rhubarb season has come and gone.  But I’ve had the recipe on repeat.  When you make something at least six times in a matter of weeks, it's worth noting. So I did.