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Making old-fashioned muffins the American way

IT'S been a hundred years or more since London streets were filled with the calls of the muffin man selling his vendor's tray of warm, freshly baked muffins. Today's puffy breads with nuts, fruits, bananas, peanut butter, and all kinds of flavors are a far cry from the early street vendor's fare, but the English have long recognized the difference between the muffins sold in the streets and those found in the United States.

Proof of this can be found in the English ``Dictionary of Gastronomy,'' by Andr'e L. Simon and Robin Howe (l970), which has two definitions of the word muffin, one American and one British. The British definition describes something much like the US's round, white commercial English muffins. It is a light, round, spongy, flat, unsweetened cake baked in a muffin pan.

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The American muffin is called ``a type of bread or scone, made with a batter, poured into well-greased muffin tins, similar to the British deep patty tins, baked in a hot oven.''

Elizabeth Alston, who has made a study of both kinds of muffins, says that when she was growing up in England muffins were part of the Victorian past. ``They were usually made in bakeries, carried home, and toasted in front of an open fire on a long toasting fork,'' she says. ``I knew what they were supposed to be like -- round, flat and yeasty, then craggy on the inside.

``Later, as a young adult, when I was 3,000 miles away from the land of the muffin man [in the US], I was served a basketful of what appeared to be warm, delectable cupcakes. But they were called muffins. I thought they were wrong. I thought they'd made a mistake. But I soon learned otherwise,'' she says.

``Those first, delicious, baking powder muffins were only the beginning of my education about one of the most comforting of American foods.''

Today Mrs. Alston is the food editor of Woman's Day magazine and the author of ``Redbook Bread Book.'' Trained at the Cordon Bleu in London, she now lives in New York City and has written an attractive cookbook called ``Muffins,'' with illustrations by Sally Sturman (Clarkson N. Potter, $8.95).

She tells in her book of muffins she's enjoyed all over the United States -- from fat muffins bursting with wild Maine blueberries to honey bran muffins served with spicy sausage and ranch-produced honey in the North Dakota countryside.

She gives recipes for corn muffins she had with country ham and greens in Richmond, Va.; sour cream cranberry muffins in Oregon; and raspberry almond muffins in Carmel, Calif.

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Mrs. Alston divides muffins into three categories: breakfast muffins made with different kinds of flour such as bran, cornmeal, and oats; tea muffins, which are a bit sweeter, such as the fruit muffins and lemon and ginger muffins; and savory lunch and dinner muffins like those made with Cheddar cheese.

Unusual combinations include her Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Muffins and Double Corn and Green Chili Muffins. You can even make sour cream and jalapeo corn muffins to go with your next barbecue, she suggests.

Dalia Ratner of Chicago is another muffinmaker who's giving the croissant some competition. This mother of three opened her first All My Muffins shop in Beverly Hills last year, followed by one in Redondo Beach. Her husband, who's in the trucking business and is also her financial backer, advised launching the shops on the West Coast, where he believes food trends start. Now there is also an All My Muffins in Chicago, with more in the planning stage.

``I've always liked to bake,'' says Mrs. Ratner. The more than 200 kinds of muffins in her repertoire are divided into seven categories: corn, chocolate, fruit, whole wheat, oatmeal, bran, and a type she calls ``Delite'' -- ``made with no sugar, salt, or honey and sweetened with natural fruit juices.''

The seven basic muffins are then mixed into dozens of different flavors, such as Morning Glory Bran with shredded coconut, apple, and carrot; orange-cranberry-walnut-bran; banana chocolate chunk; and zucchini walnut. But according to Mrs. Ratner, the No. 1 seller is the longtime standby: the blueberry muffin.

For those who want to bake muffins a bit more adventurous than blueberry -- or corn and bran -- these recipes from Elizabeth Alston's book provide a few twists. She suggests serving the cranberry apple muffins with an ordinary roast chicken or turkey dinner. ``Instead of biscuits,'' she writes, ``heap these not too sweet muffins in a basket. Make a day ahead for best flavor and serve warm.'' Cranberry Apple Muffins 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour, oat bran, or all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 large eggs 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 3/4 diced unpeeled tart apple 3/4 cup fresh or frozen cranberries 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease muffin cups, or use foil cups. Mix flours, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in large bowl. Break eggs into another bowl. Add sugar and whisk until smooth. Whisk in oil and vanilla. Stir in apple, cranberries, and walnuts. Pour over dry ingredients. Fold in just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Scoop batter into muffin cups. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until browned and firm to the touch. Turn out onto a rack. Let cool. Store one to two days in a plastic bag or airtight container before reheating and serving. Do not freeze. Fresh Lemon and Ginger Muffins 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped ginger root 1 or 2 lemons, scrubbed 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature 1 cup granulated sugar 2 large eggs 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk 2 cups all-purpose flour 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease muffin cups or use foil or paper baking cups. Finely chop ginger. Finely grate lemon peel to make 2 tablespoons.

In large bowl, beat butter and 1 cup sugar with wooden spoon or electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add ginger and lemon peel.

Stir baking soda into yogurt or milk. It will bubble and expand.

Fold flour into ginger mixture 1/3 at a time, alternating with yogurt. When well blended, scoop into muffin cups. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned and springy to the touch.

While muffins bake, mix lemon juice and sugar in small dish and stir until sugar dissolves. After baking, cool 3 to 5 minutes in pan. Remove and dip top and bottom into lemon juice mixture.

Serve hot or warm. Makes 12 regular or 48 miniature muffins.

This recipe comes from ``Muffin Mania,'' by Cathy Prange and Joan Pauli (Liberty Publishing, Cockeysville, Md.). Honey-Carrot-Date Muffins 1/4 cup butter or margarine 1/2 cup honey 1/2 cup milk 2 eggs 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 heaping teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup grated carrots (2 medium carrots) 1 cup pitted, chopped dates

Melt butter and honey. Stir in milk and eggs and beat. Combine dry ingredients and stir thoroughly. Stir in liquid mixture and fold in carrots and dates. Fill greased muffin cups 3/4 full. Bake at 375 degrees F. 15 to 20 minutes.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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