The annual Unprocessed October challenge is two weeks in and I’m doing OK. How about you? I’ve slipped up a few times, usually not realizing it until I’m halfway through eating or drinking something but overall this one is certainly do-able. The Vegan-Before-6 challenge I decided to tack on isn’t going nearly as well. Processed foods are easier to avoid, for me at least, but this vegan challenge takes some planning and thought. Neither of which are a particularly strong character trait of mine early in the morning. The very first day, October 1, I ate a mini Snickers bar at work, which technically voided both challenges. Great. Day 2 I purposely drove out of my way to a particular café for lunch where I thought I’d find a vegan friendly option. Not so much so I decided on the fly that simply vegetarian was an ok substitute and had gouda on my rather plain, disappointing sandwich. Day 3 I absentmindedly buttered my morning toast, out of habit. Day 4 I did it again. Day 5 I made a beautiful stir fry packed with vegetables and tofu, then tossed in a healthy shot of fish sauce before I realized what I was doing. Day 6 I threw all rules to the wind and thoroughly enjoyed 3 fat spoonfuls of pastry cream I’d made for a Boston Cream Pie. It was delicious. And that’s when I decided I would have to amend my challenge. I really have no problem avoiding meat but dairy is my downfall, and I accept that. To do this right, I need to concentrate and now is not time so I’m going to continue with Unprocessed October and make conscious choices in other matters, vegan-ish if I can swing it. No need to beat myself up about this.
For the most part, I’ve been reading labels and taking stock of my mealtime routines. I’ve been making pasta from scratch, rather than a package and have been stir-frying everything I can get my hands on. For breakfast, not my most lucid time of the day, I usually keep a pack of English Muffins around as they’re quick, easy to eat on the go and not too heavy. Toasted with a little schmear of good butter is all I need. But I took a look at the label: Unbleached Enriched Wheat Flour [flour, malted barley flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin b1), riboflavin (vitamin b2), folic acid], water, farina, yeast, sugar, salt, soybean oil, preservatives (calcium propionate, sorbic acid), grain vinegar, monoglycerides, nonfat milk, soy flour, whey. Hmmmmm.
It’s certainly not the worst but I could make these without the preservatives and monoglycerides for sure. Several years ago, I’d become smitten with the English muffins at The Model Bakery in St. Helena California for which they are justly famous. Their muffins are big and fat, more bread-like than nooks and crannies, but utterly delicious all the same. I’d been playing with the recipe since I received their cookbook last year (it is the cover recipe after all) and made them several times with great success. I’d been toying with a whole wheat version for some time, adding a little additional flavor and nutrition to what can be a white bread wasteland but had yet to master it. Working with whole wheat sometimes throws you curveballs and it proved more difficult than I thought. I made a lot of hockey pucks so I shelved it for a while. No time like the present to resurrect this project.
Going back to my culinary school days, I knew there were two ways to make English Muffins. One was with a very wet batter poured into ring molds set on a griddle, much like crumpets. The other was a firmer but still loose dough, shaped like a traditional bread dough in little rounds and cooked directly on a griddle once risen. I seem to remember the batter method creating more nooks and such due to the high hydration of the dough but I stuck with the second technique as that’s how the Model Bakery did it. Good enough for me.
And delicious they certainly are. After a lot of trial and error, I determined the correct amount of whole wheat flour and also worked in some wheat bran for added flavor and nutrients. I also figured out how to combat the chronic undercooking that can happen when utilizing a skillet. Originally I was browning the muffins on both sides in a hot cast iron skillet then transferring to an oven to finish cooking through. This was a pain and more complicated than I wanted. By covering the pan and taking care to monitor a lower but constant heat, I could cook them through in the skillet without overbrowning. I also decided that while browning theses babies in clarified butter as the original recipe directs was wonderful, who has clarified butter lying around? Not wanting to add another complicated step to a two-day recipe, I went with vegetable oil but clarify away if you wish.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: TRIPLE THREAT. Ok. You’ve got a few things working in your favor here. First, this is bread dough. Nothing makes you feel better and relieves stress better than kneading bread dough. Maybe a punching bag but it’s a close call. Second, the smell of bread baking makes you swoon and swooning because of bread baking smell is known to increase serotonin levels (I made that up but it sounds plausible, no?) Finally, and most importantly, homemade English muffins are not only absolutely fantastic they are a huge crowd pleaser. Whip up some breakfast sandwiches on these or holy crap, a batch of eggs benedict and stand back and soak up the adoration. No joke.
On this blog five years ago: Ratatouille, Classic Apple Pie
On this blog four years ago: Chicken Sour Cream Enchiladas, Bangkok World Gourmet Festival
On this blog three years ago: Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars
On this blog two years ago: Kale and Roasted Squash Salad
On this blog last year about this time: Honey Maple Roasted Pears
WHOLE WHEAT ENGLISH MUFFINS – adapted from a recipe in The Model Bakery Cookbook
Makes 12 large muffins
You can certainly make these by hand rather than in a mixer. Just add the ingredients to a large bowl and have at it.
for the biga:
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup warm water
¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
for the dough:
1 ½ cups warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup wheat bran
- For the biga: At least 1 day before cooking the muffins, combine the yeast, water and flour in a small bowl to make a sticky dough.
- Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 12-24 hours. The biga will rise slightly.
- For the dough: In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the biga, water and yeast on low speed.
- Change to the dough hook and add the olive oil, salt, flour, whole wheat flour and wheat bran.
- Mix on low speed until the dough comes together; it will be on the sticky side.
- Increase the speed to medium-high until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8-10 minutes. If the dough rides up the dough hook, stop the mixer, remove the dough and start mixing again.
- Remove the dough from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for a few minutes until silky.
- Spray the workbowl with cooking spray, place the dough in the bowl giving a turn to lightly coat and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ – 2 hours. You can refrigerate the dough at this point overnight; let come to room temperature before continuing, about 1 hour.
- To shape: line two heavy sheet pans with parchment and sprinkle with cornmeal to prevent sticking.
- Remove the dough from the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and roll into an evenly shaped log, about 15” long.
- With a bench scraper, cut the log in half then cut each half into 6 even pieces.
- Cupping your hand around one piece of dough, shape each piece into a chunky 4” disc. Place on the cornmeal prepared sheet pan and continue with the remaining dough pieces. Place 6 muffins on each sheet pan with 1 ½” between each muffin to allow to spreading.
- Sprinkle cornmeal on top of each muffin to prevent sticking then cover each pan with plastic wrap.
- Let rise in a warm spot until nearly doubled in size, about 1 hour.
- To cook: Heat 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium heat until hot, but not smoking.
- Turn the heat down to low to medium-low and in batches, usually 3 at a time, carefully add the dough rounds to the skillet. It works best if you slide them in, rather than flipping as that flip action can cause the muffins to deflate a bit.
- Cover the pan with a large lid and cook, covered, adjusting the heat as needed so the muffins brown without scorching. The undersides should be nicely browned in about 5 minutes.
- Carefully turn the muffins and cook, covered, until the other sides are browned and the muffins are puffed, about 5 minutes more.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool – let stand for at least 20 minutes as the muffins will continue to cook with the carry-over heat.
- Repeat with the remaining muffins, wiping the cornmeal out of the skillet with a paper towel between batches and adding more vegetable oil. Note: it’s very important to keep the pan at a nice even temperature. Too hot and they’ll cook too quickly on the outside while remaining raw in the center. Too low and it’ll take forever. Find your happy medium.
- To serve: Split each muffin in half horizontally with a serrated knife or better yet, a fork. Toast until golden brown in toaster, broiler or toaster oven depending on what works best for you. Serve hot. Muffins will keep at room temperature, tightly wrapped, up to two days or freeze any leftovers in a Ziploc bag and let defrost (or microwave for 15-30 seconds) until you can easily cut in half.