Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Spicy Breakfast Muffins with Strawberries from The Wheel of Time

When it came, breakfast consisted of spicy muffins -- wrapped in a white cloth and still warm, and pleasant even so -- yellow pears, blue grapes that looked a bit wizened, and some sort of red things that the serving girl called strawberries, though they looked like no berry that Nynaeve had ever seen. They certainly did not taste anything like straw, especially with clotted cream spooned on top. Elayne claimed to have heard of them, but then she would. (...) It made a refreshing morning meal.
- Chapter 16, The Fires of Heaven (Book 5 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan

Strawberries and clotted cream on a spiced muffin makes a decadent breakfast. Based on an 18th century recipe and inspired by Nynaeve's meal in Amadicia in The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time book 5)

I love this Wheel of Time food vignette for Nynaeve's pragmatic assessment of strawberries and her little mental dig at Elayne. These moments are why Nynaeve is my favorite character. 

The idea of serving strawberries with some sort of spicy muffin also intrigued me. What sort of muffin is spicy?

Frankly, the Two Rivers crew seem to think any food made outside their home turf is spicy. Rand's first encounter with Cairhienin food nearly takes his breath away ("Rand took a hesitant mouthful, and almost gasped. It tasted just as it smelled, sweet and sharp together, the pork crisp on the outside and tender inside, a dozen different flavors, spices, all blending and contrasting. It tasted like nothing he had ever put in his mouth before. It tasted wonderful." Chapter 20, The Great Hunt). While with the Aiel, Mat dines on “goat stew and a thick yellow mush that was spicier than it looked” (Chapter 37, The Shadow Rising), and Rand has a "dark spicy stew of goat with chopped peppers" (Chapter 49, The Shadow Rising). 

So let's take it with a healthy grain of salt when Nynaeve thinks her breakfast muffins are spicy. Perhaps rather than a capsaicin sort of heat, these muffins are more of a gingerbread-y flavor-packed spicy.

18th century recipe for english muffins - with pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove


Now what sort of muffin would Nynaeve encounter in Randland? Most of the food in The Wheel of Time would have been available in the medieval Old World. There are some exceptions - for example, the Seanchan have coffee ("darker and more bitter than tea" - A Crown of Swords), and the Aiel have corn and tomatoes ("a dish of bright yellow kernels and bits of pulpy red that Avienda called zemai or t'mat" - The Shadow Rising). But these cultures are particularly foreign, and I think these almost incongruously New World foods help to make the Aiel and the Seanchan seem more alien. This particular breakfast takes place in Amadicia, which is relatively familiar to the protagonists, and is likely more inspired by medieval Europe. 

Historically, the New World and the Old World developed different sorts of muffins. What we would recognize today as a muffin - a quick bread baked in small cups - is an American invention. On the other side of the pond, the muffin instead referenced a yeasted bread fried in a pan - the sort of thing we now call an English muffin. I think Amadician muffins are therefore probably some sort of spicy English muffin. 

A recipe for English muffins from the 18th century cookbook "The Lady's Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her table"

To make Muffins:
Take two quarts of warm water, two spoonfuls of yeast, three pounds of flower; beat it well half an hour, and let it stand an hour or two; bake them on an iron bake-stove, (rub it well over with mutton-suet, as often as they are to be laid on) as soon as they begin to colour, turn them; when coloured on both sides they are baked enough.
- "The Lady's Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her table" by Charlotte Mason (1777) [Archive link]

For historical inspiration, I drew from the oldest recipe I could find. This recipe was almost at the end of a 18th century British recipe book, squeezed between instructions for pineapple brandy and for "French rolls." 

For my first attempt at recreating this recipe, I faithfully followed the instructions (sizing down to make just a dozen muffins or so), and beat the mixture for a half hour by hand. I can therefore tell you with certainty that you can achieve the same results by using a hand mixer for just 5 minutes. Both these trials produced muffins with fantastic nooks and crannies, but they were also rather flat.

In my third attempt, I reduced the water content slightly. The batter became thicker (so I was super grateful for the invention of the electric mixer), which meant the muffins spread less when added to the pan. The resulting muffins were fluffier, but still with beautiful nooks and crannies, a crunchy exterior and a chewy inside.
Look at those nooks and crannies. Gorgeous.

Happy with the 18th century muffins, I next moved onto the "spicy" part of the descriptor. Fortunately, The Lady's Assistant had some inspiration for me!

Kitchen Pepper.
One ounce of ginger; pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, half an ounce each; six ounces of salt: mix this well, keep it dry. It is a great addition to all brown sauces.
- "The Lady's Assistant for Regulating and Supplying Her table" by Charlotte Mason (1777) 

I added a few teaspoons of this mixture to my muffin recipe, and the results were fantastic. The spices complement the fruity sweetness of the strawberries and the rich creaminess of the clotted cream perfectly. I think Nynaeve would have been very satisfied with this breakfast.

Ingredients

Makes 9 - 10 muffins, enough for 4 people.
  • 8 oz flour (1.5 cups + 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 20 strawberries, sliced
  • 1/2 cup clotted cream (See note below)
  • 1-2 tablespoons of a high smoke point, neutral-tasting oil (grapeseed oil, avocado oil, vegetable oil, etc) 
Note: I used this recipe to make clotted cream, except I made it with ultra pasteurized heavy whipping cream and it worked excellently. Whipped cream is a lighter, but still delicious, substitute.

Instructions

  1. Combine the flour, water and yeast in a large bowl and stir until just combined. Let it sit for five minutes, then beat at low speed for five minutes with a hand mixer. (Or beat for 30 minutes by hand - you do you.) 
  2. Sprinkle on the spices and the salt, and stir once more to combine. Cover with a tea towel and let sit for 2 hours.
  3. Heat a skillet over medium heat and grease with the cooking oil. Dollop about a half-ladle of batter onto the skillet. The batter is a little tricky to work with; I used a butter knife to scrape the butter from the ladle. If the pan space allows, work in batches of 2 - 3 muffins at a time. Be sure to grease the pan well in between each batch.
  4. Fry each side for 3 - 4 minutes. The outsides should be golden brown, and the middles should no longer look doughy.
  5. Let the muffins cool for a few minutes on a wire rack, then slice open.
  6. Spread the strawberry slices on the muffin haves, and top with a teaspoon of clotted cream.

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