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England: English Muffins

A toasted home-made English muffin

It can come as a surprise for a North American traveling in the UK to discover that hardly anyone there has heard of "English muffins," or knows what they are. And the situation was the same in Ireland for a long time. Only very recently have the major UK and Irish supermarket chains introduced something that looks like the famous Thomas's brand widely sold in the US and Canada. The joke is that they label these as "American Muffins".

The ancestor of the Thomas's-style muffin, though, has been made in England for centuries, and still is. No one calls it "English," however; it's just referred to as a muffin. And this is indeed the kind of muffin referred to in the nursery rhyme, made by a baker "who lives in Drury Lane." In the England of the 18th and 19th centuries, muffin men were out in the streets early in the morning, carrying trays full of hot, fresh-baked muffins on their heads, and ringing a bell to let the local householders know they were coming.

The muffins they made and sold were more substantial, and some think a lot tastier, than the "English muffins" that North Americans take for granted these days. You can easily recreate them in your own kitchen: they're simple to make, and there's nothing like them with the morning tea or coffee, freshly split and buttered. They may not have quite as many of the trademark "nooks and crannies" as Thomas's -- possibly because any big commercial bakery is going to try to pump as much air into their baking as possible: air is cheaper than flour. But these muffins' flavor and freshness leaves Thomas's (as the English would say) in the dust.

English Muffins

The ingredients:

  • 1 pound / 500g / 3 & 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup / 100g butter (to be melted)
  • 1 package quick yeast or 1 1/2 teaspoons granular yeast
  • 1 level teaspoon sugar
  • 2 level teaspoons salt
  • 1 level teaspoon baking powder
  • 10 fluid ounces / 1/2 UK pint / 300 ml lukewarm milk
  • 2-3 tablespoons of dry Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal (for sprinkling the muffins. If you have semolina, this is the most traditional grain used for this purpose.)

To make these muffins you'll need a griddle, bakestone, or cast iron frying pan.

First: in a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt, and mix them very well. (You can sift them together if you like, but it's not absolutely necessary.)

Melt the 1/2 cup of butter and set it aside to cool.

Heat the milk on the stove or in the microwave until lukewarm. Stir in the sugar until dissolved: sprinkle in the yeast and kmx or whisk it well together with the milk. Set the yeast and milk mixture aside until the yeast begins to bubble, usually about 10-15 minutes.

When the yeast and milk are ready, add them and the melted butter to the dry ingredients and mix well to a soft dough. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured work surface and knead gently for two or three minutes. You don't need to knead this dough too much: the yeast will do most of the work of developing the gluten in the flour.

When you're finished kneading, put the dough in a large bowl, cover it, and put it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled -- normally an hour to an hour and a half. While this is happening, butter a large cookie sheet or Swiss roll pan and sprinkle it liberally with the semolina / Malt-O-Meal / Cream of Wheat.

When the dough has risen, return it to a lightly floured work surface and roll it out to 1/2 inch thick (for normal-thickness muffins) or 3/4 inch thick (for double-thickness muffins). Use a sharp round 3-inch biscuit or cookie cutter to cut out the rounds. Cut straight down and don't wobble them around to free them from the surrounding dough: they are very soft and will get misshapen if you try to treat them like cookie or biscuit dough.

Place the cut out muffins on the prepared cookie sheet and sprinkle their tops with the dry Cream of Wheat / semolina as well. Leave them in a warm place to rise for another hour or until doubled. (Don't leave them for too long or they will collapse.)

When the muffins are ready, heat a griddle, skillet or cast iron frying pan to medium-high heat. (A non-stick surface is best, but not absolutely necessary.) Carefully use a spatula to place the muffins on the cooking surface of your choice. Let them bake for 8 minutes -- keeping an eye on them, and lowering the heat slightly if they show signs of burning. They will rise further while baking. Then carefully turn and bake the muffins for another 8 minutes.

Remove the muffins from the griddle or frying pan when they're finished baking, and wrap them in a dish towel or tea towel while baking the rest.

Serve hot (if possible), split and toasted. Use two forks to pull the muffins apart so that the "nooks and crannies" are maximized.