The best base recipe for muffins


I’m back in Seattle and loving it. I haven’t straightened out my kitchen since I unpacked it, so this week’s recipe is an oldie but a goodie.

It’s based on Joy’s classic muffin recipe, which can be easily tweaked or added to in order to create different flavors. It is the best muffin recipe I’ve ever tried, and I’ve stuck to it ever since. The original says you can use vegetable oil instead of butter, and cream instead of milk, but I’ve found the combination below works best. Take out the poppy seeds and the lemon zest, and you’ve got the base recipe. Have fun creating your own flavors.

Next week, I’ll have a new recipe to share. In the meantime, enjoy.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons poppy seeds
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a standard 12-muffin pan or line with paper liners.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and poppy seeds. In another bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, sugar, butter, vanilla and lemon zest. Add to the flour mixture and mix together with a few light strokes, just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Do not overmix; the batter should not be smooth. Divid the batter among the muffin cups.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, about 17 minutes. Let cool for 2 to 3 minutes before removing from the pan.

Countdown cupcakes suited for a celebration


Some kind of cake tends to be present at most celebrations. One of my college friends’ families can attest to that. There is always cake to be had when something good happens in their household.

One of my friends had her engagement party yesterday and, as usual, I wanted to bake something for the occasion.

I have struggled with making cakes at high altitude so, instead of taking a chance on a regular recipe and trying to make it work, I turned to the few high-altitude cake recipes that the Joy of Cooking had to offer. I settled on the 1234 cake, which got its name because its formula at sea level calls for 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs. I call them countdown cupcakes because I always remember the recipe in the reverse order. The recipe below notes the changes for the cake at 7,000 feet.

I’ve previously said that I dislike decorating baked goods, and I hold to that, but I do believe there’s a time and place for it. This was one of those instances. I came up with the frosting I wanted, but wanted to do something appropriate for the celebration. I wanted to work hearts into the decoration, so I used a box cutter to cut a heart out of a piece of parchment paper. I placed the cut-out on each cupcake and used a sieve to sprinkle powdered sugar over it. I was really pleased with the way it turned out. For the mini cupcakes, I cut a smaller heart out of a piece of parchment paper and put the larger piece of paper on each cupcake so it served as a sort of stencil. They were adorable. My friend loved them.

This recipe made 16 full-size cupcakes and 24 mini cupcakes, but could easily be turned into all regular-size cupcakes or all mini cupcakes. For mini cupcakes, bake 8-10 minutes.

With Valentine’s Day less than a week away, I hope you find something delightful to make for your loved ones.

3 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted all-purpose flour (add two more tablespoons at 7,000 feet)
2 teaspoons baking powder (1 1/2 at 7,000 feet)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups minus 1 tablespoon sugar (subtract 2 tablespoons at 7,000 feet)
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk or heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (350 degrees F between 6,000 and 7,000 feet altitude). Line a muffin tin with paper liners. If at high altitude, spray the liners with a nonstick spray such as Pam.

Whisk flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Combine butter, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl and beat until well blended. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 1 minute. Add three eggs and beat again, scraping down the bowl afterward. Add remaining two eggs and combine until well blended.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture in two parts, alternating with buttermilk. Beat on high speed for about 1 minute, or until batter is smooth and creamy.

Fill each cupcake in the pan three-quarters full of batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon orange extract
1 teaspoon salt

Beat butter until creamy. Add powdered sugar, cocoa powder and sour cream and beat until combined. Add extract and salt and frost cupcakes.

Asparagus soup that will warm you up


I’ve never done much with asparagus other than cook it on a stovetop or bake it. Since the weather has been freezing, I’ve been coming home to make dinners that will warm me up.

This cream of asparagus soup from Joy is a great way to use the vegetable. It takes about 45 minutes from start to finish, and has a nice consistency — it has cream, but doesn’t become too thick. I didn’t have chicken broth, so I used bullion and water. It was saltier than I wanted it to be, so next time I’ll use less than 1 tablespoon of bullion per cup of water.

I garnished the first bowl with shredded Parmesan, but that wasn’t quite right. The bread cubes were a much better choice.

All in all, this was a nice soup that I will be making again because it don’t involve a lot of ingredients, nor does it take too long to make.

4 tablespoons butter
1 cup coarsely chopped onions
1 1/2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups poultry stock, chicken broth or other light stock or broth
1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream, half-and-half or milk
White or black pepper

Melt butter in a soup pot over medium heat.

Add onions and cook, stirring, until tender but not browned.

Stir in asparagus. Cover and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in flour.

Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until the asparagus is very tender, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Using a food processor or an immersion blender, process until smooth. Return the soup to the pot and stir in heavy cream. Heat through, but do not boil.

Add salt and pepper. Garnish with grated cheese such as cheddar or Parmesan, or add 1-inch cubes of bread.

Banana bread that’s a breeze to make


Everyone has a favorite banana bread recipe. It’s one of those classic things that most people have on hand, even if baking isn’t something they do on a regular basis.

I love my mom’s banana bread, but it didn’t translate well at high altitude. I also tried the Banana Bread Cockaigne from the Joy of Cooking, which is my second favorite recipe, but that had issues, too. So, I toyed with it until it came out perfectly.

While three bananas work well at much lower altitude, they make the bread overly mushy at altitude. So, I reduced the number of bananas to two and used less baking powder as well. I checked the bread 45 minutes into the baking process and, while it looked done, it wasn’t fully cooked inside. I left it in for another 10 minutes and it turned out just right. It stayed moist and the crust was not overcooked.

If you’re in the mood to put a spin on the bread, you can add seeds from one vanilla bean. I’ve done that before and it can be a nice change if you’re looking for a more dynamic loaf. The original recipe also suggests adding 1/2 cup chopped nuts or 1/4 cup finely chopped dried apricots.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (use 1 teaspoon at high altitude)
1/2 teaspoon salt (use 1 teaspoon at high altitude)
2/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter, softened
2 large eggs, beaten
2 ripe bananas, mashed

Grease a loaf pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat sugar and butter in a large bowl at medium speed until creamy. Add eggs and bananas. Add dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.

Scrape the batter into the loaf pan. Bake the bread for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool slightly, then take out of pan and cool completely on a rack.

Taking a classic cookie to new heights


As I’ve said before, one of the most challenging things about moving to high altitude is that I can no longer make many of my favorite recipes as I used to and have them turn out the same. Cakes collapse and cookies spread out. Unfortunately, it also happens with chocolate chip cookies. Until last week, I still hadn’t figured out the best recipe for those classic cookies. I tried about six different recipes, including one intended for high altitude, all of which spread out or didn’t rise as I’d hoped they would. I’d had enough of that. They’re simple chocolate chip cookies, after all. So, I decided to figure out how to do it myself.

South Lake Tahoe is around 6,230 feet in elevation. A few things I’ve learned about baking at high altitude are that you need to reduce most leaveners (baking powder, baking soda) by about a half teaspoon, the salt needs to be increased, and extracts can also be increased. Cake batters tend to need to be wetter than usual, and things like brownies and cookies need a bit more flour than usual to keep from collapsing or spreading out too much. Sometimes baking at a lower or higher temperature makes a big difference, too, and things don’t brown as well as they do at sea level.

I opened up the Joy of Cooking to see what its guidelines for regular chocolate chip cookies called for, then made a bunch of adjustments based on these lessons. I increased the flour quite a bit, and turned the oven down by 25 degrees F. I kept a close eye on these cookies during the baking process and, voila, I finally came up with a chocolate chip cookie that is functional at high altitude. Believe it or not, finally getting this basic recipe down feels like a big win at this point. This will be the recipe I use going forward.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Mexican vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine butter and sugars. Butter should be at room temperature if you’re stirring by hand, but can be cold if using a stand mixer. Add egg, salt and vanilla. Stir until combined. Add flour and baking soda and stir until incorporated. Add 1 cup chocolate chips and stir until evenly distributed.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place 18 on each baking sheet. Bake each sheet individually for 11 minutes, or until edges of cookies are golden brown, for firm cookies; or bake for 8-9 minutes, until puffy, for softer cookies and let cool completely before serving. Makes about 40 small cookies.