blueberry coffee cake muffins

In the Barefoot Contessa, Family Style, Ina Garten unwittingly writes a description of me during the summer of 1978.  She had taken over a small specialty store in Westhampton, one of the famed “hamptons” towns where New Yorkers fled for the summer. In a prelude to this blueberry muffin recipe, she says “There were days at the Barefoot Contessa in Westhampton Beach when we would bake 2,000 muffins on a Saturday morning and they would all be gone by 9:30 a.m. As bakers came out of the kitchen with more muffins, people would try to grab them off the trays. I guess there is not much that’s as appealing as a freshly baked muffin!”

Employed for the summer as a singing bartender (!) in a friend-of-a-mafia-friend’s (Freddie Blue Eyes) new questionable restaurant venture in the town, I was one of those muffin-grabbing throng lined up inside the BC to inhale the then exotic scent of hazelnut flavored coffee and take in the visual and gastronomic phenomena that the little shop was. I was 23, and hung-over most weekend mornings that summer, mixing drinks and singing show-tunes at Tarrah’s till 1 a.m., then partying with the seven other aspiring performers I had helped recruit for the gig. We shared a moss-stained, cedar-shingled old house within walking distance of town, and walk I did many of those mornings to get the rush back to normalcy that Ina’s coffee and muffins would give me.

I had no glimmer then of my future as a chef but I knew, as did the others who made the little shop a massive success that summer, that something exciting was happening there. It was the beginning of an era in food we are steeped in now, but was fresh and groundbreaking at the time. Gorgeously prepared foods, bursting with fresh, high-quality ingredients, the BC embodied the more beautiful, elegant, and gourmet-ish lifestyle that I wished I lived, that I wanted to be a part of, if only for the time it took to linger over a steaming hot cup of coffee and a freshly baked muffin.

I had my “baby” home from school this weekend (all 6’5, 210lbs of him). He’s a chef-in-training at The Culinary Institute of America and even though I’ve always loved cooking for my kids, when Max comes home from school I get excited about making a few special things for him. I’ve always lived for the moment when my kids bite in to something I’ve made and make that mouth-full “mmmmmmm” sound, but now that my son is a pro, with a 4-month externship at Le Bernardin behind him and a bright future as a chef ahead of him, sharing food and sometimes cooking with him, has gone to a different level.

The original recipe called for 1.5 cups of sugar. As I’m always looking for ways to make a recipe just a little healthier, I tried to use Demarara cane sugar granules instead of white, refined sugar and reduced the amount to just a cup. With my clients, especially those with kids, I’m always working to retrain their palates to need less sweetness, less over-the-top flavor intensity that often comes with cheap sweeteners (corn syrup) and artificial enhancements found in overly processed food.

But, somehow I knew the cane sugar wasn’t going to work and it didn’t. The granules just didn’t dissolve. “Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy” never happened. So in the dreaded French-accented words of one of my teacher/chefs at The French Culinary Institute I had to “make again!” I slathered the gritty butter and cane sugar mess into a container hoping for some future use for it and gave in to using the white sugar. I still cut the amount down to a cup and mixture finally got all whippy.

This one little bump in the road with the sugar does not stop me from substituting healthier, less processed ingredients when possible—unbleached all-purpose flour, instead of bleached and enriched and organic sour cream and eggs instead of those produced from animals raised with antibiotics and hormones.

By now I had made enough noise to wake up Max, who had spent the night on the couch in the family room just off the kitchen. (Why I don’t know, when he has a perfectly good bed upstairs!) Or maybe it was the smell of the muffins as they came out of the oven that roused him, that brought my husband and daughter, Lily, in all at once too. Lily grabbed a knife and started wedging one out of the pan when it was still too hot to handle. She was rushing off to a lacrosse game, but I like to think it wasn’t the game that was making her anxious to get her hands on one of those muffins.

I was having a Barefoot Contessa moment in my own kitchen. I got Doug, Lily and her sleepover friend, Kendal, out the door with steaming muffins in hand. Then Max and I sat down and savored ours with a cup of french roast. “Do you think they are sweet enough?” I asked him. “They’re perfect, ma.” And so was my morning.

Blueberry Coffee Cake Muffins
adapted from Barefoot Contessa, Family Style, Ina Garten.

Makes 16 regular sized muffins

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted (organic) butter, at room temperature
1 cup white granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (organic)
8 ounces (organic) sour cream (you can use low fat here with no great harm to flavor)
1/4 cup (organic) milk (ditto on the lowfat)
2 1/2 cups (organic) all-purpose, unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pint fresh (or frozen) blueberries, picked through for stems (organic if available)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 16 paper liners in muffin pans. You can make these without liners, in a well-greased or non-stick muffin pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, (this can be done by hand, of course, with a little muscle and a fork) cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla, sour cream, and milk. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Still on low speed, (unless you want to dust your whole counter and arms and face with flour), add the flour mixture to the batter and beat until just mixed. Remove bowl from mixer and gently fold in the whole blueberries with a rubber/silcone spatula running it along the bottom and sides to make sure the batter is thoroughly mixed.

Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin pans. I use a 1/2 cup measurer to do this, or you can use a large ice cream scoop if you have one, to keep the size of the muffins consistent. Fill the cups to just over the top of the paper liners. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the muffins are lightly browned on the top and a cake tester comes out clean.

Note: my daughter doesn’t particularly love blueberries, so next time I’m trying this same recipe with strawberries (her favorite fruit) and then realized a smallish dice of apples would be great too with some added cinnamon and a touch of clove. My daughter’s real fanatasy would be chocolate chips in there, but I’m not going there….not for breakfast. Needless to say any berry would be fine, as well.