- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

Would you like to make beautiful muffins with perfect peaks? Or maybe you’re interested in truly moist, delicious quick breads.

Never fear. We’ll start by mastering the science behind leavening, and then I’ll share a few tips for moist baking. Finally, I’ll share my secret for making muffins with beautiful peaks.

Many good cookbooks have errors in the amount of leavening in cake, muffin and quick-bread recipes.

The food-chemistry rule is 1 to 11/4 teaspoons of baking powder per 1 cup of flour, or 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour. Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) is strong stuff. It takes just a small amount to leaven a cup of flour.

Many recipes have far too much baking powder or baking soda. This produces big bubbles that run into each other, rise to the surface and pop. There goes the leavening. The result is that the muffins, cakes or quick breads become heavy or sunken.

Step one is to correct the amount of leavening or leavenings in a recipe. Although it’s true that both baking powder and baking soda can be used in the same recipe, the amounts must be correct.

In a recipe with a generous amount of an acidic ingredient, such as sour cream, some cooks correctly elect to use a little baking soda as well as baking powder. If the recipe contains 3 cups of flour and 2 teaspoons of baking powder, for example, the correct amount of baking soda would be 1/4 teaspoon.

To further confuse the cook, most baking powders are double-acting, which means they contain an acid that dissolves when it comes in contact with water and an acid that does not dissolve until it reaches a higher temperature in a hot oven.

Encapsulation of a single acidic ingredient is also used to make some baking powders double-acting. Depending on the acid they contain, baking powders can release carbon dioxide at three junctures: immediately upon mixing (those containing monocalcium phosphate), while standing in the bowl or while in the heated oven (those containing sodium aluminum sulfate).

The most widely distributed grocery-store brands of baking powder are Kraft’s Calumet and Clabber Girl’s Rumford. Rumford is an all-phosphate baking powder (containing calcium acid phosphate, no aluminum), and it is faster than most double-acting powders.

You need to get cakes or muffins made with Rumford into the oven promptly because most of the bubbles are released shortly after mixing. To quote the Rumford literature: “Most of the reaction occurs in the mixing bowl — do not dawdle.”

Many cooks prefer baking powder over baking soda because of baking powder’s dependability. Baking powder contains baking soda, cornstarch to keep the ingredients dry, and exactly enough acid or acids to neutralize all of the soda so that you never end up with a soapy aftertaste. When using baking soda alone, you must have enough acidic ingredients in the recipe to react with all of the soda.

Baking powders with sodium aluminum sulfate (SAS) experience most of their action when the batter is hot in the oven. I feel much safer with baking powders that contain SAS and monocalcium phosphate, such as Calumet and Clabber Girl.

Kraft’s Calumet contains monocalcium phosphate to initiate leavening, calcium sulfate to maintain leavening and SAS for major oven leavening.

Another common problem for muffins and quick breads is dryness. One simple trick for avoiding dryness is to substitute a bit of vegetable oil for part of the butter in the recipe.

This works because when liquid is added to flour and stirred, two proteins in the flour (glutenin and gliadin) grab water and each other and form strong, elastic, bubble-gum-like gluten, the substance that holds all baked goods together.

You want just enough gluten to keep the cake from crumbling, but not too much or the cake will be tough and dry. Because the gluten proteins grab water, they can remove moisture from the cake. But fats in the cake can grease these proteins so that they can’t grab water or each other.

In other words, fats tenderize by preventing formation of some of the tough gluten. Solid fats such as butter and shortening grease fairly well, but oils grease much better. Substituting 1/2 cup vegetable oil for 1/2 cup butter in a cake recipe will make the cake moister.

Another quick moisture-promoting trick is to substitute 2 egg yolks for 1 whole egg. Egg whites are incredible drying agents. Yolks, on the other hand, which are full of emulsifiers, produce velvety smooth, creamy textures.

Emulsifiers also bind fat and liquids in the cake, enabling the it to hold more moisture.

The secret to making muffins with beautiful peaks is to start baking at a high oven temperature so that the outside of the muffin sets while the center is still somewhat liquid and can continue to rise. Because acid helps protein set faster, it also helps if the batter is slightly acidic.

You will not get muffins with peaks by baking them at 350 degrees.

I use a pizza stone on a shelf about 6 to 7 inches from the oven floor, and I preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

I then place the filled muffin pans on the hot stone, close the door and turn the temperature down to 400 degrees.

The outside sets fast in the hot oven, and the still-liquid center rises to a beautiful peak. For the pan size specified in the recipe that follows, the muffins bake in 10 to 12 minutes. Be careful not to overcook them.

Apricot-gold magnificent muffins

This is an excellent basic recipe for any fruit muffin. Use one cup of drained fresh fruit pieces and ½ cup roasted nuts.

13/4 cups sugar, divided

1 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup Grand Marnier liqueur

Nonstick cooking spray

2 cups all-purpose flour

2½ teaspoons baking powder (I used Calumet)

1 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

3/4 cup buttermilk

½ cup vegetable oil

Zest of 1 orange

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

3 tablespoons apricot preserves, melted

½ cup white chocolate chips

In a medium saucepan, bring 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to a boil. Remove from heat, and stir in about one-third of the chopped apricots to cool the water so that the Grand Marnier you are about to add doesn’t evaporate. After a minute, add the Grand Marnier and remaining apricots, and allow to soak for about 1 hour.

Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven with a pizza stone or a heavy baking sheet on it, and preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Generously spray with nonstick cooking spray 2 (23/4-by- 11/8-inch) 6-cup muffin pans. (These are the shallower of the two types of 23/4-inch muffin pans.) In a large mixing bowl with a mixer or with a fork, combine the flour, baking powder, remaining 3/4 cup sugar and salt.

In a smaller bowl, beat egg with a fork just to blend the yolk and white, then beat in buttermilk in three batches. Pour oil on top. Add orange zest and vinegar, and lightly stir everything together.

Make a hole in the middle of the flour mixture, and pour in all of the liquid mixture. Starting at the center, stir flour and liquid together until all flour is incorporated. To avoid tough muffins, do not stir too much.

Drain apricots, and press them between two paper towels to remove most of the liquid.

Stir apricots and white chocolate chips into the batter. Fill each muffin cup to just below the rim.

Place pans on the hot stone, close the oven, and turn the temperature down to 400 degrees.

Bake until muffin peaks feel firm to the touch, 10 to 12 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool in the pans for several minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Brush with apricot preserves for a golden shine. Makes 12 muffins.

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher is the author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

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