Week Fourteen: Take Two!
I do love a good English muffin. Fluffy and full of air holes in the crumb, tangy and a bit sour, crunchy and hearty, they have a unique set of characteristics that makes them stand apart from most any other bread out there. You just can’t beat a breakfast of a scrambled egg with pesto and cream havarti on a golden-toasted English muffin. But the first time I made them this year, they were… just okay. Not bad at all; but honestly, the ones from the store were better. And I hate saying that.
Those muffins were a little too dense, not quite sour enough, just not exactly right. Maybe it was because of the lack of any sort of starter, or sponge; the flavor relied solely on the quality of the ingredients, rather than any lovely and complex flavors developing slowly, over time. Also, the method of making them was a little unusual: English muffins are generally rolled and cut out, whereas those were divided into pieces, then rounded and flattened. This resulted in some rather puffy muffins, rather than the properly cylindrical ones you usually see.
So round two: did it turn out better? It absolutely did, and I’m rather shocked that it did so. You see, here was another instance of me abusing a dough, to within an inch of its life. The dough is meant to proof for at least 1 1/2 hours, but up to 24 hours “in a cool place”, whatever that means. I left it at room temperature overnight (about 12 hours). By the time I got to it, it was looking rather deflated, as though it had fully risen, and was starting to fall. So I punched it down a little, stuck it in the fridge, and left it there for another 12 hours or so. And when I finally did roll out and cut the muffins, I did so without letting it come to room temperature first (relaxing the dough, and making it easier to work with).
This recipe uses a sourdough starter, which helps the flavor and texture immensely. I used this starter, which I amazingly still have going strong (I’ve had plants die in less time than that). If you have your own preferred starter, absolutely use that. If you don’t have a starter, it only takes about a day or so to get something similar going (see note 1 below). You can leave it out, but the flavor and texture are so much better and authentically English-muffiny, that I hesitate to suggest it.
And so, when I bit into the first muffin, crunchy and tangy, I knew it was good. Despite my insensitive handling, those muffins came out just right. The complex, sour flavors I was looking for were there, the fluffy yet hearty crumb was spot-on, and slathered with butter, it couldn’t have been better. (Although it did come pretty close when I enjoyed a lunch of English muffin, crunchy peanut butter, honey, and cinnamon, with an apple on the side. So good!) I’m sure that I could do even better with this recipe, given another few tries; and I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities at another shot in the future – this recipe is going in the permanent file for sure!
Whole Wheat English Muffins
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes 16 to 24 muffins
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups warm water (105º to 115º F)
1 tablespoon active-dry yeast
1 cup sourdough starter
1 pound white whole-wheat flour (about 3 3/4 cups)
14 to 18 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour (about 3 1/3 to 4 cups) whole wheat flour
1/2 cup dry nonfat milk
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
Semolina or cornmeal for dusting
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the honey and water together until the honey dissolves. Add the yeast, stir to dissolve, and add the sourdough starter and 1 cup of whole-wheat flour. Mix to form a thin batter, and let sit until it begins to bubble, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the dry milk, butter, salt, and the remaining whole-wheat flour. Mix using the dough hook. Add the all-purpose flour 1 cup at a time, allowing each cup to integrate into the mixture before adding the next. You will probably not need the full amount of flour given. The dough should hold together well, and pull away from the sides of the bowl, but should not be too stiff. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 6 minutes.
3. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly-oiled bowl, and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at least 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled. If you want a more pronounced sour flavor, let it sit up to 24 hours in a cool place.
4. Liberally dust a large baking sheet (or two smaller ones) with semolina or cornmeal. When the dough has risen the desired amount, punch it down, and turn onto a lightly-floured surface. Divide the dough into two pieces, and roll each out to 1/2-inch thickness. Using a round biscuit cutter, cut out muffins about 3 inches across, and place on prepared baking sheet, leaving 1 to 2 inches between muffins. Sprinkle the tops with additional semolina or cornmeal, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise until puffy, about 1 hour.
5. Heat a large nonstick pan or griddle over medium heat until hot. Carefully transfer muffins to the hot skillet. Cook for 2 minutes, then flip, being careful to not deflate the dough. Cook another two minutes, then flip again. Cook about 5 minutes more on each side, turning if they begin to brown too much, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 190º F at the center of the muffin. Remove to a wire rack to cool. Split horizontally with a fork, toast, and serve warm.
1. If you don’t have a sourdough starter sitting around, whisk together 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup warm water, and 1/4 teaspoon active-dry or instant yeast. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature until bubbly, at least a few hours, but preferably about 24 hours. If not using at that point, it will keep refrigerated for some days.
2. If you can’t find while whole-wheat flour, use regular whole-wheat instead.
3. I don’t own any proper round biscuit cutters, but I find that a tuna can (or something similar) opened at both ends, and cleaned, works pretty well instead.
4. I tried this at first with two pans: one nonstick, one not. The (darker, and far less expensive) nonstick pan worked beautifully, cooking the bread gently and without sticking. The other (supposedly higher-quality) pan quickly burnt the dough, and generally refused to cooperate. This may have been due to many factors, but I still stick with my recommendation of a nonstick pan. Cast iron would also certainly be a good choice, but my pan is pretty small for something like this.
5. If you have semolina on hand, it is preferable for this application, since cornmeal will burn more quickly.