How I Nearly Became a Health Freak. Then I Made These Muffins That Taste Like Doughnuts

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This is what I was going to write this week: “I along with all the other 4,678,906 people who have viewed Robert Lustig’s YouTube talk, ‘Sugar: The Bitter Truth’, have seen the light. I now fully accept that sugar is responsible for the world’s rampant obesity, heart disease and diabetes. I believe the experts when they say sugar is more addictive than cocaine and that the processed food industry with its fizzy drinks, fast food and hidden sugar with everything is our merciless pusher. Sugar is killing us and it’s time for everyone, including me, to change our ways.”
For a whole week we ate nothing but healthy meals made from our organic vegetable delivery box, and by the weekend I was feeling pretty smug and recommending wholemeal poha for a weekend treat. It was time, I decided, to take a long, hard look at my baking, replace maida (refined flour) with wholemeal atta (flour), sugar with agave nectar and this week’s recipe was going to be a red velvet cake made from spelt flour and beetroot. I even felt quietly chuffed when my husband said I was turning into a health food fascist.
Then this happened. I made some of these doughnut muffins for Sunday breakfast and with one bite my resolve and new-found principles simply evaporated. They were so good, after I had eaten the first I would have sold my granny for another. I didn’t stop until I had eaten four—by late morning I was in a sugar coma.
I decided right then that any life that didn’t contain the occasional taste of something as outrageously sweet and delicious as muffins that taste like doughnuts (and really, really good doughnuts at that) wasn’t the life for me.
One downside is that they are almost too simple to make—certainly much easier than making doughnuts: They take about 30 minutes from weighing out the ingredients to wiping the buttery sugar off your chin. True, they’re not deep-fried like doughnuts so in a sense they are a little healthier, but they still have an awful lot of what keeps Robert Lustig awake at night. But if we all did exactly what we’re supposed to all the time, life would be terribly dull. And where’s the joy in a spelt and beetroot red velvet cake?
Muffins That Taste Like Doughnuts
Makes 12 normal-sized muffins, 24 mini muffins
Ingredients
For the muffins
325g plain flour (maida)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
110g unsalted butter, at room temperature
150g caster sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
250ml whole milk
12 tsp strawberry jam (optional)
For the doughnut topping
100g caster sugar
100g melted butter
Method
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Grease a 12-hole muffin or 24-hole mini muffin tin—silicone trays are ideal here.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar for a few minutes until soft and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Add one-third of the flour mixture with half of the milk and mix well, repeat until both are fully incorporated.
Divide the mixture between the muffin holes. If you want to make jam doughnuts, fill the holes one-third full of muffin mixture, add a teaspoon of jam, then cover with more muffin mixture. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until well risen and browned on top and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Leave the muffins to cool for a few moments, then turn them out on to a cooling rack.
Put the caster sugar in a small bowl and the melted butter in another. While they’re still warm, roll the tops of the muffins in the melted butter, then the sugar. These are best eaten warm but will keep for a few hours if kept in a sealed tin. Frankly, you’re more likely to feel you haven’t made enough—three of us polished off 12 at one sitting.

Locavores and a Recipe for Carrot Halwa Muffins

 

One of my resolutions for 2011 is to join the “locavores”, an international foodie movement urging people to eat food produced “within a leisurely day’s drive of home”. The unpredictable nature of road travel in India notwithstanding, I’m willing to do my bit to reduce the environmental impact of our increasingly globalized food industry; pledging to eat more seasonally and locally and cut out obscenely priced imports.

In the US and Europe, locavorism has led to an upsurge in farmers’ markets, and even supermarket giants urging customers to “buy local”. Here, in India, most people have never been anything but locavores, relying on the local sabziwallah to bring whatever is picked on the farm that morning, but I have noticed a creeping trend towards winter mangoes and year-round salad.

For a slide show on how to make muffins Click here

The science and politics of it all are endlessly debatable but eating local food feels right to me. Beans and peas that arrive on the ghoda gaadi (horse cart) in my neighbourhood every day look and taste far better than those which have been on a dusty truck from Bangalore or a fuel-guzzling plane from Kenya.

I’m kicking off today by turning the beautiful red desi carrots which are in season right now, into these magnificent muffins, using everyone’s winter favourite, gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa).

The process for making muffins differs from other sponge cakes in the mixing of ingredients. Whereas a cupcake is generally made by first creaming the sugar and butter, muffins require the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients to be mixed separately before gently folding the two mixtures together. The most important thing to remember when making muffins is not to over-mix, stir only until you can’t see the flour. The batter should look fairly lumpy when it goes into the oven—this is what keeps the muffins light. If you want to skip the egg, just add a little more milk.

The result here is a rich, spicy, creamy marvel; locavore-ish without an ounce of holier-than-thou preachiness. The muffins hint at carrot cake but the halwa gives them a tantalizing and mysterious depth. The carrots are local; I’ve used oil and milk rather than my usual imported unsalted butter and the kwark (Dutch curd cheese) in the icing which is from the innovative Flanders Dairy outside Delhi. Baby steps, I admit—I’m not milling my own flour just yet and this week’s adventure in butter churning was a fiasco—but a start.

Muffins need to be eaten on the day you make them, ideally still a little warm. I can’t think of a good reason not to eat a whole batch of these muffins at one sitting but if you do, freeze them, un-iced, until you need them.

At the risk of teaching grannies to suck eggs, I’m also including my recipe for carrot halwa, although you could, if pressed, use shop-bought. I’ve added walnuts because that’s the nut usually found in carrot cake but you could also use pistachios or almonds.

Carrot Halwa (Gajar ka Halwa)

Ingredients

1/2 kg red, desi carrots

1 litre full-cream milk

6 dessertspoons caster sugar (or to taste)

4 dessertspoons ghee

Seeds of 4 green cardamom (elaichi) pods, ground

A handful of sultanas

A handful of chopped walnuts

100g khoya (milk solids), finely grated

Method

Finely grate the carrots and place in a thick-bottomed pan. Add the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat until the milk has evaporated and the carrots are soft and dry. Stir regularly so the carrots don’t stick to the pan. This can take an hour or so.

Add the sugar and ghee and cook again until the sugar has dissolved and the carrots are bright reddish orange.

Stir in the cardamom, sultanas and walnuts and leave to cool slightly before stirring in the khoya.

Carrot Halwa Muffins

Makes about 12 large muffins

Ingredients

250g plain flour (maida)

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

100ml milk

100ml sunflower oil

100g vanilla or caster sugar

400g carrot halwa

For cream cheese frosting

50g cream cheese or kwark

100g sifted icing sugar

A squeeze of lemon juice

Method

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Line a large muffin tin with paper muffin cases.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg with the vanilla, milk and sunflower oil. Stir in the sugar.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ones and stir gently until there is no visible flour. For the last few strokes, lightly stir in the carrot halwa until the mixture is just combined. Gently spoon the mixture into the paper cases.

Bake for about 20 minutes, until the surface of the muffins springs back when pressed.

For the cream cheese icing, beat together the cream cheese, icing sugar and lemon juice until soft but not runny. When the muffins are cool, spread a generous teaspoonful of icing on top.

Read  previous Lounge columns at www.livemint.com/pieceofcake