It was already late summer when Perelman had a breakthrough moment. “I ended up just being in your average coffee shop/deli-type place one morning getting my coffee, and I saw this basket of lemon poppy seed muffins. And I was like, ‘Why are we always putting lemon and poppy seed together?’ … It just seemed random to me that they’re always tied together and people never think of poppy seeds without lemons.” She had recently been enjoying New York’s annual bounty of plums—particularly the oblong variety known as prune plums. “I associate them with Central and Eastern European cookery a little bit, as I do poppy seeds.” She added those two ingredients to a batter containing browned butter and a little cinnamon and nutmeg. “And I ended up loving it,” she said, adding, “I know, it’s the longest story ever.”
All that remained was writing the recipe in Perelman’s typically detailed, chatty style. Perelman thinks recipes should tell you absolutely everything you might wonder about while in the kitchen. A good recipe, per Perelman, is one that an absolute novice can cook in the same way the person who wrote it did. “Anything else is making it unnecessarily difficult for new cooks. Why would you want to alienate a potential half of your audience?” she asked. “Also, I can’t tell you how often I’m making a recipe and I’m like, ‘Is the batter supposed to be this runny; is it supposed to be this thick?’ I tend to make really thick muffin batters.” (It prevents fruit from sinking to the bottom of the pan.) “So I like to tell people, ‘This batter’s going to be really thick, almost like cookie dough.’ I.e. ‘If this is what yours looks like, don’t freak out, you did it correctly.’ ”
As someone who cooks frequently and writes recipes, I was heartened to learn that Perelman’s approach jibes pretty well with my own. There are few dishes that can’t be varied—and eventually morph into something new—using the same approach Perelman took to find her muffin recipe: Find a basic formula or technique that works, then start playing around with the specifics. Once you realize you can substitute plums for blueberries in muffins—or for that matter, shrimp for chicken in a stir-fry, or sweet potatoes for butternut squash in soup—developing original recipes doesn’t seem so daunting. When the results disappoint, they’re usually at least still edible. And when they don’t, you get bragging rights.
Herewith, the muffin recipe that took several months to nail down, as it appears in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook:
Plum Poppy Seed Muffins
Yield: 12 standard muffins
6 tablespoons (3 ounces or 85 grams) unsalted butter, melted and browned and cooled, plus butter for muffin cups
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
¼ cup (50 grams) packed dark or light brown sugar
¾ cup (180 grams) sour cream or a rich, full-fat plain yogurt
½ cup (60 grams) whole-wheat flour
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon table salt
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons (20 grams) poppy seeds
2 cups pitted and diced plums, from about ¾ pound (340 grams) Italian prune plums (though any plum variety will do)
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Butter 12 muffin cups.
Whisk the egg with both sugars in the bottom of a large bowl. Stir in the melted butter, then the sour cream. In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and poppy seeds, and then stir them into the sour-cream mixture until it is just combined and still a bit lumpy. Fold in the plums.
Divide batter among prepared muffin cups. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the tops are golden and a tester inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Rest muffins in the pan on a cooling rack for 2 minutes, then remove them from the tin to cool them completely.
You don’t create seven muffin recipes in a year without learning a few things.
I found that you could dial back the sugar in most recipes quite a bit and not miss much (though, if you find that you do, a dusting of powdered sugar or a powdered-sugar– lemon- juice glaze works well here); that a little whole-wheat flour went a long way to keep muffins squarely in the breakfast department; that you can almost always replace sour cream with buttermilk or yogurt, but I like sour cream best. Thick batters—batters almost like cookie dough—keep fruit from sinking, and the best muffins have more fruit inside than seems, well, seemly. And, finally, in almost any muffin recipe, olive oil can replace butter, but people like you more when you use butter— and if you brown that butter first, you might have trouble getting them to leave.