Vanilla Versus Vanilla
[That's our little Vanilla, in the middle]
So, I heard somewhere that it’s hockey season now. Oh, don’t look so surprised: despite having been raised in Montreal (a hockey town if ever there was one), I am indifferent to the sticks-and-pucks revelry. Personally, I’d rather read about the latest face-off between, say, brownies and blondies than between the Habs and the Flyers.
In fact, I can’t say that I’m too interested in any team sports–or, come to think of it, any sports at all. Is it any wonder? Perpetually the “anchor” in tug-of-war; too uncoordinated to hit a baseball with a screen door; lacking even the modicum of balance necessary for hockey (though I did go skating, once, when I was about 15, soley to impress a guy I had a crush on. Oh, I made a lasting impression, all right–somewhere on the upper right thigh, just where my skate sliced through the flesh, if memory serves.)
This is not to imply that I don’t enjoy a good competition with myself every now and again, in a constant effort to improve on my own “personal best.” (And speaking of competitions, I’ve just gotta say it: time to wave goodbye to Jason Castro, don’t you think?). I’m forever asking questions like, “Can I increase my speed on the treadmill this week?” “Can I accomplish a bicep curl with a 15-pound weight?” “Can I use up every single veggie from our weekly organic box?” “Can I manage to sweep my kitchen floor every day three times a week monthly before the dust bunnies take up permanent residence on the living room couch?”–and so on.
(“You know, Mum, we’d be happy to chase those bunnies for you. And while we’re on the subject, why are they allowed on the couch when we’re not?”)
As far as I’m concerned, a little healthy competition in the kitchen can only be a good thing. In order to improve a recipe-in-progress, I might tinker with it 10 or a dozen times to get it right, often in a single day (why, yes, it’s true: I don’t have anything better to do!). Is the muffin better with agave or maple syrup?–let’s bake a new batch and find out! Should I use barley flour or oat in the apple bars?–only another round of baking will tell! Can the cashew cookies stand up to cardamom, or would ginger be better?–let’s test ‘em out and see!
This somewhat peculiar proclivity in the kitchen was the impetus behind a strange experiment last week, one I conducted after receiving my copy of Carole Walter’s James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More, in the mail. As some of you may recall, my recipe for Maple-Walnut cookies won the book in a recent Cookthink Root Source Challenge for recipes based on maple syrup. (Hmm. Yes, I suppose that made me “competitive,” though of course not in the athletic sense.)
As soon as I ripped open the package, I was charmed by the clean, clear layout, the stunning full-color photographs and the innovative, precisely written recipes (200 of them!). And even though it’s filled with traditional recipes with conventional ingredients (think eggs, milk, butter, etc.), the book focuses on homey, classic treats, which are fairly easily adaptable to NAG principles.
Virtually everything in the book appealed to me, from the Vanilla Bean Poundcake to the Irish Whiskey Cake to the Apricot and Dried Pineapple Muffins to the Fig and Walnut Loaf. Lest you think the book is partial to goodies baked in pans, Walter also includes recipes for cookies, bars, biscuits, strudel, danish, buns and braids–plus many more treats shaped by hand.
My gaze lit upon a recipe called “Favorite Vanilla Muffins.” Vanilla muffins? Sure, I’d sampled many a vanilla cake in my time, but never a vanilla muffin. With its denser, moister texture, might a muffin be a better foundation to showcase the fragrant, floral tones of pure vanilla extract? A competition was in order!
I thought about the differences between the two. Like the Olson twins (though of course, in this case, actually connected to food), muffins and cupcakes are the same, but different. Both are single-serving renditions of a larger baked good (loaf or cake); both sport domed tops, flat bottoms and angled sides often encased in frilly paper liners. To muddy the batters even further, both may (but are not required to) contain chopped fruits, nuts, or chocolate.
A few Googled pages later, I discovered that the cupcake versus muffin debate was already in full swing among bloggers and other writers (two good sources are recipezaar’s concise take on the issue, and the more detailed viewpoint on Curious Foodie’s blog).
How, I wondered, would that Favorite Vanilla Muffin stand up against its cakey counterpart? I decided to bake one of each (both using my adaptations of Walter’s recipes) and compare the results. Granted, my creations (no matter how delectable) would never be exactly as Walter intended; but I was okay with that. I chose a Classic Sour Cream Cinnamon and Nut Coffee Cake (without the cinnamon/nut filling) for my cupcake, mostly because, like the muffin recipe, it called for sour cream (and I needed to use up the tofu-based batch I’d be concocting). That would leave me with one vanilla; two vanilla (any more than that and we’d have the unfortunate Milli Vanilla).
[Coffeecake cupcake--with its intended filling. Get a load of that cinnamon-pecan swirl!]
Which won the competition? As expected, the muffins were heavier and denser. In fact, apart from the shape, they were a different animal entirely. For some reason, in these particular muffins, the vanilla essence proclaimed its presence assertively, even before you bit into the soft, moist interior; the sweet, floral aroma fairly radiates. And even though I knew my “sour cream” was soy-based, there was an incredible richness to these muffins that rendered them filling and satisfying; no need for fruit or fillers.
The cupcakes, for their part, were equally delectable. Undisputably more delicate with a tender crumb, the cakes were lighter both in texture and color. The vanilla essence here was definitely noticeable as well, though in a more understated fashion. Like pitting Ella against Diana singing Cole Porter classics: each transformed the outcome into something unique and exceptional, though clearly hailing from the same original concept.
So, in the end, it was a tie. Two winners–two delicious baked goods to eat. Everybody wins!
Vanilla Muffins and Cinnamon-Pecan Cupcakes (inspired by recipes in Carole Walter’s Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More)
For the “Sour Cream” (makes enough for one batch of each, muffins and cupcakes):
12 oz. (350 g.) firm silken tofu, such as Mori-Nu
2 tsp. (10 ml.) agave nectar
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) lemon juice
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) smooth cashew butter
Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender, until perfectly smooth.
For the Vanilla Muffins:
1/2 cup (125 ml.) “sour cream” (half the batch)
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) coconut butter, melted
1 Tbsp. (15 ml.) pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (150 ml.) agave nectar
2 tsp. (10 ml.) Salba (ground chia seeds)
1 tsp. (5 ml.) apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 cups (220 g.) light spelt flour
1 tsp. (5 ml.) baking powder
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Preheat oven to 350F (180C). Line 9 muffin cups with paper liners for large muffins, or 12 cups for smaller muffins, or spray with nonstick spray.
In a medium sized bowl, combine the sour cream and melted coconut butter; whisk until well incorporated. Whisk in the vanilla, agave nectar, salba and vinegar and set aside.
In a larger bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until well moistened (don’t worry if there are a few small dry spots here and there).
Using a scoop or large spoon, fill cups 3/4 full for larger muffins or 2/3 full for smaller muffins. Bake in preheated oven 20-25 minutes, rotating pan halfway through, until a tester inserted in center comes out clean. Cool five minutes in pan before removing to cooling rack. These freeze well.
Cashew-Cardamom variation: Mix together 1/2 cup (125 ml.) chopped cashews with 2 Tbsp. (15 ml.) Sucanat and 1/4 tsp. (2 ml.) cardamom. When ready to scoop the muffins, fill each cup halfway. Top with a spoonful of the cashew mixture and cover with another spoon of batter. Bake as above.
For the Cinnamon-Pecan Coffeecake Cupcakes:
1/2 cup (125 ml.) “sour cream” (half of the batch)
1/4 cup (60 ml.) sunflower or other light-tasting oil
1/2 cup (125 ml.) pure maple syrup
1 tsp. (5 ml.) Salba (ground chia seeds)
3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) water
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 cup (140 g.) light spelt flour
1 tsp. (5 ml.) baking powder
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml.) baking soda
1/4 tsp. (1.5 ml.) sea salt
Optional Cinnamon-Nut Filling:
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) Sucanat
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 F (180C). Line 6 muffin cups with paper liners for large cupcakes, or 8 cups for smaller cupcakes, or spray with nonstick spray.
In a medium sized bowl, combine the sour cream, oil, maple syrup, Salba, water, and vanilla until well mixed. Set aside.
In a larger bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sea salt. Pour the wet mixture over the dry and whisk until well combined.
Fill each muffin cup about half full. Top with about 1 Tbsp. (15 ml.) of the nut filling, then cover with more batter. You can draw a knife through the mixture once if you like to create a little swirl inside (but not more than once, or the filling will become too blended with the batter).
Bake the cupcakes in preheated oven for 25-35 minutes, until the tops are golden and a tester inserted in center comes out clean. Allow to cool 5 minute before removing to a cooling rack. These freeze well.