BACK IN ENGLAND, where they originated, the muffins we today call english were all things to all men. They were batter or dough, eggy or eggless, and identical to crumpets or very different. But whatever their particulars, they were--like today's english muffins--twice-cooked: once on the griddle and then toasted before serving so that their crunchy exterior made for contrast and the otherwise dry, doughy interior bloomed as it absorbed slowly melting butter. In all, there was little you could say definitively about the English original of this muffin except that its proper place was at tea.
It took the Americans to use it to soak up hamburger juices and to teach the rest of the world a new art of pizzamaking, by replacing traditional crusts with these tiny four-inch rounds.
It was probably the Americans, too, who invented the "tasting" as we know it today, a panel of consumers gathered in the interest of ranking different brands of their favorite foods. At a recent english muffin tasting, 20 fans gathered around a commercial toaster to critique eight locally available brands. The eight samples were stripped of their labels and spread with butter as soon as they rolled off the heating element. The muffins were judged on appearance, texture, flavor and overall palatability. We found that the tasters had as many different ideas of what an english muffin should be as the English have muffin recipes.
Generally, the muffin must be porous and toasted light brown. It should be crisp at the edges but retain a slight chewiness in the dough. Gluey, pasty and soggy were common complaints; chewy, coarse and crispy were standard favorable comments. Most appealing were the one-inch-thick muffins with irregular holes; many were too thin and cracker-like, or thick and dense "like bagels," they wrote. Crusts lightly browned during the early baking process, as opposed to the toasting process, added flavor to the muffins and tasters marked highly for this feature.
Here, then, are our results, in order of favorites.
Thomas' English Muffins (Giant, Safeway, A&P, Grand Union; $1.19, pkg. of 6): The hands-down favorite. Seven tasters guessed it by name, one of them complaining it was "dull" and "predictable" and the other six praising it for being "flavorful," "biscuity" and "slightly sweet." It was an inch-thick muffin with an uneven surface when split with a fork. It was porous, light and slightly doughy. One taster complained that it collapsed in his mouth when bitten into. Another commented it "strongly resembles an english muffin." It seemed as if these tasters use Thomas' as the example by which to judge the others.
Giant Food English Muffins (Giant Food, $.69, pkg. of 6), Similar in flavor and appearance to Thomas'. Slightly thinner, though, it was crusty around the edges; the dough was chewy and a little tough. Tasters complained it wasn't "airy" enough. This muffin lost points for its slightly salty taste, but gained points for a nice balance of flavors.
Arnold Muffins (Larimer's, $.99, pkg. of 6): The coarse bready center of this thick muffin disappointed a few of our tasters. "More like bread, not english muffins," more than one taster commented. Still, many said they would buy it again to use as hamburger rolls ("lots of nooks and crannies," they wrote). The flavor, not to mention the color, was reminiscent of crackers. Some complained that it was a bit too floury and salty.
Wonder English Muffins (A&P and Grand Union, $1.15, pkg. of 6): While this muffin had few holes, still it caught the eye of a couple of tasters who judged it highly for its nice, oven-browned appearance and its coarse texture. The texture was pasty to many and there was a slightly bitter aftertaste that brought it way down on the point scale.
Wolferman's English Muffins (Larimer's, $1.79, pkg. of 4): This was the surprise muffin of the tasting. A giant 3 1/2-ounce muffin, this frozen, no-preservative muffin is substantially more costly both in calories and price. (The average english muffin weighs 2 ounces and is 130 calories, while Wolferman's muffin weighs 1 1/2 ounces more and is 240 calories.) This muffin is the thickest we've seen, "more like a bagel," one wrote. It had a solid baked bread or biscuity appearance that was esthetically appealing to the group. The fact that it lacked holes and was uniform in texture was unappealing, however. The distinct taste of cornmeal on the exterior was a nice change.
Jane Parker English Muffins (A&P, $.69, pkg. of 6): The fact that this muffin was light and airy was as attractive to as many as it was unattractive to others. A few of the tasters liked the texture of this muffin because it was drier, coarser and thinner than most muffins. When it came to flavor, however, his muffin was an underachiever--bland, tasteless and lacking character.
Mrs. Wright's English Muffins (Safeway, $.79, pkg. of 6): The only points this thin, slightly porous muffin received were for its yeasty flavor, which four tasters found unusual. This thin, pale, "dull-looking" muffin was pasty and gluey in the mouth.
Scotch Buy English Muffins (Safeway, $.69, pkg. of 6): This muffin was the least favorite of the group. While it looked good to a few tasters because of its thin, slightly porous appearance, most agreed that when it got to the mouth not only was it pasty and spongy, but was reminiscent of white bread--"dull with no flavor." Those who did detect flavor, commented on the floury, salty, slightly sweet taste.