A bread basket filled with tiny buttermilk biscuits, small herbed scones and soft fruited and spiced muffins was once the hallmark of supper served only at a country inn. Now, many restaurants offer an array of such temptations in pretty doily-lined baskets alongside a pot of sweet whipped butter and butter blended with mincings of herbs.
These quick breads, or tea cakes as they are poetically known, are becoming widely recognized for the glorious way in which they accompany American regional food in particular and eclectic food in general. So, it was only a matter of time before their recipes would be adapted for home kitchens.
Such biscuits and muffins, and small batter cakes, are built upon flour, leavening in the form of baking powder, baking soda or both, shortening or butter, and occasionally herbs and spices -- all making for a baked good that emerges hot from the oven as a toothsome combination of cake and bread.
A distinguished quick bread, be it biscuit, muffin, or any of its kin, is light, delicate and moist, owing both to the leavening and to the quick and gentle way the dough is handled. Most quick breads rise to about double their unbaked size, all plump and handsomely shaped, to a baked texture that is neither airy nor dense, but tender.
If you are baking muffins, the nicest crumb and texture is achieved by combining the dry ingredients lightly but deftly, and by leaving a few lumps in the batter. Sugar, sweet milk and buttermilk enrich and tenderize. Generally, it is preferable to use solid fat such as butter or shortening instead of liquid fat (oil) to keep the bread from becoming tough and heavy. If oil is used in a recipe, I prefer to incorporate a small quantity of it with a good measure of buttermilk and eggs; this ensures a light bread with a lovely taste that reheats well.
Aside from the taste of good ingredients, the full, satisfying flavor of these quickly prepared breads comes from the shape the dough is fashioned into before baking. I enjoy baking muffins and other soft biscuit doughs in those miniature muffin tins. These small mouthfuls are two-bite big and bake up exceedingly light and delicate. (Any large, hefty and hearty muffin can be baked in 1 3/4-inch muffin tins if the baking time is reduced by about a third.) For the Petite Buttermilk Biscuit Muffins and the Petite Pecan and Currant Biscuit Muffins, I've devised a supple, softer biscuit dough that bakes into feathery, fine-textured muffins; this dough uses solid shortening exclusively and buttermilk as the only liquid.
To make the miniature breads, you'll need the small tea cake size pans that are available in trays holding a dozen 1 3/4-inch muffins each. Owning at least two trays is recommended; having four trays allows you the luxury of baking several kinds of tiny muffins at once. (The tea cake pans also may be used for baking small brownies, black bottom cupcakes, and very small cheesecakes.) Adult-size, 2 1/2-inch muffin tins make attractive dinner breads that look just beautiful in a bread basket among some tiny muffins.
Rich in flavor and texture, the Walnut Corn Cakes and Corn Muffins from the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. are good with anything roasted, stewed, barbecued or fried; the biscuit muffins are nice to eat with baked ham, roasted chicken or pork. Whole-Wheat Dill Muffins and Spiced Buttermilk Batter Muffins taste right with chicken, turkey or capon, a stuffed pork roast or short ribs of beef braised with aromatic spices. Butter, plain and salted, or flavored with herbs or spices is, any quick bread's best companion.
Following are some very appealing and wholesome ways for filling a dinner bread basket: MINIATURE CORN MUFFINS (The Inn at Little Washington) (Makes about 2 dozen 1 3/4-inch muffins)
Talented chef/proprietor Patrick O'Connell bakes these little gems daily at the Inn. The kitchen uses ungraded farm eggs in the preparation of the muffins; home cooks may substitute medium eggs. The muffins make a heavenly bread basket all by themselves, or combine them with other miniature muffins. Softened butter, for the muffin tins 1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone ground 1 cup all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached 1/4 cup sugar 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 medium eggs, at room temperature 1 cup milk, at room temperature 4 tablespoons salted butter, melted and cooled
Generously grease the inside of 2 muffin tins (each tin holding 12 1 3/4-inch muffins) with the softened butter; set aside.
In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and cooled butter. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the whisked liquid mixture. Quickly but deftly, combine the liquid and dry ingredients. Spoon the batter into the greased muffin cups to about 2/3 full, mounding the batter lightly towards the center.
Bake the muffins on the lower middle level rack of a 375-degree oven about 12-15 minutes, or until firm to the touch and a light brown color on top. Cool the muffins in the tins for a minute or two, then remove them to a rack. Serve warm. PETITE BUTTERMILK BISCUIT MUFFINS (Makes about 2 dozen 1 3/4-inch muffins)
These plump, tender, miniature muffins are delicious with baked ham, fried chicken and spicy chicken fricassees. 2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup sugar 8 tablespoons solid shortening, at room temperature 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, cool but not cold Softened unsalted butter, for the muffin tins
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Drop in the shortening in tablespoon globs, and with two round-bladed knives, reduce the large pieces of shortening to small irregular-shaped pebbles. The flour-shortening mixture will look like soft lumpy breadcrumbs. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk; quickly stir everything together to form a soft dough. (In very dry weather it may be necessary to add another tablespoon or so of buttermilk.) The dough should feel slightly softer than one that would roll out. Give the dough 10 stirs in the bowl with a spoon or spatula to knead it gently.
Spoon the dough into the greased muffin cups to almost full, mounding it slightly in the center. These muffins will rise into full form. Bake the muffins on the lower third level rack of a 425-degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until well risen and light golden on top.
Gently remove the muffins to a cooling rack. Serve them warm or reheat in an aluminum foil pouch. PETITE PECAN AND CURRANT BISCUIT MUFFINS (Makes about 2 dozen 1 3/4-inch muffins)
Small, cakelike muffins with little bits of cinnamon-coated nuts and fruit in the center. While these muffins are a nice diversion from plainer breads, they mix well with other simple unsweetened things in the dinner bread basket. They are good with solid country food, such as smothered chicken and baked crab. FOR THE FRUIT AND NUT MIXTURE: 1/4 cup granulated (free-flowing) brown sugar (or substitute 2 tablespoons light brown sugar) 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 cup moist dried currants 1/4 cup finely chopped pecans 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled FOR THE MUFFIN DOUGH: Unsalted softened butter, for the muffin tins 2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons sugar 3 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, at room temperature 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, cool but not cold
Combine all the ingredients for the fruit and nut mixture in a small bowl and set aside.
Grease the inside of 2 tea cake size muffin pans (each tray holds 12 1 3/4-inch muffins); set aside.
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Drop in the shortening by tablespoon globs and reduce to small bits with a pastry blender or two round-bladed knives. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk; stir the two together to form a soft dough. Gently stir the dough 10 times to knead it. Fill the muffin cups halfway with mounds of dough then sprinkle over a bit of the currant-nut mixture. Complete the muffins by covering the fruit and nut mixture with a spoonful of dough.
Bake the muffins on the lower third level rack of a 425-degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until well risen and lightly browned.
Place the muffins on a cooling rack and serve them warm. WALNUT CORN CAKES (Makes nine 2 1/2-inch cakes)
Light and muffinlike, the cakes are delicious with full-bodied food such as creole, gumbo or barbecued shellfish. Softened unsalted butter, for the muffin tin 1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached 1/2 cup unsifted cornmeal, preferably stone ground 1/4 cup sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature 1/4 cup milk, at room temperature 1/4 pound (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled 1/3 cup chopped walnuts
Grease the inside of a muffin tin holding 2 1/2-inch muffins with the softened butter; set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and butter. Make a well in the center of the sifted ingredients and pour in the liquid mixture. Sprinkle on the walnuts. With just a few swift strokes, stir everything together to form a slightly lumpy batter. Fill about 9 muffin cups 3/4 full with spoonfuls of batter, mounding the dough towards the center.
Bake the muffins on the lower third level rack of a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes or until lightly golden on top and well risen. Remove the muffins from the tin, cool slightly on a wire rack, and serve warm. WHOLE-WHEAT DILL MUFFINS (Makes 1 dozen 2 1/2-inch muffins)
This is a savory muffin gently perked up with minced feathery sprigs of dill. The proper balance of whole-wheat flour and all-purpose flour makes for a muffin that is both light and full-flavored. Softened unsalted butter, for the muffin tin 1 1/4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached 1 3/4 cups whole-wheat flour, preferably stone ground 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) solid shortening, at room temperature 3 tablespoons sugar 1 extra-large egg, at room temperature 1 cup milk, at room temperature 1/4 cup snipped dill feathers (use the feathery portions)
Grease the inside of a tin holding 12 2 1/2-inch muffins with the softened butter; set aside.
Onto a sheet of waxed paper, sift together both flours, baking powder and salt. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the shortening with the sugar for 3 minutes on moderately high speed. Beat in the egg and continue creaming for 1 minute longer. On low speed, blend in 1/3 of the flour mixture, then 1/2 the milk, another 1/3 of the flour and the remaining milk. Blend in the remaining 1/3 of the flour mixture with the snipped dill.
Divide the batter among 12 muffin cups, mounding it toward the center. Bake the muffins on the lower third level rack of a 450-degree oven for 12-15 minutes or until well risen and firm to the touch.
Remove the muffins to a cooling rack, then serve them warm. SPICED BUTTERMILK BATTER MUFFINS (Makes about 10 2 1/2-inch muffins)
Feathery textured muffins, enhanced by a mixture of four ground spices; these are good with pork, glazed cornish hens, lamb stew or baked ham. Softened unsalted butter, for the muffin tin 1 3/4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 1/4 cup sugar 3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature 1/3 cup tasteless vegetable oil 1 large or extra-large egg, at room temperature
Grease the inside of 10 2 1/2-inch muffin cups with the softened butter; set aside.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and sugar. In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, vegetable oil and egg. Make a well in the center of the sifted ingredients and pour in the liquid mixture. With several quick strokes, blend everything together to form a batter that is still slightly lumpy, taking care not to overheat.
Fill the muffin cups about 3/4 full with the batter, mounding it toward the center. Bake the muffins on the lower third level rack of a 425-degree oven for 15-18 minutes or until well risen and firm to the touch.
Transfer the muffins to a rack, then serve warm. SWEET MUFFINS (The New Orleans Emporium) (Makes about 1 dozen)
Peter Finkhauser, managing partner of The New Orleans Emporium, developed these spiced fruit and nut muffins to accompany the Cajun food served at his restaurant. The muffins are presented in baskets along with other wonderful quick breads; they are a good foil for spicy food and leftovers are splendid warmed up for breakfast. Softened butter, for the muffin tin 2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1/3 cup sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool, cut up into teaspoon-size chunks 1 cup moist raisins, plumped in boiling water to cover for 5 minutes, drained and dried on paper toweling 1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped 1 cup milk, at room temperature, plus 1-2 tablespoons extra, if needed
Grease the inside of a muffin tin holding 12 2 1/2-inch muffins with the softened butter; set aside.
Into a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Scatter over the chunks of butter; with two round bladed knives, cut in the butter until the pieces are reduced to very small flakes, about the size of lentils. Gently stir in raisins and chopped nuts. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the cup of milk. With a few brief strokes, stir everything together to form a batter, adding an additional tablespoon or two of extra milk to form a moist, but still stiff batter. Use the additional milk if the flour particles are not being absorbed well enough.
Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, dividing it equally among the 12 cups, mounding it toward the center. Bake the muffins on the lower third level rack of a 350-degree oven until risen and plump, about 30 minutes. Transfer the baked muffins to a rack, remove and serve warm.