You may have caught on that during this month at Serious Eats Chicago, we've been rounding up, one by one, our favorite examples in the city of classic and beloved breakfast foods. For most of my life I've been a fan of muffins. (Remember when those bags of mini muffins were the popular snack to take to school? I was all over those.) So I opted to turn a critical eye on Chicago's muffin landscape.
But before this assignment came along, I had never taken the time to consider the muffin. Again, I have been eating them with regularity since childhood. But contemplating the nature of the muffin had never really occurred to me as a topic worthy of much exploration. And why should it have? A muffin's a muffin, you know? Like they say of pornography, it may escape a clear and agreed-upon definition, but everybody knows one when he or she sees it.
Now I was compelled to ask myself: what is, and what is not, a muffin? Which led to the more pointed question: What, fundamentally, distinguishes it from a cupcake? The blog Cake Spy, among others, has helpfully tried to offer answers these questions. It turns out, cupcakes and muffins do share a lot of traits; both, for instance, belong to the baked-goods family known as quick breads, which rise thanks to chemical leavening agents like baking soda or baking powder (as opposed to slower-rising yeast). The application of frosting, obviously, can be like waving a magic wand, creating a cupcake where there wasn't one before. But is there anything inherent in the baked good itself that determines a muffin's muffin-ness? It was the Food Lab's J. Kenji Lopez-Alt who added more nuance to the picture forming in my head, telling me that a more restrained sweetness and a texture that's "rougher in the crumb" can tip the scales away from cupcake-ness and squarely into muffin territory.
So, feeling like for the first time I had a good sense of what constituted a muffin, I scoured the city for superlative models. And without any strong expectations, I came away very impressed by the variety and quality of muffins Chicago's bakeries, diners, and cafés are turning out. Some registered more as cake-for-breakfast, whether in the smooth, delicate tautness of their crumb structure or in the heightened level of sweetness they carried; others felt to me distinctly like muffins, say for having been inoculated with fruits or nuts or poppyseeds, or because their crumb presented as more hearty and rusticated. I found muffins of surprising flavor and textural complexity. And among the best were muffins whose stumps could hold close to as much interest as their more freewheeling counterparts, the tops, thus achieving, in muffin terms, the total package.
Check out some of my favorite muffins in Chicago by clicking on the slideshow.
- Blueberry Muffin at Au Cheval
- Cherry Oat Muffin at Alliance Bakery
- Banana Espresso Muffin at Little Goat Bread
- Coconut Pecan Muffin at Milk & Honey Café
- Snickerdoodle Muffin at Reno
- Vegan Chocolate Muffin at Fritz Pastry
- Blueberry Bran Muffin at Fox & Obel
- Banana Nut Muffin at Kingsbury Street Café
- Apple Yogurt Muffin at Letizia's Natural Bakery
- Sour Cherry Oatmeal Muffin at m.henry