All men have secrets and here is mine, so let it be known: I don’t really eat a lot of bread. Don’t get me wrong–I love eating bread, I’m excited to try making new breads, and I find a beautiful bake satisfying. Before I started baking it myself, however, I bought a loaf twice a year, tops. To deal with the rapid influx of bread in my home, I share my bakes with friends and group events, usually through a “hey, do you want this?” method.
Lately I’ve become more proactive, as the pandemic has re-instituted the barter system. So far I have exchanged bread for masks, wine, graphic design work, and pet-sitting. I now have a to-bake list for potential barter partners to select from; this week’s English muffins were requested in exchange for a DIY dollhouse kitchen.
The first thing that I noticed about this recipe is the high number of flours prescribed. In addition to the flour in the starter, these muffins take bread, all purpose, whole-wheat, semolina, and spelt flours (plus cornmeal). I have tinkered with flour types in bread recipes, and every little difference can make a little difference. Ford must have been on real quest for special flavor when he landed on this combination.
With 65% hydration and a variety of hearty flours, this dough was a pleasure to knead. Thinking back, I’ve largely worked with high-hydration lean doughs and greasy enriched doughs. This low and lean mixture had me kneading with the confidence and contentment of a television baker.
I veered from the NWS path while shaping these bad boys. Ford instructs bakers to use a ring tool to cut the muffins out of the dough, as you would with a cookie (aka English biscuit) or biscuit (aka real biscuit). I questioned this method, wondering what I would do with the excess dough that would inevitably be left behind.
Taking to the internet, I watched a few shaping videos, and landed on this one to follow. Instead of flattened discs with cut edges, my shaped muffins were tight, rounded balls. I was worried that this would effect the final look–the classic, flat circle we know and love–but those dimensions are created in the cooking, not the shaping.
To the untrained eye, English muffins are mystical. How are they cooked? Why are they so flat? Where do the nooks and crannies come from? Making them myself unmasked the magic but opened my eyes to the joy that is cooking English muffins.
The cooking process is unlike any bread I’ve made before. I heated my cast iron skillet and sprinkled a mixture of semolina and cornmeal on the dry metal, praying that this would work.
Instead of a drawn-out, set it and forget it bake, these had to be made in small batches with several stages, each lasting only a few minutes. I used two timers: one for the skillet and one for the oven.
For simplicity (and because there are varying recommendations) I cooked them 5 minutes on each side in the skillet, followed by 5 minutes in the oven at 350°. The baking step is another tip from the video I watched, with the purpose of ensuring the dough is cooked through.
The process was demystified, but I was nevertheless bewitched by the end result. I couldn’t believe how much these English muffins looked like English muffins.
Growing up, I figured nooks and crannies were a propriety invention of the Thomas corporation. Evidently, you just need two forks to bring them out.
They were a bit undercooked, but not terribly. They had plenty of time in the skillet, and in the future I would give them more time in the oven. (This may come into play whenever I make the NWS Cuban muffins.)
Despite the slightly underdone center, they had a good flavor and were perfect with butter or as a breakfast sandwich. For the record, I couldn’t tell if the small bits of semolina and spelt flour made any difference. This recipe make a lovely, wheaty bread.
After all was said and done, I reviewed additional English muffin recipes to see if others use a variety of flours (they don’t) or recommend baking after grilling (they do). I came upon the following line from the King Arthur Flour blog post on English muffins:
I am happy to read any non-derogatory Bob Dylan reference, and I assume this refers to Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” But like what the battle outside raging will do to your windows, this simile is shaky.
Bonus Pan de Coco
This recipe left me with a lot of healthy, extra levain. For what isn’t the first time and won’t be the last, I thought, “Screw it. I’m making pan de coco.” I’ve made this blog-favorite bread a few times, with different levels of success, and I figured this would also be a good warm-up for the NWS version with chocolate.
I didn’t have enough levain for a full loaf, so I cut the recipe in half. I was able to adequately fold it in the bowl, eliminating a messy kneading situation. This dough wouldn’t fill my smallest loaf pan, so I split the dough among three ramekins. These were also shaped by pulling them into tight rounds.
One theme to my baking is forgetting the last step right before it goes in the oven. In this case, after baking for 6 minutes I pulled them out and added coconut oil and shredded coconut (amidst a flurry of foul language). The coconut all burned off, but my feelings aren’t hurt. I’ve never had luck with the coconut topping, even when I added it at the right time.
These were nicely baked through. As always, I love the pan de coco’s balance of sweet and savory. Thick enough to be excellent toasted with butter, and light enough to accompany any savory meal.
I never thought of making them before, but English muffins might be the perfect bread to keep around the house. They last several days, they can be eaten at any meal, they pair with sweet and savory, and they’re a lot of fun to make.