Friday, January 2, 2009

Marvelous Muffins To Greet A New Year

Happy 2009! Even though this is a time of great uncertainty, I am filled with optimism at the beginning of this new year, and I am hopeful that life will go in better and wiser directions for all of us. May 2009 be an adventurous and fruitful one for everyone!

I always make mental notes of my Firsts of each new year, hoping that these Firsts will somehow set a good tone for the upcoming year. We were on my roof deck right at midnight, watching the fireworks burst into celebration over Central Park as we clinked glasses of gorgeous Gragnano, and it seemed fitting that my first wine of 2009 was that beautiful sparkling purply-red wine from Naples which makes my heart leap for joy each time I have a sip of it. In a bid for clarity and a dash of brilliance in this new year, the first music I listened to was Glenn Gould’s dazzling recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The Bach was followed by my favorite Cleveland Quartet recording of the Beethoven Quartet opus 132, which I suppose represents my wish to live my life with more compassion and the courage to dig deeply. And my initial foray into the kitchen in this brand new year produced some mouthwatering Cranberry Ginger Pecan Muffins that I would love to share with all of you today.

I absolutely love starting a new year by hosting a party on the first day. It’s especially fun when that party is a brunch that begins around noon and lasts until long after the sun has gone down! The One-Year-Plan Club convened for our annual New Year’s Day brunch, and a merry time was had by all. Talk about setting a festive tone for the year!

The whole concept of the One-Year-Plan was my friend Ed’s brainchild years ago. He realized that not only he but also many of our friends had a plethora of creative ideas and projects that we wanted to get off the ground, yet we were all floundering without enough direction or a feasible plan of action. Making resolutions at the beginning of the year never seemed to work beyond the initial enthusiasm, so Ed’s idea was to create some sort of practical roadmap for helping these dreams come to fruition, as well as providing a system of accountability and encouragement for each other as we spurred each other on. We had an extended brunch on January 1, 2002 in which we discussed all of these ideas and goals for the future, and thus the One-Year-Plan Club was born.

The original New Year’s Day quartet was Jorge, Katie, Ed and I, but since 2002 we have grown as Alissa, Erica, Ben and Hannah have joined us. These friends and I have all watched each other make huge professional strides, satisfying career changes, and enormous creative and personal leaps over the years. We have celebrated each others’ successes together, no matter how big or small, and our One-Year-Plan Club has been an incredible source of support as well and a galvanizing force. There is real power in articulating one’s goals and crazy dreams out loud to trusted friends, for that is often the first step in making those very dreams become realities.

We used to go out for our January 1st brunches, but after experiencing interminable restaurant waits and servers who were either cranky as hell or still drunk from the night before, we now have our New Year’s Day brunch at my apartment, which is infinitely more fun. Not only do I love cooking for my friends, we also can linger as long as we need to and laugh as loudly as we want without the fear of inconveniencing any fellow diners. Trust me, that’s important because there is always high hilarity with this crowd, to say the least!

One of the secrets for a happy party is making everyone feel welcome the moment they arrive, no matter how far behind you are in your preparations. I used to get very stressed about that, wanting everything to be perfect the moment my guests stepped across the threshold. But thankfully I’ve discovered that nobody really cares if you still have last minute-cooking to do, especially if you greet them warmly and welcome them with a yummy beverage upon their arrival!

It was a brilliant sunny day, and we had an appropriately happy menu to usher in the new year. Today’s featured cocktail was my Pomegranate Mimosa, a glorious glass of sparkling plum-colored happiness. It couldn’t be easier to make, for all you do is fill a champagne flute about a third of the way with pomegranate juice, then gently pour in enough sparkling wine or prosecco to fill the glass. It’s fun and festive and is a welcome change from a traditional orange juice mimosa. Besides, what could be better than getting antioxidants along with your champagne bubbles?!!

I found a recipe for a spectacular baked egg custard that provided a huge pay-off for very little prep work. All I did was whirl eggs and milk with a few dashes of nutmeg in the blender, pour the mixture over grated gruyere cheese and snipped chives in a baking dish and then stick the whole dish in the oven for 40 minutes. Look at what happened! It rose magnificently and puffed up like the most airy soufflé, and we devoured every last bit of eggy goodness. It was all the more delicious when served with crispy Niman Ranch bacon, which I am delighted to report is now available at both Fairway and Trader Joe’s. (Happy new year to me!)

We made quick work of the egg custard and the bacon while they were still hot. But then there were the MUFFINS, which carried us through our entire afternoon and into the evening. One of our friends doesn’t eat gluten, so I had a fun experiment making these delicious gluten-free lemon blueberry muffins from the wonderful blog Gluten-free Girl. And since I’m still in cranberry holiday mode, I also made an enormous batch of Cranberry Ginger Pecan muffins. It’s these delectable little baked treats that I’d like to talk about today.

Imagine a muffin still warm from the oven, slightly crunchy on top and tender inside, studded with tart cranberries and chewy morsels of crystallized ginger. Chopped toasted pecans provide a textural contrast, and there is a lot happening in just one bite of these muffins. They are homey and satisfying yet sophisticated all at once. These are the perfect thing to eat on a cold winter morning with a big steaming mug of coffee, but I must say that they also work fabulously with a Pomegranate Mimosa!

The champagne flowed as freely as the coffee while my friends and I did a recap of 2008 at our brunch today. We actually NEEDED several hours to thoroughly celebrate each other’s various achievements and the exciting personal strides made over the past year, as well as the creative endeavors which are in the process of being realized! Though we may not accomplish everything on our lists in any given year, the One-Year-Plan is about daring to dream big and enjoying the journey as your friends walk alongside. We had so much to discuss about our goals for the upcoming year, and the baskets of muffins made their way around the table many times as we tried to come up with some practical plans of action.

There were only seven of us at the table today, and when the brunch began, there were 42 muffins. By the end, there were only FOUR muffins left. That should tell you something about how addictive and delicious they are, and I cannot wait for you to try them for yourself!

I have adapted this recipe slightly from the Cranberry Harvest Muffins recipe in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, reducing the sugar since I don’t think it needs that full amount. The original recipe calls for hazelnuts, but that felt too labor-intensive since I just wasn’t in the mood for toasting and rubbing the skins off of the hazelnuts on New Year’s morning! I’ve substituted pecans for the hazelnuts in the recipe, since I love pecans and always have plenty on hand. Instead of the dried Calimyrna figs in these muffins as the original recipe states, I’ve replaced it with an equivalent amount of diced crystallized ginger pieces. You could substitute almost any one of your favorite dried fruits for the figs, but this particular combination of zingy cranberries and hot-sweet ginger with crunchy pecans makes my taste buds dance a happy jig. And THAT is a fabulous way to start a new year!

(Jorge, Ed and Katie have bought New Year's party glasses for each new year this decade. I kept wondering what's going to happen next year, for how will they make those party glasses without the two zeros in the middle of the year??? As you can see, this brunch lasted so long that it's definitely dark outside!)

adapted from a recipe in The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten

It is important to use a very light hand when making muffins, so be sure not to overmix the ingredients! These are fabulous when served warm, but they are equally delicious at room temperature. Store any leftovers in an airtight container or a resealable plastic bag, though if you are anything like the One-Year-Plan Club, you may not have any left!

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1-1/4 cup whole milk
2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 cups fresh cranberries
½ cup coarsely chopped crystallized ginger pieces
¾ cup coarsely chopped pecans, lightly toasted
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar, packed (you can use light brown sugar if you don't have dark on hand, but I like the caramelly quality the dark brown sugar adds)

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line 24 standard-size muffin cups with paper liners.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and ground ginger together in a very large bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the milk, beaten eggs, and melted butter. Stir quickly just to combine. Add the cranberries, crystallized ginger pieces, pecans, and both sugars, and stir just enough to distribute evenly throughout the batter. BE SURE NOT TO OVERMIX. The batter will be very thick.

Spoon the batter into the paper liners, filling each one to the top. (Depending on how big your muffin tins are and how thoroughly you fill them, you may have enough batter to make a few more muffins.) Bake the muffins for 20 to 25 minutes until browned on the top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.


Ed Valentine said...

Louise! Fabulous brunch - - - fabulous FOOD - - - fabulous post - - - Fabulous CHEF.


Teri said...

Hi Louise,

Remember me? Just received your parents' letter and had to check out your blog. I read a lot of food/cooking blogs and this is wonderful! I've added it to my feed. I know it's been a long time but I still remember you very well. Take care. (Teri Thorpe Greenfield)