It’s no secret that the only meal I’m really good about remembering to feed myself is dinner. Lunch is about a 50/50 shot, depending on how absorbed in work I happen to be that day (and whether or not Jackson’s working from home), but I can be pretty good about breakfast – if I set myself up correctly. Normally that means making a batch of something that I can grab from to eat all week, since I am not, despite my best efforts, a cereal or eggs person.
Enter pear and granola muffins.
They’re exactly what I’m looking for from a grab-and-go breakfast perspective – sweet, but not so sweet that you feel like you’re eating dessert, with enough texture to keep things interesting, and enough substance that two muffins (and maybe a piece of fruit) will keep me full and happy through lunchtime.
Admittedly, they were also an excuse to play with the idea of baking from ratios – a concept I picked up from Michael Rhulman’s blog (and also his excellent book, Ratio*, which I placed on hold at the library the second I discovered it and am now devouring).
*Not an affiliate link, I just think you should read this.
The magic of ratios
I (obviously) love to cook, but the magic for me isn’t necessarily in the end result – it’s the way that understanding the why of something, the science or technique behind a certain flavor or texture suddenly unlocks a whole world of possibility. It’s something Adam Savage talks about a lot – how understanding one new tool or new concept can open up new horizons of making, even in areas you’re already familiar with, because it changes the way you think about the process as a whole.
Understanding why a recipe works makes it so much easier to open up my refrigerator and come up with something on the fly – at least with savory cooking.
Baking is a bit more opaque. The logic is the same – understanding how and why yeast develops flavor in dough, for example, means you can mess around with rising times for bread – but I’ve never felt like I can wing it in baking the same way I can in cooking because the chemistry of baking is so precise. Base has to be balanced with acid. Water has to be balanced with flour. Fat and sugar have to work in harmony to create tenderness and flavor.
A ratio unlocks that alchemy.
It’s important to note here, that a ratio isn’t the key to perfect food every time. As Rhulman writes, “…my aim isn’t to make the perfect bread or pasta or mayonnaise or biscuits – ‘the best I’ve ever had.’ It’s to set a baseline to work from, to codify the fundamentals from which we work and which we work off of…Only when we know good can we begin to inch up from good to excellent.”
But in my line of work, writing and testing (and retesting and rewriting) recipes, having a good place to start, a framework you know will come out, at least structurally, is transformative.
Eggs: a very good place to start
In general, a muffin is, by weight, 2 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part egg to 1 part butter (or other fat). When I’m building a recipe, eggs are the best place to start – they’re hard to subdivide, and I know they all weigh 56 grams pretty consistently.
So, using that ratio, if I want a basic muffin recipe using a single egg, I would end up with something that looks like this:
- 112 grams flour (2x the weight of the egg)
- 112 grams milk (2x the weight of the egg
- 56 grams butter (1x the weight of the egg)
- 56 grams egg
Of course, that recipe is missing a few important ingredients – like leavening. As a general rule of thumb, you add one teaspoon of baking powder per 114 grams of flour, though you can be flexible if you want things fluffier or denser. Unlike baking soda, baking powder is already an acid/base balanced leavening – you can increase the amount pretty much arbitrarily (within reason, of course – to quote Rhulman again, “how well ratios work is directly proportionate to the ratio of common sense applied to them”) without worrying about leaving an unpleasantly metallic soapy taste behind.
So now our recipe looks like this:
- 112 grams flour (2x the weight of the egg)
- 112 grams milk (2x the weight of the egg
- 56 grams butter (1x the weight of the egg)
- 56 grams egg
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
It’s not a great recipe – it won’t taste very good without salt or sugar – but I know if I mixed all these things together I would end up with a muffin-shaped object at the very least. Which means now, I get to play.
Pear and granola muffins: a first attempt
When I originally set this project for myself, the goal was to avoid refined sugar as much as possible. There is absolutely nothing wrong with refined sugar in and of itself, I was just curious about how far I could get without it, and felt like giving myself a challenge. After all, there’s nothing quite like a constraint to spark creativity.
I also knew I wanted to try to replicate the flavors and textures of granola as much as possible. I’ve loved the idea of it for years, and I love the taste and texture…but as I’ve mentioned, I can’t quite make myself a cereal person, no matter what form it happens to take.
So I started building out my recipe. I knew I wanted to use oat flour to maximize that flavor as much as I could, but oat flour doesn’t contain gluten so it would have to be a supplement to other, stronger flours that could work to provide structure. I landed on a combination of three flours for the first pass – oat for flavor, whole wheat for texture, and all-purpose for strength. For the liquid component, I decided on a combination of yogurt (I couldn’t resist the nod to the granola/yogurt combination), pear puree for sweetness, and maple syrup for flavor. I used oil in place of the butter the ratio calls for – oil tends to keep muffins moister longer, and I knew I wanted these to keep well on the counter – and rounded out the basic recipe with a single egg and a tiny bit of baking soda to balance the slight acidity of the pear and yogurt.
Then came the fun part – the mix-ins!
As a general rule of thumb, a standard batch of 12 muffins can support a maximum of two cups of mix-ins before becoming unstable. For my half-batch, I chose a mix of granola clusters, pecan chunks, flax seeds, and wheat germ.
Calling the granola muffins “sawdusty” would be being generous. The pear puree did nothing on the sugar front – maybe as a result of my choice of pears, maybe because I didn’t use enough of it. And it turns out when you’ve got a whole lot of dense, grain-y, fiber-heavy ingredients in close proximity, you need a good bit of sweetness to keep your granola muffins from tasting like attractively packaged particleboard.
The first, and most obvious thing to change was the amount of sugar. Version two tripled the amount of maple syrup and moved the pears to a mix-in role – the thought being that bigger chunks would help the pears have a bigger presence in the granola muffins. Since the pear puree was out, I replaced the lost liquid with an equal volume of milk, and since the granola clusters lost all their crunch in the oven, I replaced that with toasted rolled oats – same effect, less effort.
Turns out if you take out a component you were counting on for sweetness (the pear puree) and replace it with milk (notably not a sweetener), your end result isn’t really any sweeter – even if you triple your maple syrup.
Breaking my own rules
This is the point I gave up and started incorporating refined sugar – I had a limited tolerance for eating woodchip-flavored things and a looming publication deadline. I understand how dark brown sugar works – and I figured a tablespoon or two wouldn’t take me too far from my original plan, especially since I was still using alternative sweeteners.
I also decided to replace the maple syrup with maple sugar – I still had some in the cabinet from testing breakfast sausage, and figured it couldn’t hurt. After all, it’s just boiled-down maple syrup – it should give me more sweetness for an equivalent volume. And I took out the whole wheat flour – it wasn’t adding much in terms of flavor and was certainly contributing to my sawdust problems.
These granola muffins were better – lightly sweetened particleboard this time! In frustration, I made a quick maple glaze for the top, which definitely solved the problem, but apparently was one bridge too far for my ability to rationalize away my own rules.
I can tolerate refined sugar. Apparently what I can’t tolerate is inching into cupcake territory.
So I tried again.
I upped both types of sugar, almost doubling the total quantity I used in Version 3. I also added more pecans and some chia seeds, hoping that a more varied texture would move us out of sawdust territory and into something more muffin-like.
The result was much better. They were sweet and nutty, with a strong oat and maple presence and a lovely, subtle pear flavor to back it all up. The chia seeds, however, were a little much – they took the granola muffins from hearty to a texture my husband described, very diplomatically, as “healthy.”
I’m a little more self-critical. They edged into birdseed territory, and the chia seeds added an unpleasant bitter aftertaste that wasn’t worth the few extra grams of fiber they might add.
Finally getting it right
Since the only problem with Version Four seemed to be the chia seeds, it felt safe to move into a full-sized batch of the granola muffins.
And I don’t know if it was the removal of the chia seeds, or some sort of scaling interaction, but this batch came out exactly as I had hoped.
The muffins were moist, tender, and lightly sweet, with pockets of crunch from the pecans and a strong toasted oat flavor buoyed by maple and pear. I’ve looked forward to having them for breakfast every morning this week – which is great, because at this point, I have a lot of them.
And the best part? They keep me full all the way through lunch (or sometimes dinner).
- Field, Jenni. “What Is The Muffin Method (And How To Do It).” Pastry Chef Online, https://pastrychefonline.com/the-muffin-method/
- Kat. “A Quick Guide to Ratio Baking Muffins.” The Lily Cafe, 7 February 2020, https://thelilycafe.com/2020/02/07/a-quick-guide-to-ratio-baking-muffins/
- Rhulman, Michael. Ratio. New York, Scribner, April 2009.
- Geiger, Brian. “Baking Soda and Baking Powder.” Fine Cooking, no. 102, pp. 36-37. https://www.finecooking.com/article/baking-soda-and-baking-powder
Pear and granola muffins
Yield: 12 muffins Time: About 40 minutes Source: The Eighth Street Mess
You can buy oat flour at most supermarkets – I know Bob’s Red Mill sells a version – but you don’t really need to. You can make your own! Here’s how I’d do it:
Weigh out enough raw rolled oats to cover both the toasted whole oats + the oat flour (it should be about 180 grams), then toast everything in the oven (I like to pop them in while the oven is preheating). Once they cool, weigh out 74 grams of the toasted oats for the flour and blitz them in the food processor or blender until you have a powder. It won’t be as fine as the professionally milled stuff, but it will save you having a bag of specialty flour floating around in the back of your pantry for the next two years. If you’re like me and obsessively weigh everything, it’s important to note that the remaining un-ground oats will weigh less than 106 grams – this is fine! The oats lost some water weight while they were toasting, and it’s not super important to hit precise measurements for the mix-ins.
If you decide to buy oat flour (or if you happen to have it on hand already), just toast it the same way you would anything else – spread it out on a sheet tray and pop it in the oven until it turns lightly golden. Please note that if you have a convection oven, you will need to turn the fans off before you do this or you will have a VERY bad time.
Feel free to swap the fruit for whatever you like in your granola – though if you’re planning on using dried fruit, I’d add two tablespoons of extra liquid to account for what they’ll absorb as they rehydrate during baking.
You can substitute maple syrup for maple sugar – but it does require some conversion. Use 312 grams (1 cup) of maple syrup in place of the sugar and decrease the milk to 64 grams (1/4 cup). Please note that I haven’t yet tested this, but the internet assures me that it should work.
- 148 grams (1 cup) all-purpose flour
- 74 grams (2/3 cup + 2 tablespoons) oat flour, toasted
- 74 grams (1/2 cup) oat bran, plus extra for sprinkling
- 29 grams (1/4 cup) wheat germ
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 large eggs
- 112 grams (1/2 cup) olive oil
- 58 grams (1/2 cup) maple sugar
- 96 grams (6 packed tablespoons) dark brown sugar
- 96 grams (1/2 cup) full-fat Greek yogurt
- 128 grams (1/2 cup) milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 106 grams (1 cup) old-fashioned rolled oats, toasted, plus extra for sprinkling
- 88 grams (2/3 cup) toasted pecans, chopped small
- 1 medium pear, cored and cut into small dice – it should end up being about 1 1/2 cups
- 2 tablespoons whole flaxseed, plus extra for sprinkling
Preheat your oven to 350°F and prep your muffin tin by either thoroughly greasing the cups or by lining them with paper muffin liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together both kinds of flour, then add the oat bran, wheat germ, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk again to combine – you want to make sure that the leavening is well distributed through the flour.
In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, sugars, yogurt, milk, and vanilla until no clumps of yogurt remain. In general, when I’m making muffins (or anything that uses the muffin method), I try to mix the dry first and then the wet so I can re-use my whisk without making the flour clumpy – or having to do extra dishes.
Pour the oil/sugar/yogurt mixture over the flour and fold the mixture together until it’s about 80 percent mixed. You’re looking for pea-to-dime size dry pockets of flour and some streakiness. At this point, add the rolled oats, pecans, pear and flaxseeds, and fold until everything is thoroughly combined and no dry flour remains. Adding your mix-ins before the batter is 100 percent combined means you can work in the “chunks” without overmixing the batter – something I learned in culinary school, and which completely changed the way I looked at mixing doughs.
Using a #20 scoop (or a heaping quarter-cup measure), portion the muffins into the prepared tin. Your tins will probably be completely full or even slightly mounded – this is fine. This is a thick batter and it shouldn’t spread much.
In a small bowl, combine a few pinches each of flaxseed, oat bran, and rolled oats – this doesn’t have to be remotely precise. Sprinkle the mixture over the top of the muffins, pressing gently to make sure it sticks.
Bake the muffins until they are golden around the edges, spring back lightly when pressed, and a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center comes out with only a few moist crumbs – 20-25 minutes, with a rotation halfway through baking.
The pear and granola muffins will keep in an airtight container on the counter for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to three months.