The English muffin – the yeasty bread-like concoction as opposed to the American cupcake version that is more widely consumed nowadays – dates back more than two hundred years.
The eminent cookery writer, Elizabeth David, in English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) includes recipes for muffins that date back to the mid-18th century, though she suggests they must be of considerably earlier origin.
Many of us will recall the children’s nursery rhyme about the muffin man:
Do you know the muffin man?
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man
Who lives on Drury Lane?
The rhyme – which is first recorded in an early 19th century British manuscript – refers to the contemporary practice of muffins being sold by peripatetic vendors who bought them from bakers and then sold them, for a small profit. The muffin man carried his goods in a basket, wrapped in flannel to keep them warm, thereby reassuring customers that they were fresh.
The muffin man’s customers would often have been members of the middle classes. In his series of newspaper articles on the life of the London working class that were compiled into the book London Labour and the London Poor (1851), the Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew reported that a muffin man told him, “My best customers is genteel houses, ‘cause I sells a genteel thing. I like wet days best, ‘cause there’s werry respectable ladies what don’t keep a servant and they buys to save themselves going out.”
Nowadays we tend to eat muffins either for breakfast or tea, so it was a surprise when reading Jane Austen to find out that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they seem to have been popular as an evening snack. In Pride and Prejudice Mr Collins, Mr Bennet’s ridiculous cousin, is “most abundantly supplied with coffee and muffins” whilst playing card games at an evening party at Aunt Philips’ house in Meryton.
Muffins also had a reputation for being difficult to digest. E. H. Ruddock, the author of Vitalogy, a home health encyclopedia published in 1899, wrote in his 1879 Essentials of Diet, “muffins … are very indigestible.” Jane Austen’s creation, Mr Woodhouse, Emma’s anxious, hypochondriac father, worries about all manner of foodstuffs, including muffins. Praising his daughter for her attentiveness to their guests following a gathering at their house, Mr Woodhouse also criticises her for offering her guests more than one muffin: “There is nobody half as attentive and civil as you are. If any thing, you are too attentive. The muffin last night – if it had been handed round once, I think it would have been enough”.
Mr Woodhouse is entitled to his opinion, but having made these muffins I would certainly like Emma to offer them to me more than once.
EMMA WOODHOUSE’S MUFFINS
Ingredients (makes 8-12):
450g strong white flour
7g sachet active dried yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat the oven to 150C / fan oven 130C/ Gas mark 2. Place the flour in an ovenproof dish, cover and place in the oven to warm through for 10 minutes (this will help accelerate the proving process).
2. Place the butter and milk in a small saucepan and warm over a moderate heat until the butter melts. Allow to cool slightly.
3. Mix the salt through the flour. Then add the yeast, beaten egg and butter and milk mixture. Mix until the ingredients are just blended. Then knead – either by hand or in a machine – until the dough is smooth. It will probably take 5 minutes by machine, and 10-15 minutes by machine.
4. Place the dough in a bowl, cover (with clingfilm or a teatowel) and leave to rise in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size. This will take approximately 45-60 minutes.
5. Punch out the air and shape the dough into a flat round about 1 cm deep. Cut out 8-12 muffins using a scone or biscuit cutter. Place on a floured baking sheet, cover and leave to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.
6. Lightly grease a heavy-based frying pan and place over a low-medium heat. Cook the muffins for between 5-8 minutes on each side.
7. Best eaten warm – split apart and laden with butter!