It was in the 1980’s when I discovered a famous Seattle coffee shop’s giant “banana nut muffins.” Instantly, I became addicted.
During the following years, those delectable muffins began showing up everywhere; under glass domes in coffee shops, kiosks in airports, and even in medical centers.
And then those muffins took a turn; they became muffins made with healthier ingredients; bran, yogurt, soy and even sugarless sugar.
Shortly after my discovery, I began my own personal quest for that perfect light and moist, high-domed banana nut muffin. Magazines and cookbooks devoted entirely to those giant delicacies soon filled my kitchen shelves. But, alas, no muffins ever came from my oven looking like those Seattle muffins, until recently.
In an old handed-down to me, 1930s Betty Crocker cookbook, I discovered a simple muffin recipe with the instruction, ”whatever you do, DO NOT OVERMIX.” Reading further, the recipe calls for adding the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and, with a spatula, carefully fold in with only 12 to 15 strokes, leaving some of the dry ingredients visible.
Baking isn’t like cooking — it’s about chemistry. When you pop a cake into an oven which hasn’t been preheated to the correct temperature, you will have an improperly cooked cake. Reason: the outside has been cooking longer because it heated up with the oven, and the center will remain undone. And if you continue cooking the cake until the center is done, well, this will result in a very dry and possibly burned cake edge.
Overworked cake batter can be due to creaming the butter and sugar together too much. Mixing it too much and you pop all the air bubbles that allow the cake to rise. Yes, there are air bubbles in the butter/sugar mixture. Same goes for adding the dry ingredients. You might be tempted to skip sifting the flour and decide to beat the batter until the lumps disappear—don’t, unless the recipe states “mix well.” If the batter won’t rise (because you’ve beaten out all of the air) it won’t cook properly and you’ll wind up with a depression in the middle of the layer.
If your cakes continue to crack on their tops, it may be due to bubbles in the batter. Dropping the pan with its batter on the counter 4-5 times will release those bubbles. Too hot of an oven, or too much leavening will cause cakes to rise too quickly, and running a thin bladed knife around the cake’s edge when coming from the oven will allow the cake to shrink slowly without sticking to the pan’s edge, all of which can creates those unwanted cracks.
Believe me, it can’t be said enough; baking is about chemistry. If you add too much or too little of one ingredient, the batter won’t mix properly. Too much fat or sugar will prevent the cake from rising. You should always lightly spoon flour into a measuring cup, then level the top with a knife. Dipping the measuring cup into the flour and tapping to settle usually results in an inaccurate measure of too much flour. Make sure the wrapper on the stick of butter is positioned correctly when cutting to its measurement reading, and always use individual measuring cups rather than a large 2-cup one.
If you have been meticulous, your cake could still be doomed if you haven’t followed the recommended pan size. A doubled recipe should be baked at a lower temperature for a longer time in an appropriate pan size.
Over many years of baking I have learned to first, read the recipe, and second, pre-measure all of the ingredients. Remember, in recipes the chemistry has been done for you and by following the recipe’s directions, preheating the oven and using a timer should result in a perfectly baked cake or the muffins below.
Banana Nut Muffins (makes 10 giant 4-inch muffins)
Preheat Oven 400 degrees
In a medium bowl add:
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unpacked brown sugar
Whisk well to incorporate.
In separate bowl add:
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup whole milk mixed with 2 cups well mashed ripe bananas
1 cup walnuts
Mix well with fork.
Fold in dry ingredients 12-15 turns only.
Batter will be lumpy and some flour will be seen.
Divide batter into 10 oiled giant muffin cups and bake on middle oven rack for 25 minutes.