In August, my husband and I took our annual trip to Pittsburgh, my hometown. We saw family, some friends, and toured old haunts like Schenley Plaza, the Strip District (not what it sounds like), and Mount Washington. New foodie businesses had opened since our last visit and we explored some of those too: Wiggle Distillery, Tender restaurant in Lawrenceville, and the bar across the street, Industry Public House. It felt good and right reacquainting ourselves with places and people we loved.
Aside from reaffirming my Pittsburgh roots, on these trips I also like to indulge in my favorite American foods. Peanut butter that you stir is an important one. So are hamburgers and cocktails.
This trip I fell for English muffins. I’ve always liked them; Thomas English muffins were a staple in our house growing up, and the nooks and crannies made them excellent kid food. As I grew older, I forgot about English muffins. One muffin wasn’t enough to keep me full until lunch, but I never wanted to commit to two. Instead I turned to bagels and cereal because they were filling and—let’s face it—who doesn’t like cream cheese? My husband, however, developed an appreciation for English muffins in graduate school. When we visit, English muffins are his American indulgence food.
English muffins are, in fact, American. While similar in texture and flavor to bubbly-topped British crumpets, Samuel Bath Thomas is credited with developing the English muffin recipe in New York in 1875. Although many recipes for crumpets or ‘muffins’ existed in England, the first commercial success for a crumpet-like bread halved before toasting was Thomas’ recipe. The Smithsonianmag.com has an interesting article on the subject here.
In Pittsburgh my mother stocked the freezer with whole-wheat English muffins for my husband and set a box of Kashi in the pantry for me (A box of Kashi costs 13 Euros in Greece, so I appreciate it on these visits). Our first morning in Pittsburgh, Spyros toasted a muffin while I settled down with coffee. A sour, yeasty aroma wafted from the toaster as I scrolled my phone. My stomach rumbled and I recalled the toasted English muffins of my childhood, nooks and crannies glistening with butter. I abandoned my phone, wandered toward muffins, and toasted one myself. Chewy with a little crunch, the sweet and salty English muffin made a far better breakfast than cereal.
For the remainder of the trip, we ate English muffins for breakfast and, if we weren’t home, we’d get them on the road. Driving from Pittsburgh to Uniontown, we stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast and bought my husband’s first Egg McMuffin. At brunch a week later, we ordered Eggs Benedict, a dish whose success depends on a decent English muffin. Finally, after a harried security check at Pittsburgh’s airport on our return to Athens, we recharged at McDonald’s over Egg White Delight McMuffins.
Biting into my last English muffin in the US, I felt sad to leave America and its breakfast culture. I’d miss strangers predicting the weather in-line at McDonald’s and I’d miss eggs with biscuits and ham at noon on a Sunday. But our house and work waited for us in Athens and remembering them made me anxious to return. My husband shifted next to me in our booth and pecked me on the forehead. I reached for his hand. It dawned on me that there was no reason I couldn’t make a batch of English muffins in Athens.
When we returned to Greece I searched for a way to recreate English muffins at home. After a few internet searches I discovered that English muffins were easy to replicate and that, apart from a quick starter and two risings, they cook like pancakes.
I adapted the recipe below from an excellent English muffin tutorial. Being me, I replaced part of the white flour with whole wheat and reduced the salt. I also increased the yeast to account for the whole wheat flour’s density. While the recipe below did not result in the characteristic nooks and crannies, the flavor is spot-on. I will work on finding recipe that yields a more English muffin-like texture and post when I am successful. In the meantime, enjoy the recipe below!
Whole Wheat English Muffins
Adapted from Emma Christensen’s thekitchn.com article, “How to Make Homemade English Muffins,”
Makes 12 muffins
For the starter:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (94 grams)
1/2 cup water
3/4 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast (or 2 1/2 tablespoons active sourdough starter)
For the muffin dough:
1 ¼ cup milk, whole or 2%
1 1/2 teaspoon active dry or instant yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon salt plus a pinch
3 to 3 1/4 cups (380 to 400 grams) whole wheat flour
- To make the starter: In a medium bowl, combine the starter ingredients and mix well with a whisk. When well combined, about 100 strokes, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 1-12 hours. One hour is fine, but the characteristic sour flavor will only develop after a longer rising period. After the fermentation, the mixture should be doubled in size and covered in bubbles.
- Prepare the muffin dough: In a large mixing bowl, stir together the milk and yeast. Empty the starter into the bowl and, using a whisk, dissolve it into the milk. Stir in the sugar, butter, and salt. Add one cup of flour at a time and stir with a wooden spoon or the dough hook attachment of a standing mixer until a smooth ball forms.
- First rise:Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set it in the refrigerator overnight or up to three days.
- Second rise: Transfer the risen dough onto a lightly floured cutting board. Use a knife to divide the dough into 12 pieces. Shape the pieces into small balls and flatten them slightly with your palms to form small disks. Place the disks onto a baking sheet sprinkled with the cornmeal. Cover the muffins with a clean cloth and allow to rise for 11/2 to 2 hours.
- Bake in a skillet: Melt a dollop of butter in a large skillet (cast-iron, stainless steel, and non-stick are all fine) over medium-low heat. Carefully transfer the risen muffins, in batches, onto the hot skillet and cook each side until the bottoms are golden brown, about 5-6 minutes. Cool slightly.
Note: English muffins cook like pancakes so feel free to raise and lower the stove temperature if you see that the muffins are browning too quickly or not enough. If the bottoms have browned but the interiors are still uncooked, bake them in the oven at 174 o C (350oF) for 5-7 minutes.