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So, How Well Do You Know the Muffin Man?

May 21, 2009 By:
Rivka Tal, JE Feature
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The availability of American food products in Israel has grown exponentially since I first made aliyah to Jerusalem in 1966. At that time, it was unheard of to find the likes of Starkist tuna, Heinz ketchup, M&M's candies and Skippy peanut butter anywhere.

One of the large supermarket chains would hold an "American Week" annually and import a tantalizing array of food from the old country. Now these products are available almost everywhere. But until this day, I have yet to see English muffins on supermarket shelves. So they remain a treat for me to savor on trips back to Minneapolis.

Though there are many other good brands, to me, when you say "English muffins," one word comes to mind: Thomas.

In 1874, young Samuel Bath Thomas left England for America with a recipe for a muffin baked on hot griddles. These were popular in England, and would soon become a near staple part of the American breakfast.

After arriving in New York City, Mr. Thomas worked in a bakery, and by 1880 had saved enough money to open his own shop at 163 Ninth Ave. in Manhattan. Mr. Thomas' bakery was different from the others; in addition to the common white and rye breads, he offered English muffins to his customers.

These muffins were round, single-serve portions of distinctively coarse-grained, yeast-raised dough baked on a griddle or hot plate. They were to be split -- never sliced -- and toasted prior to serving.

The flavor and texture of Thomas' English Muffins were unlike any muffin on the market. He soon had a large and loyal following. Word spread through the neighborhood about this treat, and soon other stores were buying them and selling them to their customers.

Very quickly Mr. Thomas was making deliveries into Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. Demand became so high that he had to open other bakeries, and make deliveries by horse and wagon.

Eventually, he started selling his muffins in frozen packages.

Food historians are puzzled as to the authentic origins of the English muffin as we know and love it. Are they really English? We'd need a Victorian Brit to settle the score.

Some say that these delectable muffins were originally made of leftover bread and biscuit dough scraps and fried on a hot griddle -- for one's servants, later becoming so popular that muffin factories sprang up all over England. Muffin men could be heard in the streets selling their wares from wooden trays slung around their necks.

For teatime in private homes and clubs, English muffins would be split and toasted over an open fire. The prominence of the muffin men in English society was evident when, "Oh, do you know the muffin man?" became a popular children's nursery rhyme. Actually, it's anyone's guess if this refers to what we consider "English muffins" today.

An English muffin is a true one only when it's torn apart to be toasted, according to purists. Never cut one with a knife, they enjoin us; pull it apart to reveal the rough peaks and valleys.

Alas, English muffins are still not widely available in Israel. But when I get a hankering -- an insatiable longing for that taste -- I can mix up this English muffin bread in no time at all. Eaten toasted or even plain, with or without butter (try peanut butter, jam or honey, as well), these quick and easy loaves somehow remind me of the real thing.

Cornmeal is supposed to be an integral part of this recipe. But I never have it around, so I omit it, substituting convenience for originality -- with no detriment to the finished product.

 
English Muffin Bread

(Pareve)

6 cups sifted flour, divided
2 packages active dry yeast
1 Tbsp. sugar
11/2 Tbsps. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
21/2 cups water
oil or nonstick cooking spray
cornmeal (optional)

Combine 3 cups flour, yeast, sugar, salt and baking soda in a large bowl.

Heat water until very warm. Add to flour mixture; beat well.

Stir in the remaining 3 cups of flour to make a stiff batter (additional flour may be necessary). Knead briefly.

Spoon into 2 loaf pans that have been greased or sprayed with cooking spray and sprinkled with optional cornmeal.

Cover and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes, or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 400°.

Bake loaves for 25 minutes, or until lightly golden on top.

Remove from pans immediately and cool on a rack.

Slice with a sharp knife.

Makes 2 loaves.

Rivka Tal is a food writer based in Jerusalem. E-mail her at: talriv@gmail.com.

 

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