English Muffins for Oscar

My baby sourdough starter—let’s call him Oscar—reached maturity just in time for the first big summer heat wave here in Oregon. We went from the mid-60’s and 70’s to 100F in just a few days’ time, and all our interest in bread baking (and all other baking, and most cooking, for that matter) went right out the window with it. But Oscar was huffing and puffing and threatening to overflow his can, and I couldn’t resist using just a little bit to make a small batch of English muffins for breakfast, since we still have to eat.

I’ve been wanting to try make English muffins for a long time, but many of the recipes (including the one on a recent Good Eats that rekindled my interest) call for the use of ring molds to contain a very loose batter, which is then cooked in a skillet to achieve those flat browned sides. I don’t know about you, but I can’t find any tuna cans these days that allow me to remove both ends; their bottoms are all rounded and have nothing for the can opener to grip. Alton must have a secret source. But the nice thing about the recipe I found at Chocolate and Zucchini is that not only is it adapted to sourdough use, the dough is just sturdy enough to hold its shape in the skillet. And, I thought, I can make something for breakfast without having to turn on my oven and heat my house up even more. Um, no. Once the first batch of muffins was browning up, I realized that the recipe called for a short bake time in the oven to ensure that the centers cook through. So much for keeping the house cool. Once the muffins were done and I was properly sweltering, I begged out of cooking dinner and talked Jeremy into picking up some take-out instead.

The finished muffins looked so much like the store-bought variety that I could hardly stop admiring them. I get such a kick out of making food at home that perfectly substitutes for grocery staples most people take for granted, and knowing that my versions are healthier, fresher, and lacking in preservative chemicals doesn’t hurt either. It is the same feeling of pride I get whenever I try my hand at gardening and succeed in producing something edible (although that only happens every few years; I’m not much of a gardener). The texture of the muffins was marginally less craggy than the store-bought sort, despite splitting them with a fork, but the taste was, I dare say, even better. I toasted some for breakfast, and Jeremy had homemade sausage-egg McMuffins for lunch. Two-thirds of them were gone in less than 24 hours, so next time I’ll double the batch and put Oscar to the test by omitting the extra yeast.

Sourdough English Muffins

8.8 oz bread flour
2.5 oz sourdough starter, recently refreshed if possible
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp instant yeast
1/2 T honey
1 T butter, softened
1/2 C plus 2 T (150 ml) milk (or buttermilk, thin yogurt, or whey)
Cornmeal, for sprinkling

Place all ingredients except cornmeal in the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir until the dough comes together into a ball, adding just a little more milk if the dough seems too dry (mine needed an extra two tablespoons of milk, since my starter is currently at 75% hydration). Knead by hand on a floured surface for 10 minutes, or with the dough hook of your stand mixer, for 8 minutes, until you have a smooth and pleasantly tacky dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 4 hours. (After this rise, you may place the dough in the fridge for a few hours or overnight; let rest at room temperature for an hour before you continuing.)

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface; the dough will naturally deflate a little as you do so, but you don’t need to punch it. Using a bench scraper or long knife, divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Shape them into rounds as you would for rolls. Spread cornmeal generously onto a sheet of parchment or silicone mat, and space the balls of dough evenly on top. Sprinkle the tops of the balls of dough with more cornmeal (spray or brush lightly with olive oil first if it doesn’t want to stick) and cover loosely with a kitchen towel. Let rest at room temperature for about 2 hours, until puffy and nicely expanded.

Heat a lightly greased 12-inch cast iron skillet or griddle on medium heat; also preheat the oven to 350°F and have a baking sheet ready. Use a thin spatula to lift the muffins to the skillet; handle them as gently as possible to avoid deflating, and cook in batches of three. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes on the first side, until the bottom is lightly browned, rotating the pan every few minutes if it has hot spots. The muffins will rise and expand a tiny bit more. Flip them gently using the spatula, and cook 5 to 7 minutes on the other side, until lightly browned.

Transfer the cooked muffins to the prepared baking sheet, and get the next batch into the pan. When they are all browned, place in the oven to bake for 6 minutes; they shouldn’t brown further or look much different. Transfer to a rack to cool. The muffins keep well for several days, wrapped. Makes 6 English muffins; the recipe can, and probably should, be doubled.

Source: Adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, via Chocolate and Zucchini.

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