Muffins, Infinite Ways

MAKES: 8 large or 12 medium muffins

TIME: About 40 minutes

The only real difference between muffins and the preceding quick breads is the pans you bake them in. But those little cups allow for a lot more potential variation, depending on what you do at the last minute before baking.

Anything goes when it comes to this recipe and the next one (which will give you a more dessertlike muffin), including the suggestions in Fruit-and-Nut or Vegetable-and-Nut Bread. Also see 12 Additions to Virtually Any Quick Bread, Muffin, Biscuit, or Scone on 12 Additions to Virtually Any Quick Bread, Muffin, Biscuit, or Scone for more ways to spike either recipe.

3 tablespoons melted butter or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, plus fat for the pan

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg

1 cup milk, plus more if needed

Preheat the oven to 400В°F. Grease a standard 12-cup muffin tin or line it with paper or foil muffin cups if you like.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Beat together the egg, milk, and melted butter or oil. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into it. Using a large spoon or rubber spatula, combine the ingredients swiftly, stirring and folding rather than beating and stopping as soon as all the dry ingredients are moistened. The batter should be lumpy, not smooth, and thick but quite moist; add a little more milk or other liquid if necessary.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins, filling them about two-thirds full and handling the batter as little as possible. (If you prefer bigger muffins, fill the cups almost to the top. Pour 1/4 cup water into those cups left empty.) Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the muffins are nicely browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of one of them comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes before taking them out of the tin. Serve warm.

Variations

Banana-Nut Muffins. These are good with half bran or whole wheat flour: Add 1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts, pecans, or cashews to the dry ingredients. Substitute 1 cup mashed very ripe banana for 3/4 cup of the milk. Use honey or maple syrup in place of sugar if possible.

Bran Muffins. The classic: Substitute 1 cup oat or wheat bran for 1 cup of the all-purpose flour (you can use whole wheat flour for the remainder if you like). Use 2 eggs and honey, molasses, or maple syrup for sweetener. Add 1/2 cup raisins to the prepared batter if you like.

Blueberry or Cranberry Muffins. Great with cornmeal substituted for up to 1/2 cup of the flour: Add 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon to the dry ingredients; increase the sugar to 1/2 cup. Stir 1 cup fresh blueberries or cranberries into the batter at the last minute. You can also use frozen blueberries or cranberries here; do not defrost them first. Blueberry muffins are good with 1/2 teaspoon grated or minced lemon zest added to the batter along with the wet ingredients. Cranberry muffins are excellent with 1/2 cup chopped nuts and/or 1 tablespoon grated or minced orange zest added to the prepared batter.

Spice Muffins. Perfect during holiday season: Add 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon each ground allspice and ground ginger, and 1 pinch ground cloves and mace or nutmeg to the dry ingredients; use 1 cup whole wheat flour in place of 1 cup all-purpose flour. Add 1/2 cup raisins, currants, dates, or dried figs to the prepared batter if you like.

Sour Cream or Yogurt Muffins. Rich and tender, with a hint of sourness: Reduce baking powder to 1 teaspoon, and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda to dry ingredients. Substitute 11/4 cups sour cream or yogurt for the milk and cut the butter or oil back to 1 tablespoon. Proceed with the recipe.

Coffee Cake Muffins. Crunchy and sweet: Mix together 1/2 cup packed brown sugar; 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon; 1 cup finely chopped walnuts, pecans, or cashews; and 2 extra tablespoons melted butter. Stir half of this mixture into the original batter with the wet ingredients and sprinkle the rest on top before baking.

Lighter Muffins. A little more work, with noticeable results: Use 2 eggs and separate them. Add the yolks as usual; beat the whites until stiff but not dry and fold in very gently at the last moment.

Savory Muffins. Cut the sugar back to 1 tablespoon. Add up to 1 cup minced cooked onion or leek and shredded cheese to the batter just before baking.