Tuesday, March 11, 2014
English muffins are a big deal in Portland. Locally made by some of our best bakers they have a near-cult following—a purist’s artisanal pecking order, if you will, of perfection.
The dough itself is not a mysterious mix. It’s often made with a combination of all-purpose and high-gluten flour, butter or oil, water or milk, egg, yeast and salt. The dough is left to rise, kneaded for a few minutes and then shaped into rounds, dusted with cornmeal and cooked in a hot grill pan until browned on each side.
Fresh out of the oven at Scratch Baking, these English muffins are displayed next to their popular bagels
Rosemont's high, wide English muffin, this was the last one left when I was rounding up my muffins It's ready to be split and toasted
Interestingly this is about the only bread that shouldn’t be eaten without toasting. To prepare an English muffin for toasting it must be either split by hand or fork split. Never use a knife to cut it apart because that would produce a flat plane across the bread’s surface.
There's a big difference in muffin texture between those cut with a knife (background) and the hand- or fork-split muffin
On a hand-split muffin, the butter spreads beautifully into every nook and cranny
It’s a wonder that English muffins weren’t named Nooks and Crannies because without these intended fissures on the inside of the cut muffin, they’re all about that unique texture--craggy and creviced—a perfect surface for butter to melt into its crisp craters.
Paula C's excellent muffins at farmers' markets
Bomb Diggity's English muffins
There are quite a few bakers in our region who make excellent, even spectacular English muffins. Especially at farmers' markets across the state, there’s always a local baker or two with their version of this ubiquitous breakfast bread.
The Farmer's Daughter muffins with the addition of dried fruits
The following is my list, with tasting notes, of the best in our region, ranked in descending order.
Scratch Baking Company. This South Portland bakery definitely has a cult following for all of its baked goods. But it's their English muffins that sell out as fast as their coveted bagels. Scratch’s version has great texture, very rich and crisp after toasting and splits apart well either by hand or fork; the sour dough starter is distinctive, and sets them apart from the others.
Rosemont Market Bakery. Their English muffin pretty much ties with Scratch. It’s a taller muffin, not as wide as Scratch and it s a very rich, crusty, dense type that toasts beautifully. It’s a great muffin.
Big Sky Bread. Their muffin is substantial and slightly sweeter than the other two with the addition of honey. But it’s an excellent muffin, chewy, crusty, and dense. It’s the muffin used to hold the fabulous egg breakfast sandwich served at the Public Market House on Monument Square.
Paula C’s, a local baker from Richmond, who sells her sweets and breads at the Topsham and Brunswick farmers' markets, makes a very delicate style of muffin, more cakelike than the others, sweet and very delicate. This is a delicious muffin.
The Farmer’s Daughter. This is another muffin from a popular farmer’s market baked goods vendor at Brunswick and other markets during the summer. Shoppers line up for her popovers and pies, but I always buy her English muffins. They’re a substantial muffin, which are flavored with either bits of apricot, cranberry and pumpkin in season and made either with white flour or whole wheat. It’s an excellent muffin.
Bomb Diggity Bakery. This was my least favorite muffin. I didn’t like the flavor, somewhat metallic, though when they’re toasted the texture is good. In a pinch, they’re eminently acceptable.
Another notable muffin. The muffin used at Local 188 for their eggs Benedict is Wolferman’s, a big, bulky commercial muffin that is one of the best around. I looked everywhere in Portland but none were to be found. They are available mail order.
To split an English muffin. Hold the muffin in one hand and with the other, using index and middle finger,go around the circumference of the muffin, penetrating throug, pushing your index finger through until it splits apart slightly. Then pull gently apart. Using the fork method, dig the tines of a fork into the sides of the muffin about a half inch in, loosening it then pulling it apart gently.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.