Muffins: the English response

Don’t expect rational clarity from me. The whole muffin thing is a Gordian knot, and if you try slicing through it all you end up with is crumbs.

When I was a kid, there were muffins and there were crumpets (bear with me, we’ll be coming back to crumpets) and there were buns of all sorts, and they were all effectively bread, on that side of the baker’s aisle. Over there, on the other side, were cakes. (Actually, most people made their own cakes; it was considered a little déclassé to buy one from a shop. For parties, my mum would make fairy cakes or butterfly cakes, little individual treats where you got a whole one to yourself and didn’t have to share.)

Muffins were probably my least favourite in the list of bready buns. We cut them in half and toasted them and slathered them with butter, but I was never quite sure how much I liked them. They had a particular flavour, and something of a texture too – wheat-bran, perhaps, or some such in the dough.

But I never knew there was any question about identity or the One True Muffin, until I was hanging out with Geoff the Canadian American, in my early adulthood, and he cheerfully told me that in the US crumpets were known as English muffins. Now obviously, dear readers, you know and I know that was never true; but I was young and blighted by prejudice and gullibility, and what is more I knew that the French for French horn was cor anglais [which isn’t true either, as it happens], so I spent the next great many years believing that the poor Americans couldn’t tell the difference between a crumpet and a muffin.

And in the meantime, of course, I encountered blueberry muffins, which were quite clearly a cake and not even shaped like a muffin, which only confirmed me in my misunderstanding of the US misunderstanding of a splendidly English breadstuff. Which I didn’t like very much and hadn’t eaten for decades, but hey. I’d go to war if I had to, on behalf of the One True Muffin.

Aaand then I came to the US, and found that yes, they do eat a lot of English muffins (we will say nothing further of the cake, which is still not a muffin and need not detain us longer), and no, they were not at all a crumpet – but were they really a muffin?

In honesty, I’m still undecided. They do look kinda like a muffin, and they do serve that same bready function (tho’ the tendency to make a sandwich of them, or otherwise to smother them with other food, is fundamentally wrong: like crumpets, they should be eaten with butter and nothing) – but they absolutely don’t have that flavour I remember from my childhood, and I don’t end up picking bits of bran out of my teeth. You could argue that that’s just a result of the commodification and mass-production of bread, and that nothing else shop-bought tastes like it used to anyway; and I can do nothing but nod and sigh and agree with you, and go off to bake my own. Which I probably will do, now that I’ve written a whole damn rant about it. A rant without a conclusion, moreover: at the moment my instinct is to say that the English muffin is the Brat Farrar of the bakery, making a convincing claim to a position to which it is not in fact entitled. It looks right but it smells wrong, and in the end it’s deceitful, but we kind of want to cheer for it anyway, because what else is there?

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Muffins: the English response — 24 Comments

  1. But does no-one have a word (kindly or otherwise) for the lonely scone? Or is that, too, just a crumpet in disguise?

    • And, of course someone will point out that a scone on the U.K. side of the pond is what we in North America would call a tea biscuit. But a biscuit in the U.K. is a cookie in North America. So it stands to reason that a scone is really a cookie. Except when it’s a biscuit – which might, come to think of it, actually be a bun.

      But I’m sure they’re all served with tea. So that’s all right then. Let’s eat.

      Although I’d prefer mine with coffee.

      • I’m from America, but I’ve definitely eaten scones and have never heard of tea biscuits. What is a tea biscuit?

        • Agh! We clearly have to do another entire round on the concept of scones vs. tea biscuits. This is vastly complicated by the fact that Americans do not do tea the way Brits do tea. We do, however, have cookies. Which are not the same as scones or tea biscuits, I think. Stay tuned, we’ll do this. The Girl Scouts are going to be doing cookie sales soon. That’ll be the time.

        • Hmm. Could be more a Canadian thing. Like a scone, sort of, more or less, but maybe not quite.

    • Scots scones are the only true scone. Even if, when stale, they turn out like the Stone of . . . (I can’t go on.)

    • That’s the scones v drop/griddle/girdle scones argument, I think? And that doesn’t even begin to address Skon v SkOWN.

      But American scones are a lot sweeter than English scones.

  2. Crumpets are made with batter and ladled out to cook in rings; English muffins are made with dough, rolled, cut out, and cooked as a solid mass.

  3. All these years, and I still don’t know what a crumpet is, though I’ve been hearing the word in comedies for decades.

  4. Crumpets need rings because they’re batter-y — without the rings they become (dare I say it?) pancakes. The ring holds them into a distinct round patty. Am I right, oh you who make crumpets? A pancake recipe is flour, eggs, milk, and baking powder for a riser. Mix into a batter (somewhat thicker than heavy cream but definitely pourable) and pour into rounds onto a hot griddle. Flip once, serve with maple syrup and butter. Is not a crumpet recipe very similar, bar the maple syrup? Oh lord, we may need an entire separate post on the crumpet/pancake issue.

    I have asked Beth Zipser, foodie extraordinaire, to suggest a True Recipe for the muffin as is done in England (not an English muffin by Thomas!). When she sends me info I will post it. We will create a Muffin Taxonomy!

    • Oh sure, you had to go and bring pancakes into the mix!

      Next you’ll be leading us down the convoluted path of Pudding – from whence there is no return.

      • (Also grammar, ditto ditto: I was once severely scolded by an (English) English teacher for writing “from whence”, which he said was pure tautology; “‘from’ is redundant”, he said, “where ‘whence’ is in the case.” Then I moved to the US, and find that even my copy-editor friends expect that “from” every time, regardless…)

        • Well, as long as they don’t expect the “from” every time, irregardless. That would be true shudder-inducing redundancy – of the nails-down-the-blackboard variety.

  5. Lol.I extracted a deep frame of honey yesdertay, and since I’m still doing the crush-and-strain method, I put the comb into a tin turkey pan. I strained out as much honey as I could and then put the pan directly into the oven. Wax is conveniently lighter than honey so it separates out and I can just pour the molten honey out into my little half pint jars. I was hoping to use the wax for candles or something, but it’s really unattractive and isn’t melting down as well as I’d hoped. The good news is I’ve collected 3 pints of honey from this single frame! I’ll post pictures soon!