Of death and quick breads

We recently lost an elderly neighbor, a man named Russ who brought succulent heirloom tomato salads to the neighborhood watch gatherings we hosted and died unexpectedly of cancer within months of being diagnosed. When his wife’s daughter discovered my passion for cooking she generously invited to me to select what I wanted from his extensive batterie de cuisine.

Among the items was a muffin tin, one with large, two-tiered wells, the kind used by professional bakers to make the impressive specimens sold in coffee shops. I inherited this along with dozens of madeleine plaques, false-bottomed cake and tart pans, glass pie plates, heavy-duty loaf pans and stainless steel bowls; just a fraction of what he had owned.

Buttermilk and the right muffin tin are the secret to these beauties.

One of the first foods I recall learning to make as a child was banana bread. My mother’s original recipe was lost when she passed but the childhood memory of creating and eating that moist, fragrant loaf endures. While there are modern-day uses for overripe bananas, the smoothie being the most likely option, there’s something almost magical about transforming fruit that would otherwise be destined for the compost bin into a delicious treat.

I eventually recreated the recipe of my youth and adapted it to make banana bread waffles, the Belgian iron forming waffles with a crisp exterior crust and rich, moist center, which you can call “quicker” bread because they only take minutes to cook.

Over the years I’ve become adept at making quick breads and, if asked, I’d say that they’re a specialty. While they don’t rely on leavening or on yeast, I include French classics like madeleines and pate a choux in the “quick” category as well. Accomplished bakers may prefer to work with yeasted doughs in favor of the baking powder and baking soda combination that creates, in this baker’s experience, the very best quick breads. There’s no denying the sophistication of croissants and the myriad shapes of proofed loaves but we home bakers must leave something to the boulangeries.

The utility and the batter-to-plate speed of quick breads are ideal for nourishing hungry mouths at the crack of dawn or providing a weekend respite from the monotony of austere weekday breakfasts. When making pancakes, waffles, muffins or breads I’ve never been one for using store bought-mixes; the ingredients required for quick breads are easy enough to assemble and the freshness of the leavening is always guaranteed.

Inspired by a small book devoted solely to muffins, I baked my way through most of the recipes but was somehow always underwhelmed by the end results. While muffins make an occasional appearance on the breakfast table and tea tray or as a savory appetizer, the tins always gather dust between each use.

I’ve had a change of heart about muffins thanks to the muffin tin that once belonged to my neighbor Russ. That humble tin combined with the right recipe produces spectacular muffins; muffins of a caliber I have never been able to master until it came unexpectedly in to my life. I’m chalking it up to Russ whose passion for cooking seems to live on in the objects that he once used. Muffins have earned a place at the table and may even give banana bread waffles a run for their money as the new family favorite.