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May 20, 2013 07:46 AM

English Muffins

Last Saturday the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Eggs Benedict, with a recipe for the dish plus recipes for hollandaise and for homemade english muffins. Sounded so easy and relatively quick/effortless so I thought I'd treat my spouse to Eggs Benedict. Since I'm an early riser I figured starting the muffins at around 5AM would give me plenty of time to feed him a delicious breakfast at around 7:30 AM. WRONG! Even though I took the extra steps of measuring out all the ingredients the night before and triple reading the recipe, I finally finished the last batch around 9:30AM. While they were delicious, I had a couple of problems.

The recipe provided in the WSJ is "adapted from" Elizabeth David's recipe in "English Bread and Yeast Cookery", which I also happen to have. So I read ED's recipe over several times as well, but failed to pay attention to the ingredients.

There's very little work in making the dough - no kneading, basically just stirring the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients until a cohesive well formed dough is formed, then set it aside to rise. No problems so far. Next, tip the dough onto a floured board and divide into ten pieces. Using floured hands, you are directed to roll each piece into a rough ball. Here is where I had a huge problem. The dough was so wet that when I tried to pull off a portion to "make a ball" the dough just stuck to itself and to my hands. No amount of flour on my hands would allow me to separate the dough to make a ball. I ended up having to work lots more flour into the dough - I'd guess maybe about 1 1/2 cups more flour - in order to make a dough that could even be separated from itself.

The WSJ author's recipe specified "4 loosely packed cups" of bread flour. What does loosely packed mean? As for liquid, 2 1/4 cups milk and 2 tablespoons oil or butter was also specified. Referring to ED's recipe, she specifies a pound of flour, or about 3 cups, to 1 3/4 cups of water, and 2 tablespoons fat. Since I haven't tried the recipe using ED's quantities I don't know if I would have the same problems that I had this morning, and I didn't weigh my flour so I'm not sure if I'd also have issues with ED's recipe.

Other than having to add about 25% more flour than initially specified, the muffins I made needed more salt. Both recipes specify 1 tablespoon salt, but since the WSJ recipe uses about 25% more flour and about 30% more liquid, clearly the WSJ recipe was deficient in salt.

That said, despite having to add significantly more flour, the muffins turned out great looking and pretty good tasting - they would have been perfect with more salt. But each batch of muffins took 20 minutes to cook on the griddle - I could only fit four at a time on the griddle, so it took an hour to cook all ten muffins. And they were huge - 5 inches across and 1.25 inches high. Next time, if there is a next time, I'll make the dough into probably 15 or so muffins. Or I'll just follow E. David's recipe to make fewer.

In any event, DH didn't get his Eggs Benedict this morning. The muffins are going into the freezer for some later delicious brunch.

Here's a link to the WSJ article; sometimes the Journal removes online access to articles after a period of time, but as of this writing it is freely accessible.

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  1. What a saga, thanks for the report. Not sure I'll ever make English muffins but if I do, I'll go in with your lessons learned.

    1. This is a great illustration of why it pays to weigh your ingredients. I have the English edition of Elizabeth David's book, and she uses weights instead of volume to measure her ingredients. In her version you end up with a hydration of 89%. This is actually more of a batter than a dough, but very difficult to work with in any case. In the WSJ version the hydration--according to my calculation of 1 c flour = 125 g--is over 100%. No one can work with something like that. The high hydration is what gives you the open, spongy structure. If I were going to try the recipe, I'd probably take the hydration down to about 70%. Actually I did make them once years and years ago. I have no recollection of how they turned out.

      4 Replies
      1. re: bcc

        I have the New American edition, which includes both the original weight and volume measures for all recipes, plus volume measures for the US reader. But the liquids in both the "UK" ingredient list and the "US" ingredient list are volume measurements. I usually do weigh ingredients, especially when weights are given, but this time I didn't, and honestly, unless I scaled everything back and followed David's recipe rather than the WSJ recipe, it wouldn't have made a difference (anyway, there was no weight for the flour provided in the journal recipe).

        1. re: janniecooks

          In the original English edition she specifies "a scant 3/4 pint." She is, of course, referring to an Imperial pint. That edition has metric equivalents. In the equivalent recipe they refer to "a scant 420 grams of water," which doesn't make any sense at all. If you are giving the weight in grams, say bloody well how many grams you want!

          In any case, if the weights are in grams, or if you convert to grams, you can figure out in advance what the hydration is, and then you have a pretty good idea of what is facing you before you start.

        2. re: bcc

          I forgot to mention in my previous reply that your comment:

          "This is actually more of a better than a dough"

          is exactly what happened. Until I worked in the additional flour it wouldn't behave as a dough.

          How do you figure out the hydration level? How does one know what appropriate hydration levels are for any particular kind of yeast bread/dough?

          Anyway, thank for your thoughtful original response.

          1. re: janniecooks

            The hydration is the percentage of water to flour. If you take 1000 g of flour and 600 g of water, that's 60% hydration, which is a standard value for bread doughs, and is quite easy to work with. The higher the hydration, the lighter and airier the dough, but it's more difficult to handle. A hydration of 75% is good for no-knead bread. This gives a nice, airy structure, and the dough needs next to no handling.

        3. The English Muffin recipe I used directed you to pour the batter onto the griddle, not roll into a ball. This may be where the recipe went wrong, as opposed to the flour/water ratio being off. Also, if there is a next time...maybe grill what you need for breakfast and do the rest another day?

          To me "loosely packed" is how you measure flour as opposed to brown sugar which is generally backed into the measuring cup.

          1. I've made English muffins simply using my standard sourdough recipe, which is a lot less wet than what you were trying. And the texture is nicely spongy. I agree with bcc that a drier mix is fine, which is what you found, too.

            Actually, instead of worrying overmuch about exact measurements, I think you'll do well to experiment a bit and simply shoot for creating the wettest dough that you think you can work with.

            I'll add that, for flavor, I hope you'll try using a long rise, perhaps with reduced yeast, if need be.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Bada Bing

              Oh, and p.s. to janniecooks: I noticed you saying you were flouring your hands to keep wet dough from sticking to them. Oddly, it's more effective to drench your hands in water when working with sticky dough: gives you 5 or so seconds of non-stick hands. Same applies to wetted spoons, etc.

              1. re: Bada Bing

                My experience with the sorta-exact measurements from the journal recipe proves your point: don't worry about exact measurements!

                What I was pleased about is that even though don't bake much, my cook's intuition told me something was wrong here and using that intuition to fix it was the right thing. Next time I know how the dough should be at the start. I wonder if the taste and texture would have been any different if all the required flour had been added at the start, rather than after the rise?

                Anyway, I have been considering doing more baking so I will consider your recommendation for trying a longer rise. thanks!

              2. I use Mr. Thomas's recipe for everyday and that of Mr. Wolferman for special occasions. Never had a problem. ;-)

                1 Reply
                1. re: grampart

                  I'm thinking those are indeed the *perfect* recipes, though it was fun to make my own. I won't say I'll never do it again, though!