The kitchen counter at the Dougall Avenue house was long and narrow, a speckled beige Formica. The kitchen itself was typical of a late-eighties reno: the cream-and-brown up-and-down refrigerator (before they fell out of—then came back into—fashion) and glossy orange-cocoa tiles arranged in hopscotch pattern, which we would follow daily as we skipped the kitchen’s length, the tile left glossier by our socks.
I spent many years with a bum planted to that Formica. Mom was hands on with us girls. In the kitchen as her sous chefs. In the garden as her bean-snappers, one bean for the wicker basket, one bean for each hungry maw. In the bathtub, rendering soap crayons to nubs, two addicts with a pack-a-week habit who drew in technicolor on the tub’s porcelain surface (and each-other) the imaginings of childhood. In the basement, mom’s gallery installed with our art; caterpillars of egg cartons and origami swans and many a tempera paint masterpiece lining the walls. In the playroom, whose costume cupboard spilled with her distinctively patterned seventies wardrobe and highest heels; we’d become gypsies and fairies and mermaids as she ironed dad’s shirts.
Eleni and I were insulated within the castle walls of idyllic childhood because of mom; we didn’t see the bills to pay and the mouths to feed and the ‘round-the-clock terror of owning a small business, where so many livelihoods rested at the end of each tiny and momentous decision that came with being your own boss.
Mom’s quiet shelter. We were safe and we were loved and we made so many messes, messes that we cleaned up, because messes are for cleaning up. Mom instilled responsibility, even within her cocoon: a roster of rules and roles that we didn’t shirk. We made our beds. We wrote thank-you cards. We kissed dad goodbye every morning at 11 am, before bundling up for the walk to kindergarten, three abreast, hand-in-hand-in-hand. We ate dinner, whatever was put on the table, voraciously, as a family (no “kids’ meals” from this kitchen). We washed the dishes and toweled dry our messes.
I tend toward radical enthusiasm when it comes to the things and the people I love. “Everything is your favourite!” I’ve been chided, and it’s true. I have five dozen favourite dishes that I cooked with mom as a kid, each of them the best thing I ever ate, depending on the day and week and month and year. For a long time, this bothered me, that my best-ofs weren’t fewer, that those simple grade-school get-to-know-your-classmate surveys—favourite food, vacation, colour—would leave me white knuckled and in a heaving sweat. How could anyone possibly land on tacos, Disneyland, yellow? Maybe today, but ask me again tomorrow. I had a lot of not-sures and paragraph-long replies alike on those one-word answer questionnaires. Teachers urging me to pick a lane, already.
No matter. Being a radical enthusiast is a great way to be; everything is heightened and better for it. It’s fun to conjure delight and deep memory from tiny favourites that bring outsize joy. Favourite season? All of them. Favourite colour? The rainbow (plus black and white and grey and camel and ochre and the lift of the sky just after heavy, sudden rainfall, aglow as an opal). Favourite man in my life? My husband, and my dad, and my grandpa, and my other grandpa, and my best friend, and my nephew. Radically enthused about each and every and all.
I do have a favourite, where the humble muffin is concerned. Categorically and always, muffins are the best—personal-sized cakes, am I right?—and bran muffins are the best of all the muffins. From the time I was grasshopper-high seated on that speckled Formica, to the adult-onset Wednesday afternoons that sometimes bring with them an I-need-a-treat disposition. I trudge to the tuck shop for a Tim Horton’s bran muffin, always a smidgen dry and cardboard-like, housed in a rigid paper wrapper, delicious in spite of itself.
Mom loved making bran muffins with us girls; she still does with her grandson. A close third after lemon loaf and banana bread, bran muffins were the bronze medalist of baked goods in mom’s kitchen. She made hers from memory, so forgiving and tender like the lady who gently instructed. Into a bowl went bran, flour, eggs, oil, brown sugar, vanilla, buttermilk, golden raisins. Don’t over-mix. Fill the paper wrappers just level. Sit before the oven door like a puppy, face bathed in yellow light and with a watchful eye for those peaked, just burnished tops. Muffin tins with a patina painted by years of love, never quite clean enough despite a hot, soapy wash. Bran muffins, favourite to find in my paper sack lunch, tender and nutty and gently sweet, enhanced by pops of toothache-giving raisins.
I know these treats by heart and hand, but I’ve done my best to replicate them here in a recipe to follow. If you’re looking to radically enthuse about a muffin (or just take one quietly with your morning coffee), try these. They’re my favourite. I swear.
Lori’s Bran Muffins
As with any recipe, mom probably picked these up a long time ago in a church cookbook or from an aunt or some other happy kitchen, making them so often they eventually became muscle memory. Worry not, as the muffins are exceptionally forgiving if you need to substitute an ingredient—the sweetener or milk, for example. Use a sweet fruit (i.e., avoid sour fruit such as raw cranberries or rhubarb or plums) as the batter is barely sweet and benefits from pockets of sugar.
Makes 12 medium muffins; the recipe easily doubles or triples for batch baking
- 1 large egg
- 1 ⅓ cups buttermilk (or regular milk spiked with 1 tsp of vinegar and set aside to thicken)
- ⅓ cup neutral oil (I use canola)
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (or other aromatic, e.g., almond extract, lemon zest)
- 1 ½ cups wheat bran
- 1 cup flour (either all-purpose or whole wheat)
- 1.5 tsp baking soda
- 1.5 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp fine salt
- ½ cup chopped nuts (we like almonds or walnuts)
- 1 cup fresh fruit, chopped OR ½ cup dried fruit (we like raspberries, blueberries, apple, dried apricot, golden raisins, peach; whatever is ripe and available given the season!)
- coarse sugar, for sprinkling (if using fresh fruit)
Prepare your 12-muffin tin by greasing it or adding parchment liners. Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
In a small bowl, whisk: egg, buttermilk, oil, maple syrup and vanilla extract.
In a large bowl, whisk: wheat bran, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
Add wet ingredients to dry, folding gently and just barely to incorporate. The batter will seem really wet, but it sets up within a couple minutes as the bran absorbs the liquid. If using dried fruit and nuts, fold in now.
Into the prepared muffin tin, spoon a heaping tablespoon of batter in each hole. Top with a pile of chopped fruit (about 1 Tbsp) and sprinkle of coarse sugar (about 1/2 teaspoon). Cap with a bit more batter.
Bake on centre oven rack for about 15 minutes, testing for done-ness by inserting a toothpick in a non-fruit part of the muffin. If the toothpick comes out wet, bake in further two-minute increments until fully set but not dry.
Cool on a rack. These are great immediately, but also are well suited to tightly wrap in clingfilm and store in the fridge or freezer for later.