It's breakfast time. Do you know where your muffin tin is?

You can do anything with muffins," says Esther Brody of Calgary, Alberta, author of "250 Best Muffin "Recipes" ($17.95) and the just-published "Another 250 Best Muffin Recipes" ($18.95). "They can be sweet, rich, and gooey, like chocolate muffins." Or, packed with oats, bran, and fruit, they're ideal for those looking for a more nutritious nibble.

A muffin is the original fast-food breakfast. Hand them, warm from the oven, to family members as they head out the door in the morning. Or bake a batch on the weekend, pop them into the freezer, and pull them out as needed.

But don't limit them to the beginning of the day, says Ms. Brody, who suggests pairing her substantial Salmon Lunch Muffins with a bowl of soup for a stick-to-the-ribs meal.

As popular as muffins are, "People are waking up to the fact that the ones they buy in stores are full of fat, and they don't taste the same as homemade," she said in a phone interview earlier this week.

That's why she recommends baking them yourself.

One of the nicest things about making muffins is that it's so easy anyone can do it. Even the most casual cook is likely to have the simple equipment and ingredients on hand, and you don't need an electric mixer. In fact, Brody recommends not using one.

Inexperienced bakers "treat muffin batter like cake batter and really beat it," she says. That's a big mistake, which causes muffins to have a tough, coarse texture.

"Just mix with a spoon until everything is combined and the dry ingredients are moistened," she advises. "I use a fold-in motion, like I'm folding egg whites into a batter."

Don't worry if there are lumps - they disappear during baking.

Muffins' appeal is almost universal, Brody found when she made a living baking them. They're quick - 30 minutes start to finish - and delicious. "Everyone loves muffins," she says.

Muffin tips and techniques

* Remove butter or shortening from the refrigerator an hour before mixing.

*r Adjust oven racks so muffins can bake in the middle of the oven.

* Preheat oven to the temperature recom-mended in the recipe. If the oven's too cool, the muffins won't rise well and will stay flat.

* While you can grease muffin cups or spray them with a nonstick spray, Brody prefers to line the tins with paper baking cups.

* Spoon batter into the cups so they're two-thirds to three-fourths full. Pour water into any cups that don't have batter to protect the tin from heat damage and to add moisture to the oven, which ensures even baking.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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