A muffin for every season

The breakfast table reflects the harvest from spring through fall – rhubarb, huckleberries, zucchini, even pumpkin go into quick breads.

You can tell what time of year it is at our house by the muffins we eat for breakfast. Thanks to the largess of gardening friends, our muffin season shadows the harvest calendar from spring through fall. And since I rarely refuse a gift from a garden or ignore a berry patch, I've had plenty of practice finding ways to satisfy my muffin mania with freshly picked fruits and vegetables.

This love affair with muffins is nothing new for me. Nor does it owe its existence strictly to my desire to use garden bounty or berries that I can walk out my door and pick till my fingers turn purple.

Yes, I'm a practical cook. But I have to confess I also have a weakness for these warm-from-the-oven quick breads that perfume my kitchen with tempting aromas and make such lovely gifts. For me, they represent the ideal food. Muffins taste great, are easy to whip up, and they store well.

What more could you ask for?

Ever since I can remember, muffins have held a place in my affections.

During childhood summers at the beach, I'd pad down to an oceanfront bakery in my bathrobe and slippers to buy a fresh muffin every morning. And throughout grade school and high school, no trip to Boston was complete without stopping at Jordan Marsh department store, where my mom always bought a dozen sugar-crowned blueberry muffins to take back with us on the train ride home.

When I had my own apartment, I discovered the joys of muffins created from a host of other ingredients. I experimented with coconut and carrots, oranges and cranberries, and mustard and cheddar, to name just a few of the combos I've become attached to over the years.

Now that I live in Montana, where home gardens abound, I'm the grateful recipient of all kinds of ingredients with muffin potential.

Late spring starts the annual cycle with rhubarb muffins. The recipe I rely on contains some whole wheat flour, which lends a refreshing nutty flavor to the streusel-topped treat.

Come midsummer, tangy huckleberries begin ripening in our part of the Rocky Mountains and pinch-hit admirably in my long-cherished blueberry muffin recipe. According to the friend who shared that treasure with me decades ago, it's supposed to be the recipe that made the bakery at Jordan Marsh so famous. I can't verify that it's authentic, but I can vouch for its universal appeal.

Late summer finds me with bags of zucchini that none of my neighbors can jettison fast enough. Fortunately, the zucchini adds just the right amount of moisture to an unusual chocolate-cinnamon muffin that offers no hint as to the secret ingredient. This perhaps tastes more like cake than a muffin, but that doesn't bother anyone.

Autumn for me is synonymous with home-grown pumpkins and winter squashes, which impart lush golden tones to one of the simplest muffins I make.

After my gardening friends cease harvesting and the berries disappear from our hillsides, you know winter has set in at our house because banana muffins then show up on my breakfast table.

As supermarket staples, bananas do an admirable job of seeing me through the winter until the next season's fresh rhubarb puts in an appearance and the delicious cycle starts all over again.

Blueberry Muffins

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 cup sugar, divided

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2-1/2 cups blueberries, divided (see note)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup milk, divided

Remove 1 tablespoon of sugar from the cup and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and gradually beat in the scant cup of sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each. Then stir in vanilla, baking powder, and salt. Mash 1/2 cup of the blueberries and stir into the batter. Fold 1 cup of the flour and 1/4 cup of the milk into the batter. Repeat with the remaining 1 cup of flour and 1/4 cup milk. Blend in remaining 2 cups of the blueberries.

Scoop batter into greased or paper-lined muffin tins. (If you like large muffins, fill the muffin cups almost to the top and grease the muffin pan surface between each cup.) Sprinkle tops with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar. (Don't omit this. It adds a nice crunch to the muffin crown and was a signature touch of Jordan Marsh.)

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin tests clean. Yields between 12 and 15 muffins. Let muffins cool in the pan before removing.

NOTE: Huckleberries, raspberries, or blackberries can be used in place of or in addition to blueberries in this recipe. But don't exceed the 2-1/2 cups total.

Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup butter, softened

1-3/4 cups sugar

2 cups grated raw zucchini (with skin is fine)

1 cup chopped walnuts

3/4 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and grease muffin tins generously with butter or line with paper muffin cups. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and cocoa, and set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the oil, eggs, vanilla, and buttermilk.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the oil mixture and blend well. Stir in zucchini, followed by the sifted dry ingredients.

Scoop the batter into prepared muffin tins and sprinkle walnuts over the tops. If desired, scatter chocolate chips over the tops, too.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the tops feel firm when gently pressed and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Makes about 2 dozen, depending on size.

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