About a year ago, at about 3:30 in the afternoon, two of my sixth-grade son's friends showed up at my door holding what appeared to be a black velvet riding hat for an American Girl doll. “Hi, Peg,” said Johnny. “We were walking by your house and found this on your lawn. Is it yours?” Considering the fact it was obviously way too small for my head and there are no girls in my home who might own a horse-riding doll, I was a little perplexed by the question. I thanked them for their concern and even balanced the little hat on my head to show them why it wasn’t mine. I asked them how their first year in middle school was going and figured they’d be on their way. But Johnny and his pal stayed put, swaying from foot to foot and staring down at their feet as middle school boys tend to do.
They couldn’t have been looking for my older son—his bus wouldn’t get him home for another hour yet. They didn’t want my little one—I mean, he’s cute and entertaining, but he was 8. And then Johnny spoke up. “You know, I really liked those pumpkin muffins you had on the kitchen counter when I was over Saturday. Do you have any left?”
For a second there, I stepped out of my body and swore I was staring down at Mrs. C from Happy Days chatting with Potsie and Ralph Malf. I mean, the neighborhood boys are coming around to taste my wares? Could The Fonz be far behind? What’s even scarier is that, after telling Johnny that the muffins had long since been polished off, I immediately offered to bake another batch and have fresh muffins waiting for him if he came around at the same time the following day. “You see,” said Johnny. “I told you she’d do it.” They tromped off and eagerly returned for their muffins 24 hours later.
When I shared this little episode with DH, he nearly blew his lemonade out of his nose he was laughing so hard. He couldn’t believe what a sucker I was and how goofy I am that I actually seemed delighted by the whole caper. But I was. I know it’s totally stupid and anachronistic, and I don’t care. Just like I don’t care about the fact that the single most used garment in my wardrobe is a faded yellow apron. Do I care that it makes me look like a domesticated she-creature? Bah. I think I wear an apron just to put that issue out there. It says “Go ahead! Make your assumptions! Decide that the woman whom you are looking at likes to cook! And she cooks a lot!” Actually, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. And I think women are losing the battle if we avoid doing things like cooking simply because we are afraid we’ll turn into June Cleever. I’m as comfortable in my kitchen as I am at the computer. I’m no less proud of my culinary accomplishments than I am of what I’ve written during my career. I love the fact that after a near fruitless, shapeless, and open-ended day spent producing maybe two sentences, I can come down into my kitchen and create something wonderful simply by following directions. I treasure the fact that I can wake up early on Saturday mornings, whip up an apple cake, and rouse my family into the day with the fragrance of cinnamon and browned butter. I relish the idea that my two sons love to cook with me as much as they love to eat with me. And that—when my family is driving me insane or I am so bitchy I’m downright scary—the simple act of making a meal shows them I love them.
So, that's why I plan to share many of my favorite recipes with you in this blog. And I give you my word that these won't be random, risky formulations I'm throwing out at you just to fill a blog page. What you are getting are road-tested, just-can't-fail dishes and desserts that I've cooked up countless countless countless times in my kitchen and served to a staggering and varied array of hungry souls.
So, I know you must be curious about those muffins Johnny loved so much. They truly are unspeakably moist and delicious. My kids love them. Their teachers love them. My neighbors love them. Complete strangers love them. And, yes, I--who hate pumpkin pie and just about everything gourd-related--love them to pieces, too.
"I Love Autumn Pumpkin Muffins"
(I know I should have saved these for next Fall, but tuff)
1 ½ cups lightly packed light brown sugar
1 ½ cups white granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 15-ounce can solid pack pumpkin
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup raisins, optional (if hard, soak in warm water, drain and pat dry)
Turbinado Sugar as needed (sold as Sugar in the Raw, nice but optional)
Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour 2 muffin tins that hold 12 muffins each. (I use Pam for Baking, which does the job of buttering/flouring in a couple of squirts. I urge you to follow suit. I also use oversize muffin tins that hold six muffins each. There's something so wonderful about sticking your face into a huge fragrant pumpkin muffin.)
Beat sugars and oil in large bowl to blend. Mix in eggs and pumpkin. Whisk together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, and baking powder into another large bowl. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions. Mix in raisins, if using.
Generously fill muffin tins almost to the top. Fill as many as the batter will allow. Sprinkle the tops of each with a little bit of Turbinado Sugar;. This coarse sugar (commonly sold as "Sugar in the Raw") gives these—and all muffins—a fantastic crunchy top. Not a must, though. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 25-35 minutes (this isn’t exact, but start checking at about 25 minutes). Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Using a sharp knife, cut around the edge of the muffins. Turn onto racks and cool completely. Invite neighborhood boys over for a party.