Strawberry-Hazelnut Muffins

Muffins are one of my favorite quick breads to experiment with: they’re relatively low-maintenance, highly customizable, and are usually a crowd pleaser for breakfast, brunch, or even dessert. That being said, muffins can be extremely naughty — naughty in ways that make the diet-conscious person go months between episodes of muffin euphoria. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

A couple of years ago, after reading about the effects of too much refined sugars in the average American diet, I decided to see if I might do something about my own intake. Of course you’ve probably seen the headlines all over about high fructose corn syrup and its different forms popping up in all sorts of processed foods — foods that we don’t even perceive of as being sweet — and how this has affected the health of many people. But, the truth is, any refined sugars have a similar effect on your body.

Eating refined sugars is the equivalent of watching your favorite movie in fast forward or reading the Cliff’s Notes of your favorite book. You get the gist of it, but you end up missing a lot of the good stuff. Similarly, refined sugar enters your body in an extremely stripped down form and overwhelms your body’s means of digesting food and managing blood sugar — like doing 0 to 60 in a second. Unrefined sugars, in contrast, still have a lot of minerals and ruggedness about them. When you eat unrefined sugars, you not only give your digestive system some work to do, but you supply it with at least some of the chemical means of doing the work. Thus, instead of a sharp rise in blood sugar, it’s a more gradual curve.

Still, refined or unrefined, sugar is not to be toyed with. So, not only did I decide to make a shift toward unrefined sugars, I took steps to reduce my overall sugar intake. Naturally, this meant a move away from processed foods toward more homemade things. It also meant exploring the interesting world of unrefined sugars and led to lots of recipe tinkering.

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Here on my blog, if you see a recipe that calls for granulated sugar, for example, what I’m really using is “evaporated cane juice”. It looks just like granulated sugar except that it’s off-white and hasn’t gone through even half of the chemical processes that make granulated sugar WHITE (these same processes also make granulated sugar void of any taste but sweet). In contrast, evaporated cane juice has the added benefit of a slightly molasses taste and has all of those minerals still intact.

Today’s recipe not only uses up more of those strawberries we so recently picked, but it highlights one of my other favorite unrefined sugars: fruit sweetener. Fruit Sweetener is essentially fruit juice that has been reduced to a syrup. It’s about twice as sweet as granulated sugar, doesn’t impart a strong taste, and it doesn’t overwhelm your body’s digestive system or immediately send your blood sugar soaring.

We buy our fruit sweetener from Whole Foods or directly from Wax Orchards. But, when we can’t do that, we’ve been known to make our own. It’s a very simple process:

    1. Buy a can of frozen, unsweetened apple juice. (be sure it’s 100% juice… NO extra business)
    2. Bring the concentrate to a boil in a medium saucepan.
    3. Lower the heat slightly and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
    4. Allow to cool. Pour into a jar and keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Homemade fruit sweetener, I should warn you, does have more of a “fruit taste” than the store-bought kind. I find that the homemade variety works best in baking recipes where the flavor is mellowed by the cooking time. I once made a cream cheese frosting, for example, and the homemade fruit sweetener made it taste “tart”. It was not what I had in mind. In baked goods, however, fruit sweetener (store-bought or homemade) makes for a moist crumb and a subtle sweetness that boosts the rest of the flavors in the recipe rather than varnishing over them with a very sugary taste.

Strawberry-Hazelnut Muffins
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original

Serves 12

    1 cup all-purpose flour
    3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
    1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
    3/4 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    6 tablespoons fruit sweetener – (*or 3/4 cup of granulated sugar)
    2 large eggs
    1/2 cup low fat buttermilk
    1/4 cup butter – melted and cooled
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 1/4 cup coarsely chopped frozen strawberries – (unsweetened)

    Preheat oven to 375-degrees. Coat the bottom and sides of muffin cups with cooking spray.

    In a medium bowl, combine the flours, chopped hazelnuts, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. (*If using granulated sugar instead of fruit sweetener, add the granulated sugar to the flour mixture.)

    In a small bowl, whisk together the fruit sweetener and eggs. Slowly whisk in the buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla.

    Stir the butermilk mixture into the flour mixture; stirring just until moistened. Fold in the chopped strawberries.

    Divide the batter evenly between the cups of the prepared muffin pan (cups should be about two-thirds full). Bake at 375 for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the muffins have begun to come away from the sides of the cups.

    Cool in muffin pan for 5 minutes. Using a small spatula or butter knife, carefully go along the sides of the muffins to be sure the fruit is released from the pan (otherwise, muffins will stick to the pan when you turn the pan over). Invert the muffin pan and place the muffins on a wire rack to cool for another 5-10 minutes. Serve warm with a little butter or strawberry jam.

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In case you were wondering, these muffins are pretty impressive, nutritionally. Each muffin is only 161 calories, 3g of saturated fat (6g total fat), 7g of sugar, and even has 2g of fiber thanks to the whole wheat pastry flour. These are best when eaten on the same day they were baked, but — like most muffins — they freeze well if individually wrapped and will keep for 3 months. To thaw, just microwave for 30 seconds- 1 minute and they’ll be almost as good as fresh-baked. Since they’re so lightly sweet, they are great with a cup of coffee and some conversation.

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~ by Jason on July 8, 2010.

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