On the off chance that your holiday breakfast plan is not yet inscribed in stone; in case you aren’t already bound and determined to have a strata, or frittata, or sticky buns, or perhaps puffy pancakes or spoon bread; or maybe you’d like to just add some icing to your giant, decadent, multi-course holiday brunch cake; well then dear friends, may I venture a suggestion.
I actually feel a bit ashamed that I’ve been holding this recipe from you for so long. It’s a recipe that may, in fact, deserve a little shouting from the rooftops. And, it’s a recipe with a history, which means stories.
I didn’t know any of the stories when I first started baking the original version (this is a wholly different iteration, but we’ll get to that later), I just knew that I had the recipe copied down on an index card from my friend, and I had labeled it “breakfast puffs.”
That right there is a flag of whatever color you flag really wonderful things with. A) It’s from a dear friend and B) it’s called a puff. Two key points in the recipe’s favor.
I was lucky enough to grow up with a whole gaggle of best friends. My mother says we were trooping fairies. And now, though we’re grown and have scattered across the country, world even, I still consider them my best friends.
The recipe I had scribbled down is from one of them, who not only was a partner in all things related to tea parties, snow forts, terrible “figure skating” routines, puddle stomping, reading in the backyard, chasing leaves, climbing mountains and other adventures, we also lived together our senior year of college, which means we became partners in late night studying, stress-induced baking, and a near daily snack of hot chocolate drowned in whipped cream.
When she told me in no uncertain terms that these puffs, something that she had had at a brunch, were delicious and that I had to try making them, her words did not fall on deaf or unreceptive ears. And so I did.
Now, from what I can gather from other people who have shared stories with me, the original version of these puffs might be an old recipe at least from a Betty Crocker Home Ec textbook in the ’50s. Some people call them French breakfast puffs, or French breakfast Muffins, or French muffins (I have no idea what it is that earned them the French moniker), or simply breakfast puffs.
A couple of more recent friends, when I shared with them, said that their families had made something somewhat similar for the holidays. One said her dad, who had made breakfast for her every day, had made her muffins that these reminded her of and she had never seen them anywhere else.
I love this way recipes travel about, changing names, changing certain distinguishing features, but still echoing of their original form somehow.
For my own part, I’m a perennial noodler with recipes. I like flavor! And, subtlety is not my forte. As Joel says, “anything you make, it’s like you take the flavors and spices and crank the dial up to 11.” These puffs were no exception.
The original recipe, which I first tried a number of years ago were simple muffins, dipped in butter and rolled in cinnamon sugar. Pinch by pinch, I added a warm spice here and a piquant one there, finally a bit of fruity and bitter-sweet orange zest, until I had turned them into tender, rich, gently spiced little cakes. My most recent (I feel, ingenious) addition is finely chopped crystallized ginger, which practically melts into the batter as it bakes and leaves little bursts of gingery spice.
Then I tried browning the butter. It is very nearly always worth it to try browning the butter. Suddenly, there was a rich, nutty, mellow, caramel current, flowing lushly under the spices.
Being sure to use all room temperature ingredients made the crumb even more cakey and delicate, like the interior of a freshly baked cake donut, and it gave that eggshell thin crispy top that I always strive for in a muffin.
The bath in melted butter and dip in cinnamon sugar stayed. That is not something to be shrugged off. Heaven’s no! The melted butter seeps just barely into the outermost layer of the muffins, giving them an almost tempura-like feel, tasting of all the best parts of deep frying something but without the soggy heaviness. And, the cinnamon sugar makes a crunchy, spicy coating, like a donut hole. But so much better.
Like donuts, muffins, and so many other baked goods, these are infinitely better when still warm. And, because they’re a breeze to bake, after their roll about in the cinnamon sugar you should be just in time to rush them to the breakfast table. But, if you’re not, I know I wouldn’t sneeze at one that’s been reheated in the toaster oven, and I’ve been told they actually freeze quite well, and then reheat almost just like fresh.
So holiday breakfast plans, see if you can’t squeeze enough space for just one more little tray of goodies.
Spiced Cinnamon Sugar Breakfast Puffs (makes one dozen)
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- 1 pinch ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- 1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
- 1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
- 6 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- In a heavy bottomed pan, heat the 1/3 cup butter, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until browned and nutty smelling. Pour into a mixing bowl and allow to cool completely to room temperature.
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease and lightly flour a 12 cup muffin tin.
- Add the sugar and egg to the cooled butter. Beat with an electric mixer until all creamed together.
- In a separate little bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, spices, zest, and chopped crystallized ginger. Add the dry ingredients in increments to the butter-sugar mixture, alternating with the milk and beating well after each addition.
- Divide the batter evenly into the cups of the muffin tin. Pop into the oven and bake until golden brown and fragrant, about 20-25 minutes.
- While the puffs are puffing, put the melted butter in one shallow bowl and combine the sugar and cinnamon in another one. When the puffs come out of the oven, use a knife to gently pop them all out of the muffin tin.
- One by one, dip each puff in the melted butter (an ingenious tip from the ladies at Food52: if you don’t have what I call “mom hands” that can handle anything, and the puffs feel too hot to touch, you can spear each in the bottom with a fork and use that to then dunk the puff in the butter) – get it all over it – then roll it in the cinnamon sugar. Transfer it to some lovely, festive serving platter, and continue until you have rolled all of the puffs. Serve warm – they are by faaaaar the best when they are still warm – with coffee, and mimosas, and other goodies.