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lemon poppy seed mini-muffins: the look, the crunch

February 13, 2010

It all began with a Madeleine pan (and the trifle dish certainly didn’t help), but once I belonged to the circle of people who own amusingly specialized bakeware, it was a natural progression to mini-muffins.

Mini-muffins are about being small and perfect and irresistible. I needed a recipe to match. The small part was self-evident, but for perfect and irresistible I turned to lemon and poppy seeds. There’s something so satisfying about a lemon poppy seed muffin. A flawless balance of lemony freshness and buttery richness, sharp and mellow in the same small bite. Perfectly round black poppy seed specks lend designer chic: very put-together . . . minimalist geometric-abstract . . . no embellishment required. But the brilliance of lemon poppy seed muffins is not merely visual: most of all, they have a completely perfect crunch.

It’s the same crunch I find and love in millet bread, or when my teeth crush the tiny seeds in the jammy center of a fig. It’s a cousin to the satisfying, luxurious, salty pop of caviar, where each tiny explosion is its own event.

This is different from eating a handful of roasted almonds, crunchy through and through. It’s different from banana-nut bread, which has a muffled sort of crunch. Here, each bite is punctuated by sharp staccato notes—subtle, but precise. It’s a sensation as particular—though obviously more delicious—as my memory of sand in peanut butter sandwiches, from beach picnics with my cousins when I was young.

The recipe I adapted (minorly) from Bon Appetit doesn’t yield your densely speckled European-style poppy seed cake. Imagine a Madeleine with magical crunches. The recipe is so buttery-rich it really is like a muffin-shaped Madeleine, but the crisp citrus flavor and poppy seed crunch temper the richness. I quickly discovered it was the kind of treat people couldn’t help exclaiming about, and I do like that in a recipe.

One entreaty: use fresh poppy seeds! It’s hard to enjoy staccato notes when there’s a basso continuo of dust, and, sadly, that’s what old poppy seeds taste like.

Lemon poppy seed mini-muffins

2 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp coarse salt

¼ tsp baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

3 T fresh lemon juice

1 cup sugar

½ cup butter, softened

1 ½ – 2 T grated lemon peel

2 eggs

3 T poppy seeds

Preheat oven to 350°F and butter and flour muffin pans. Whisk flour, salt, and baking powder and soda in a bowl. Separately, whisk buttermilk and lemon juice. Beat sugar, butter and lemon peel in another bowl, then add eggs one at a time, beating until fluffy. Mix in dry ingredients and lemony buttermilk alternately. Mix ‘til just blended. Fold in poppy seeds, and spoon batter into muffin tin. Bake 22-24 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cool a few minutes before transferring to a rack. (Makes 3 dozen.)

For a quite different recipe (dense with “a zillion” little black seeds) and some wonderful observations, read Smitten Kitchen’s post on poppy seed lemon cake.

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