Unlike David Loftus, who was in the year above me at Chelsea School of Art in the mid-80s and is now Jamie Oliver’s go-to guy, I am no food photographer. But I’m quite proud of the above snap of this weekend’s experimental Lemon and Grape Muffins. I’d love to say I “pimped” the recipe in Linda Collister’s Great British Bake Off: Learn To Bake book (with foreword by Mary Berry), but all I did was replace 200g of blueberries with 200g of grapes. This seems to have been a controversial move within the home baking community. I threw out a call for advice via Twitter, and @-ed in @BritishBakeOff for luck, asking if I could use grapes for blueberries in muffins. (I’ve only ever made muffins once before, without a dedicated muffin tray, and they came out like muffiny pancakes: lovely, but not muffins. I was keen to use my new tray.)
A few decided to greet my sincere query with withering responses along the lines of, “This is what bakers call ‘raisin muffins'”, which were atypically unhelpful and snidey, two qualities I do not associate with Twitter’s bake-iverse. Most people kind of said, “Hell, why not?”; one supplied a link to a British Heart Foundation recipe in which grapes were the number one choice; others cautioned against the grapes sinking the muffin (I had always planned to cut the grapes up); and Ali, current contestant on The Great British Bake Off, wished me well and advised me to peel the grapes. (Currant contestant, more like.)
Home bakers are, on the whole, nice. This is my nuanced conclusion. (On the wholemeal, more like.)
I peeled the grapes. It was a fiddly, but worth it. I then quartered them and threw them in at the point where the blueberries would be thrown in. I enjoy baking muffins and cakes, I find: the arm-breaking creaming of the butter and sugar (and lemon rind), and the follow-up workout with the beaten egg, adding a gloopy spoonful at a time. The addition of lemon juice to the natural yoghurt. The ethereal dust of sieved flour and bicarb. I don’t use the Magimix when baking. I don’t know if this is martyrdom, but I like to feel like I have added the air myself, with my bare hands. It’s not a macho thing. And there is an element of laziness: can’t be bothered to clean the dishwasher-unsafe mixer parts.
It’s a thrill when you finally blob the mix into the paper cases using a succession of spoons. It’s even more of a thrill when you “discover” that you have just enough “spare” on the spatula for a good lick: the ultimate perk of the home baker. Recognise: these are only my second batch of muffins ever. Allow: I’m quite proud of them. Ali was right; peeling the grapes was worth the effort (I envisaged the horror of curly tomato skin in homemade soup). What you get is little, jelly-like bombs of grape flavour, not too sweet, not too sour, perfectly encased in the muffin mix. Unlike blueberries, there’s no attractive “bleeding” of purple, but it’s still a worthwhile experiment. Jamie’s all about pricing up portions on his disingenuous Money Saving Meals, and I started home baking in order to fend off any evil temptation to spend money on pre-made carbohydrate parcels in the Outside World. Shop-bought muffins, which are mostly air – industrially pumped factory air – cost a fortune. Mine – and I got 15 out of a recipe promising a dozen – cost pence.
I don’t have a team of “girls and boys” like Jamie does, to calculate exactly how many pence, but I do have a freezer drawer – if not the massive chest freezer Jamie assumes to be in every dream home – and I’ve already entombed 12 of my muffins in there, to be removed at a fixed rate of one a day for the next 12 days. That’s how to make these moreish morsels go further. And to save money. I laugh in the face of the expensive cakes and pastries on sale through the Peyton & Byrne concession at the British Library.
Yes, I Tweeted the above pics of my still-warm wares on Sunday. I can’t help it. It feels so right. And it never feels like showing off, merely sharing. Self-raising is the great leveller. And it’s sweet when bakers on the other end of social media type, “Save me one,” or “Send me one.” It’s enough that the request is made. No cake need actually change hands; we never need to meet, we Twitter-connected home cooks. It’s enough to know that others are creaming, beating and pricking with a cocktail stick for victory.
While I’m here, I feel moved to publish this spring and summer’s other baking highlights: the lemon drizzle cake of June 2; the trayless “pancake” muffins of July 20 (don’t inspect them for too long; they tasted super); and the flapjacks of 4 May.
It’s amazing what some flour, butter, eggs and sugar can do, along with the willpower to self-ration, as if there’s a war on (which there always is, somewhere). By the way, I have eaten one muffin today, and I ate one muffin yesterday. My evil plan to beat George Osborne is working. He’ll never take away our freedom to save money and – get set – bake!