Recipe: Traditional English muffins
In honor of Manchester’s Sesquicentennial, we’re presenting an traditional, early American recipe with an unlikely name, English muffins. English muffins, which were just called muffins until close to the 20th century when they received the modifier “English” to distinguish them from standard muffins, were an early 19th Century American adaptation of the British crumpet.
Crumpets are cooked like a pancake on a griddle inside a specialized ring and not flipped, resulting in a round, thick, spongy yeast-risen bread full of open bubbles on one side that is cooked, then later toasted and eaten with butter or jam. In America, settlers often could only take absolute basic cooking equipment with them and while they lacked crumpet rings, they had something that their English counterparts across the sea did not have, corn meal.
Many English muffin recipes today rely on baking powder to make the air pockets inside; these will never result in the large, craggy pockets produced by yeast in traditional English muffins. Likewise, many modern recipes call for baking English muffins in the oven, instead of on the griddle, which is defiantly not traditional, as these were originally cooked on the hearth. Lastly, many modern recipes call for short rises but English muffins have a slight sourdough flavor and this flavor comes from the overnight rise and subsequent fall of the dough.
Note: To be even more traditional, use whole grain flour and cook in lard instead of butter!
Traditional English Muffins
4 cups flour
2 tsp yeast
2 tsp salt
1 cup cornmeal
Mix flour, yeast and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add water until you are able to stir it all together and no dry pockets remain (think very thick pancake batter). Cover with plastic wrap and leave it on the counter overnight. It should rise up to double in size and may deflate again.
The next morning it will be full of bubbles and almost but not quite pourable. Pour a cup of cornmeal in a medium sized bowl and set aside. Put a frying pan (cast iron preferably) on the stove on medium heat and melt a pat of butter in it, enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
Take a big spoonful of batter. It will be difficult because the batter will want to stick together. You may have to use your hands.
Drop this batter in one lump into a bowl of cornmeal. Cover the lump with cornmeal on all sides so you can pick it up without it being sticky (although it still won’t hold it’s shape well so you have to work quickly) and drop it onto a hot frying pan or griddle greased with melted butter. If you aren’t in a hurry and want your English muffins to be circular, cook one at a time, but if you don’t mind if they are oddly shaped, put as many as you can fit in your pan in at once. You may need to move them around while cooking to cook them evenly.
Cook on medium or low until they puff up and brown on the bottoms. Then using a spatula, flip them them over and let them cook on the other side. Cook until done all the way through. You may have to turn the burner down as low as it goes and let them cook for 1o min or so. You don’t want to burn them. The insides will be soft and may seem not quite done but shouldn’t be doughy. Set aside on a cooling rack to cool and cook the next batch.
Store cooled English muffins sealed in tupperware for up to a week. When you are ready to eat one, use a fork (or your fingers) and separate the top and the bottom halves. Toast as you would a bagel. Serve warm with butter.