November 8, 2013

Recipe: Spiced Pear Muffins with Black Pepper & Ginger

Growing up in Michigan, each Fall involved a family trip to our local apple orchard. We'd drive out to the country for an afternoon of apple gathering, freshly-pressed cider, and hot-from-the-fryer pumpkin and apple donuts. It was a tradition that I looked forward to immensely. Then I moved to Washington. Despite producing more than half of the apples in the United States, Washington has surprisingly few "u-pick" orchards. After two years of orchard-less autumns, I was jonesing hard for some apple-picking action. It seems fitting, then, that Jones Creek Farms came to the rescue.

Jones Creek Farms is an hour and a half drive north from Seattle, and worth every minute. What it lacks in fresh donuts, it makes up in its epic groves of nearly 100 varieties of apples and pears. I was familiar with Jones Creek Farms from their stands at the Broadway and University District Farmers' Markets in Seattle, so when I found out they offered "u-pick" in September and October, I called up my friend (and fellow Michigander) Alyssa and made plans to orchard it up. We went in late October, and while many of the trees had been picked clean, we were able to find plenty of late harvest apples and pears. Daniel and I picked over 15 pounds of apples and pears, including Calville Blanc D'Hiver apples, Aerlies apples, Winesap apples, Conference pears, and Bosc pears.

Alyssa with her husband, Brian, and baby, Leah; Me and Daniel

Looking back, it's pretty clear that I was tripping on my two-years-in-the-making orchard high, because 15 pounds of fruit is A LOT of fruit for a household of two. Daniel, level-headed as always, kept saying "Honey, I think we have enough….", but I was too excited to listen to his totally-accurate estimation of our bounty. The amount of fruit we'd picked didn't really sink in until we got home and I saw the mountains of fruit in context. The same fifteen pounds of fruit that appears diminutive on a 34-acre farm is actually MASSIVE in a small craftsman kitchen. Oops.

Me, before realizing I've picked far too many apples

Needless to say, I'll be cooking (and baking) a lot of apple and pear-centric recipes over the next few weeks. Today's recipe - Spiced Pear Muffins with Black Pepper & Ginger - used the first round of perfectly ripe Conference pears, though you could use any variety of pear you have on hand. The delicate flavor of pears can be a bit challenging to highlight in a recipe, as their quiet "pear-ness" is easily drowned out by other flavors. These muffins are nicely balanced, with floral black pepper, freshly-grated ginger, allspice, and nutmeg providing a warm, spice-cake-y background for jammy pockets of sweet pear.

Don't let the black pepper freak you out - its pleasant, gentle heat and heady aroma are absolutely at home in autumnal baked goods. I was inspired by old-school gingerbread recipes, which often called for black pepper in addition to the requisite ginger. One last note - I'm really happy with the texture of these 100% whole wheat muffins. They have a beautiful, moist crumb and are surprisingly light (the ultimate whole grain baking victory!).

Spiced Pear Muffins with Black Pepper & Ginger
makes 12 muffins

1 1/2 cups chopped pears, cored and peeled before chopping (2 or 3 pears, ripe but firm)
1 cup plain non-dairy milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper (freshly ground is important)
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 cup natural cane sugar, plus additional 1 tablespoon for sprinkling muffin tops
1/3 cup neutral oil (I used rice bran oil, but canola, grapeseed, or the like will work)
2 tablespoons finely grated/microplaned fresh ginger (a generous 2 inch piece)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.  Lightly grease a muffin pan and set aside.  In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine the nondairy milk and vinegar and set aside to sour. 

In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and salt.  In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, soured milk, ginger, and vanilla until sugar has mostly dissolved, about 1 minute.  Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and stir briefly until the batter just comes together.  Gently fold in the chopped pears, being careful not to over-mix. 

Spoon the batter into the muffin pan, sprinkle the tops with remaining tablespoon of sugar, and bake for 20 minutes or until a knife placed in a muffin's center comes out clean. Be careful not to overbake!  Let muffins rest for 5 minutes in the pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool.

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