Wednesday, February 23, 2011

sunshine muffins.

The weather has been a bit out of control this month. And right now, it is rather cold and dark once again in my little region of the world.

And also, life is hard.

Thus, I feel it is time for some baked goodness on this site.

We had that little blip of warmer weather, which was so lovely, and although I knew it wouldn't last, I felt sadder than expected when the bitter cold smacked me in the face this past Sunday afternoon, to be followed shortly by snow, and lots of it. But it is still February, after all. Those short days were just a gentle whisper reminding me that spring will come--remember? this is what it feels like--and all shall be well. And I enjoyed it while it lasted, wearing flats outdoors and going for a long run on Saturday morning outside! on dry sidewalks! in sunshine that gloriously tempered the returning cold. That made Sunday, when the storm came in full force, and the early weekday mornings that followed, when I struggled to dislodge my car from its curbside mound of snow and wondered what I would do if I couldn't get out, more bearable. (Note: bearable. Not awesome, but bearable.)

And regarding these cold temperatures, I am, for the record, attempting to keep things in perspective. In the wee hours one morning in early February, as I ran on the treadmill at the Y, the weather channel informed me that the temperature was hovering at two degrees below zero. Yeah. Cold. I was feeling all sorry for myself as I burrowed my hands in my mittens and my wet hair froze in the thirty-second walk from the doors of the gym to my car. But then, I learned that the morning had dawned in my sister and brother-in-law's current home of Renville, Minnesota with temperatures seventeen degrees below zero.


I realized that (1) I am a wimp and (2) I need to calm down and stop complaining.

So I'm working on that. But in the meantime, since I am still a wimp, I have found that baking does wonders for my soul during these cold months, and the oven warming my apartment doesn't hurt, either. Plus, the only things I've really wanted to eat this winter are soup and baked goods. I've been appeasing my body, making and eating a good deal of both.

I made these muffins whilst snowed in under sixteen inches of white during that crazy storm at the beginning of February. The night before the storm, my office decided it wouldn't open that next day, and I thought, Is that really necessary? I'm sure it won't be that bad. But when I awoke to impassable roads and a world buried deep in snow, I realized that yes, yes it was necessary. And then I made these muffins.

If you also find yourself cold, snowed in and/or generally in need of some sunshine, these muffins will make your life a bit brighter. Like those occasional days of sunshine and rising temperatures, they will remind you that spring is coming and all shall be well. They won't solve all of your problems--my cheering up that snowy day required a walk out in the actual sunshine, a bit of human interaction with the many neighbors I encountered unearthing cars and clearing sidewalks and that wonderful man in my life who traipsed through the snow to visit me--but they are certainly an excellent start.

I made a few changes to the original recipe, replacing the sugar with honey, half of the all-purpose flour with spelt, the currents with raisins and the lemon extract with a slightly greater amount of lemon juice. With the honey and spelt, I aimed for a bit more healthfulness; the raisins and lemon juice were what I happened to have on hand. (It was a blizzard, people.) The spelt added a lovely nuttiness, but I imagine the muffins would be a bit airier and delicate without. I've noted some of the changes below; you can do as you wish. Follow your heart.

I liked these little bursts of sunshine very much, particularly, in fact, once they had cooled completely, and I actually think they may have been even better the day after. They froze well also, to be defrosted for delightful midweek breakfasts.

To sunshine!
Citrus-Currant Sunshine Muffins
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From my home to yours

1/2 cup sugar or honey
Zest from 1 orange
2 cups all-purpose flour or 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 cup spelt flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup orange juice (reduce amount slightly if you used honey rather than sugar)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon pure lemon extract (if you make a substitution here, check the web for advice from folks who know more about such things than I)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
3/4 cup dried currants or raisins

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter the twelve molds of a muffin pan of regular size. Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet (to be honest, I'm not yet convinced that this makes a significant difference, but since it's a little tiny step that creates no additional mess, I've been doing it anyway lately).

In a large bowl, rub the sugar and orange zest together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and the orange zest fragrant (if you use honey and/or purchased rather than fresh zest, make do with vigorous mixing. Also, if you use honey, include it with the wet ingredients rather than the dry). Whisk in the flour(s), baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In another bowl, whisk together the orange and lemon juices, lemon extract, melted butter and eggs.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and mix gently but quickly until blended. Lumps are fine and preferable to overmixing. Fold in the currants or raisins. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.

Bake for about 20 minutes (watch closely if you used honey rather than sugar; baked goods with honey tend to brown more quickly), or until the tops of the muffins are golden and a knife inserted in the center of one comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for about 5 minutes before removing the muffins from the molds.

Eat warm or at room temperature, top with jam or butter, pair with coffee, think of sunshine.

Yield: 12 muffins

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

be gentle with yourself.

I have these two bruises on my left thigh, tinted various and unpleasant shades of darkness, and I have no idea where they came from. I assume I ran into something, or, more likely, two somethings, which is not all that shocking, although I have no recollection of it.

But watching them turn a sickly shade of green, I thought, you ought to be a bit more gentle with yourself.

One morning last week, I attempted a new and, I hoped, shorter route to work from the Y downtown. I embarked on my journey in high spirits, poised to reach my office in a timely manner with my run for the day finished, a much-diminished feeling of wrath toward running around the indoor track acquired and my mittened hand holding warm coffee from the little kiosk at the Y (people! if you bring a mug, the coffee costs just fifty cents!). I had positivity in abundance, which, the previous week considered, was quite a feat. I got on the first highway of my new path going in the correct direction, patting myself on the back for knowing my city so well. (I recognize that this was, in actuality, a teeny tiny accomplishment at best. But I take happiness on winter mornings pretty much regardless of its source.)

However. My positivity was short-lived.

I will abstain from relaying the details, but in the end, I learned that 96 and I-96 are not, in fact, the same highway and that simply "going west" will not necessarily take a person from downtown Grand Rapids to Grandville. Terrifying little flakes fell persistently from the sky, making the highway slick and treacherous. First, I thought I might die. Then, I just felt like an idiot.

I arrived very late to work.

I apologized to the appropriate parties, who were nowhere near as upset as I had assumed they would be (perhaps because they don't have to pay me when I'm not there) and made my way to the safety of my desk. Throughout the next several hours, I mentally reviewed my laundry list of latest offenses: I have a very long to do list at work; surely I could be accomplishing things more quickly, and probably better. Though I think I handled a recent professional situation as well as could be expected, I'm afraid I didn't, or, at the least, that I left a destructive wake behind me. I recently overslept, late that day as well. Running hasn't felt great lately. The image in the mirror is not meeting my demands for perfection. I keep having emotional breakdowns, imposing my weepy self on the poor folks who care about me...

And on and on I went, crafting an ugly composite of every flaw, shortcoming, mistake and bad morning...until I felt a gentle whisper rising above my inner tirade:

Be gentle with yourself.

I paused. Are you sure, God? I questioned.

Honestly. Of course he's sure.

But behind that question, I realize, lies another one, a deeper one: Do I really deserve gentleness?

Most often, instead of seeing the very best of who we are or, even better, a healthy, realistic mixture of the good and bad, we see only the worst, and we think that's appropriate, because we don't believe we deserve gentleness anyway. And, frankly, that much is true: we don't deserve gentleness. But it's given to us, and who are we to argue with God?

It is one thing to be humble, to work to strengthen our weak areas, to improve and grow and strive to be more loving and more like Christ. But it is quite another to truly dislike ourselves, image-bearers and much-loved children of God. It is quite another to refuse the gifts of gentleness, grace and mercy.

I recently spoke with a woman who goes to my church and who I've long admired. We were talking about life and balance, how we get into a really great rhythm for, oh, six seconds, and then it all falls apart once again. Even though she has, you know, a husband and small children and probably many more commitments than I and also great hair and excellent style, she seemed much less fazed by this aspect of life than I have been feeling--though she had clearly experienced it, too. She shared the simple words that God has given her:

This is enough.

What we can give, what we can do, the coffee dates we have time for, the errands we check off our lists, the work we accomplish in a day...whatever it might be, it is enough.

That seems like gentleness to me. That seems right.

And so, when I do something less than brilliant, when I'm confronted with my not-favorite aspect of myself, when I gaze at a long to do list, when I fail...I will try to be gentle. I urge you to do the same. Perhaps we'll impose less bruises on our fragile souls.