Wednesday, December 1, 2010

ingredient: WALNUTS

It’s the end of the walnut harvest! Though readily available year round, walnuts are at their culinary and nutritional peak in the late fall/early winter. I’ll admit that just a few years ago this information would have been low on my list of reasons why I look forward to December; probably somewhere above the Union Square Holiday Market (It’s always the same vendors! Who buys candles as presents anymore?) and definitely below latkas.

But I’ve had a change of heart about nuts, and walnuts in particular. I used to think they were too hard and a bit bitter and I didn’t like how they were prone to popping up and ruining the smooth texture of my cookies and brownies. Now I appreciate their crunchy texture and their bittersweet, fatty taste. I’m sure my change in tastes was just one of those things, though I’d like to believe it was my body wanting to do itself a solid.

You see, it’s not just me who has had a change of heart about walnuts; it’s the medical community. There was a point when nuts were associated with bad, artery-clogging, death-inducing fat. Well it turns out that eating a moderate amount of walnuts will actually help you lose weight, especially around the middle. Eating walnuts also helps you lower your bad cholesterol. Oops.

That’s not all. I’m sure at some point you’ve looked down a walnut in its shell and thought, this looks like a little brain! Well it turns out that walnuts not only look like brains, they’re good for your brain. Our brains our made up of 60% structural fat and walnuts are very high in omega three fats, so when we eat walnuts they help our brain maximize its functions. Moreover, studies have linked high levels of omega three fat consumption (like brainy looking walnuts) with decreased rates of depression. What a happy coincidence!

I don’t know if The Giving Tree was about a walnut, but it should have been. There are so many uses for walnuts. Walnut trees are glories in themselves; big, broad leafed beauties that have been planted since antiquity. The Romans believed that Dionysus turned his dead lover into a walnut tree. How’s that for romantic? Of course, if Dionysus wanted to get really creepy, he’d have made his lover into a chair: the wood of the walnut tree makes beautiful furniture. Or he’d have used her for walnut oil, which is the delicious, nutty byproduct of pressing walnuts. Walnut oil is expensive so I wouldn’t recommend it as a daily replacement for olive oil, but it’s a great finishing touch to soups and salads. Personally, my favorite use for walnuts is walnut pesto, an easy salad of sliced pears, goat cheese and toasted walnuts, or date-walnut bread with cream cheese (old school NYC style). And don't forget about nocino, otherwise known as liqueur de noix, otherwise known as walnut liqueur. The Italians and the French both enjoy this after dinner drink, as do I, especially when paired with espresso or poured over vanilla ice cream. But maybe you're already a walnut connoisseur and you're thinking that walnuts in salads is simply passe. In that case, I give you...

Baklava Muffins
Adapted from How to be a Domestic Goddess

The decision to make these muffins came from a confluence of factors. First, it was monsooning here in New York. And when it pours, I bake. Second, I had plans to meet my friend Ajay, with whom I have a longstanding plan to go to a restaurant on east 52nd street that has twelve types of baklava. It turns out we went for tacos instead. Still, I thought it would be nice to honor our future commitment by bringing him some baklava.

And then I remembered seeing this slightly odd recipe in a Nigella Lawson cookbook for baklava muffins. I’ve always wanted to try them for the sheer novelty factor, but it made perfect sense to make them now because Ajay loves muffins.
Loves them. I’m not huge on muffins myself, but I respect anyone with a passion.

In fact, when we were roomies in Brooklyn, Ajay and I would often walk over to Blue Sky Bakery
because they have exceptionally good muffins (very airy, lots of fruit) and what I think is the best coffee in Park Slope. Our symbiosis continues; he loves muffins, I love honey baklava. With these gooey crunchy muffins we both win. Lastly, I am always hounding Ajay that’s he’s not eating enough, and now I can make sure that at least for a few days he has breakfast by making him food that he’s compelled to eat. Victory is mine.

These muffins may put the crazy in crazy good, but that’s fine with me. Each muffin is stuffed with a walnut-sugar-cinnamon-butter mixture—which is honestly delicious on its own— and to bite down on the honey laden muffin and find a sweet, gooey, nutty filling is blissful. In this way the walnuts are the key ingredient because they provide the all-important crunch which links the muffins texturally to real baklava. Because it's the best part, next time (and in the following recipe)I will actually double the amount of walnut mixture Nigella calls for. This may be the only time in history that I will feel that one of her recipes needs
more sugar or butter. But if I’m making a baklava muffin, I’m making a baklava muffin, you know what I’m saying?

makes 12 muffins


for filling/topping:
1 cup chopped walnuts
2/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter, melted

for muffins:
1 cup plus 7 tbsp flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 cup plus 2 tbsp buttermilk
1/2 cup or so of honey

muffin tin and muffin wrappers


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

In a medium bowl, mix together the ingredients for the filling. Set aside and try not to eat.

In large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar. In a seperate, small bowl whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and butter.

Slowly incorporate the buttermilk mixture into the flour. Lumps are OK! Just mix until incorporated.

Fill each muffin cup 1/3 of the way with the batter. Add a tablespoon or so of filling, then fill the cup (until 2/3 full) with batter.Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with the remaining filling.

Bake the muffins for fifteen minutes, or until golden brown. Put them on a rack to cool. While they're still hot, drizzle them with honey.

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