"Mad about Muffins," Dot Vartan

Pros: Fantastic muffins!
Cons: Cutesy layout and chapters; lack of explanation when things won’t turn out as you expect
Rating: 4 out of 5

First posted 10/19/2000

Here I am, back again with another muffin book review. Who would have guessed that a few months ago I thought I didn’t like muffins? “Mad about Muffins” by Dot Vartan is a fine competitor in the world of muffin cookbooks. Maybe not quite up there with “The Muffin Lady,” but close. I couldn’t stop at just one or two muffin cookbooks, though; I crave variety. And other than Gillespie’s so-so “1001 Muffins,” “Mad about Muffins” is one of the most varied muffin recipe collections I’ve seen. Not just varied flavors, but varied textures, varied techniques. In fact, one of the things I find odd about this cookbook is the lack of a consistent technique. Most muffin cookbooks seem to find a good ratio of things like flour, eggs, butter, baking powder, and so on, and stick with it. This one doesn’t. It’s all over the map. Some recipes use shortening. Some use melted butter. Some use softened butter. Some use less butter. Some use more butter. And that’s just one ingredient.

I’m having trouble figuring out whether this is a plus or a minus. I think overall it’s a plus; each muffin recipe is a new experience. Each has its own unique texture and flavor. On the other hand, it also means that quality isn’t always consistent – each recipe had to be individually worked out and perfected. (This is one advantage to the standardized muffin recipe; once you’ve gotten it right, you only have to make minor changes when you add different ingredients.)

The quality is good enough, however. And although it really disturbed me the first time I made a truly liquid muffin batter (I’ve never seen a muffin batter before that didn’t have some solidity to it), I wouldn’t give up the variety.

Layout and Miscellanea

The layout is cutesy. If you’ve read my previous reviews you’ll know I’m not so fond of cookbooks like this. There are cute little pictures of gingerbread men and flowered vases and stuff. The recipes are entirely in italics (why? Is there any good reason for it?), and there are cute little leaves marking the after-recipe notes. I’m sorry, but this book is going to get four stars instead of five on general principle because of this (oh, okay, I do have a couple of other minor complaints that follow). Most of the cookbooks I’ve seen that have layouts like this have had some sort of quality problems, so it immediately put me off.

At least the lists of ingredients are well-separated from the instructions, and the instructions are fairly short and easy. We did find that the recipes usually make more muffins than they said they would, even though we finally bought a normal-sized muffin tin (our last one was slightly undersized).

One other complaint, actually, now that I think of it. These recipes could use a few words on how they’re supposed to come out. Unusually thin batters have no words of warning, so if you aren’t used to them you’re left wondering if you should add more flour. The Yogurt Cinnamon Muffins come out not-too-sweet and rather biscuit-like – they’re yummy, but it would have been nice to know what they’d be like before we tasted them (tastes that don’t match what you’re expecting usually evoke an unhappy reaction, even if they’re good tastes). Their batter is also unusually thick – which left us wondering if we should add more yogurt. A brief sentence is all it would take to alleviate this problem, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t done.

The Recipes

The Bacon Brown Sugar Muffins are the first ones we made. They’re breakfast-in-a-muffin: bacon, maple syrup, oats, buttermilk. They’re oddly light and airy, and the oats give them a strange chewy texture. But oh, they’re so good! They really do taste like pancakes with syrup and bacon; I’ll never get over that. A friend of ours tried one and immediately had to have the recipe. He bought muffin tins just so he could make this recipe.

The Plum Muffins are another favorite, with slices of plum in the middle of cinnamon-flavored muffins, cinnamon-sugar scattered overtop. This one recipe, however, has more butter than most of the others. If you’re watching your weight or cholesterol, substitute fruit puree for half of the butter. (You could use applesauce. We bought an extra plum, sauteed it until soft, and pureed that. The muffins came out wonderfully.)

That’s just the beginning.

The first chapter, “Everyone’s Favorites,” includes muffins like Cinnamon, Blueberry, Sweet Corn, and Pumpkin. Chapter 2, “Garden Variety,” includes Butternut Squash, Parsley Potato, and Sweet Potato. Chapter 3, “Fruit Market Muffins,” includes Apple Squash, Banana Mandarin, Cherry Lemon, Ginger Pumpkin, and New England Banana. (I live for fruit muffins!) Chapter 4, “Seasonal Fruits,” includes Blueberry Orange, Nectarine Blueberry, Fresh Raspberry, and Raspberry Lemon.

“Those with Nuts” includes Macadamia, Peanut, Chunky Pecan, and Chunky Granola. In “Breakfast in a Muffin” you’ll find Oatmeal Applesauce, Orange Oat Bran, and Ham & Cheese.

“For Chocolate Lovers” includes Chocolate Caramel, Mint Chocolate Chip, and Peanut Butter Chocolate. Yum! “Variations on a Cake” gives us Apple Cheesecake, Lemon Shortbread, Black Forest, and Lemon Coconut, among others. “For the Little Ones” includes Apple Caramel and Gingerbread. (Since when do you have to be a kid to want gingerbread muffins?) “Adult Accoutrements” – uh, that’s mostly alcohol-containing muffins if you haven’t figured it out yet (and since when does “adult” inherently mean alcohol? I’m getting catty here, sorry) – includes Tipsy Apple, Garlic Corn, Wine & Cheese, and Rice Pudding. “Around the World” includes Ginger, Kiwi Mango, Key Lime, Nutmeg, Mango, Mexican Corn, Parmesan Tomato, Sausage, and Taco.

I find the cutesy layout annoying. Maybe you won’t. Regardless, the muffins are worth it; they’re yummy, delicious, and every other adjective I can think of. Just be ready to be confused by weird muffin batters with no explanation.

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