A few years ago I was asked to judge a local apple cooking contest. The incredibly diverse recipes ranged from apple leather to apple pizza. But one recipe stood out from all the rest: muffins. The lightest apple muffins I had ever tasted, they boasted a deep sweet/tart flavor. The recipe won best in show, and when I asked the recipe’s creator about the nutty flavored streusel topping, she let me know she used browned butter.
Browned butter is nothing more than melted butter cooked until the milk solids turn a nutty brown color. This process takes a few minutes and a watchful eye to make sure the butter doesn’t burn. The roasty aroma might drive you wild.
Over the years I’ve riffed on this recipe, not creaming the butter with sugar as in the original recipe, and bumping up the browned butter taste. How? By including it in the batter. Cooled browned butter mixes easily into the liquid ingredients, giving the muffins that toasted butter flavor throughout, along with a trio of spices: cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. A tart apple works best, so I use Granny Smith. These big, gorgeous muffins are best when very fresh. They also freeze well and reheat beautifully in a moderate oven.
Spicy apple muffins with browned butter streusel topping
Makes 12 large muffins.
Make the browned butter first, so it’ll be ready to mix into the streusel topping and muffin batter.
6 ounces (1 ½ sticks) salted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar, light or dark
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons cooled browned butter
¾ cup low-fat or full-fat yogurt
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Remaining cooled browned butter (about ½ cup)
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour (8 ounces), spooned into the cups and leveled
¾ teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 ½ cups diced (¼-inch) tart apple (peeled and cored Granny Smith)
1. For the browned butter. You need to see the butter as it is turning brown, so don’t use a black or colored pan. Stainless steel works. Melt the butter in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan by its handle occasionally, until the butter has turned a nut brown and smells toasty. This takes several minutes. During browning the butter will foam at first and then subside. Watch very carefully to prevent burning. Remove the pan from the heat and let the butter cool to room temperature. When cool, stir any foam and browned butter bits on the pan bottom into the butter. The cooled butter will have a creamy consistency.
2. For the topping, in a small bowl stir together the flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Add 3 tablespoons of the cooled butter and combine well with a fork. Refrigerate. A cold topping is easy to crumble. Save the remaining browned butter at room temperature to mix into the muffin batter.
3. Adjust an oven rack to the lower middle level and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly coat a 12-cup standard muffin pan with cooking spray or line it with paper baking cups.
4. For the muffins, in a large bowl whisk together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, vanilla and remaining browned butter. In another medium bowl, whisk together thoroughly the flour, salt, baking soda, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients to the liquid and stir gently with a rubber spatula to make a thick batter. Fold in the diced apple.
5. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups. Cups will be full. Break up the cold topping with your fingertips and sprinkle onto the muffins. Bake 16 to 18 minutes, until the muffins are a rich golden-brown color, they spring back when gently pressed in the center, and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool the muffins in their cups for 5 to 10 minutes, then remove them to a wire rack to cool further. Serve the muffins warm or at room temperature, with butter if you like.