Muffin Mondays: Meghan’s Sweet Potato Bran Muffins

For this week’s Muffin Monday, I’m happy to introduce someone very special to me. Meet my cousin, friend, and fellow wordsmith, Meghan J. Ward, of Banff, Alberta. Megan is a freelancer writer on health and wellness, mountain culture, and outdoor sports.  She writes and reflects over at The Campsite and brings her spirited observations today to the topic of food.


I have always been a “dive in head first” kind of person. I rarely read directions and choose instead to figure things out as I go along. However, two things have made me think I might want to do otherwise: Baking and IKEA. After recently moving and putting together an army of IKEA furniture, I learned the hard way that taking apart a chest of drawers with that Star Trek looking wrench is much harder than doing it right the first time using the instructions. My baking exploits in the past have been slightly disastrous too, so today I challenged myself for this muffin post to actually follow a recipe.

This meant delving into the unknown corners of my grocery store here in Banff. Living in a National Park, I wondered if certain ingredients simply would not be available. I also wondered if I’d spend more than my university tuition buying the ingredients for my muffins at the ridiculously inflated prices of this tourist town.

I did.

I chose to use a muffin recipe from Eat, Shrink & Be Merry!by the Podleski sisters. Janet and Greta brought me through my university years and they could do it again. The recipe I chose, wittily titled A Bran New World, aptly described my venture into the unknowns of muffin making.

Soon after getting home with my loot of food, I realized this baking thing would still be improvised no matter how much I wanted to follow the directions. I didn’t have a mixing bowl big enough, and had to settle for using Tupperware and a giant wok instead. The sweet potato I had purchased was soft and mushy on one side, so I performed emergency surgery on it. I nearly blinded myself making orange zest. I had forgotten to buy allspice. I didn’t own a whisk or an apron. Turns out I really was just a wanna-be Muffin Maker.

I did some things just like the pros. I spilled muffin mix on my recipe book, which gave it the “well-used and well-loved” look even Martha Stewart would be proud of. I also remembered to preheat my oven (this is a big step for me!) OK, that’s about all that I did so professionally, but in the end, I didn’t miss a step, and those darn muffin cups looked so happy full of gooey, bran flakey, muffin mix!

As I placed the muffin pan in the oven, I recited my cooking mantra just for good measure, which goes like this: ‘Don’t burn them, don’t burn them, don’t burn them!’ I am notorious for burning things, usually because I am multi-tasking while I bake. Not today! Other than taking a few pics along the way, I stuck to baking until those muffins were in, and out of, the oven.

My new kitchen filled with the smell of a job well done. I didn’t have a toothpick to check if they were done cooking, though, so I had to leap forward in faith and take them out before I burned them into oblivion. My little colony of Bran Muffins were almost ready for the ultimate test: my mouth.

Was it worth my small fortune to make my batch of muffins? Absolutely. And while it’s already Winter in The Rockies, the sweet potato, dried currants, and cinnamon of this batch would also make it perfect for Fall. They warmed my happy soul, and warmed my new apartment with the love that only orange zest and cinnamon have to offer.

Now I know that if I can conquer A Bran New World, I can conquer anything.

A Bran New World

makes 12 regular muffins

1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potato (about 1 medium potato)

1 cup buttermilk (I substituted plain yogurt)

½ cup packed brown sugar

3 tbsp vegetable oil

2 eggs

2 tsp grated orange zest

4 cups Bran Flakes cereal

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup dried currants

½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts (I used pecans)

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp each ground nutmeg and ground allspice

  1. Preheat oven to 375˚ F. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together sweet potato, buttermilk, brown sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, and orange zest. Add Bran Flakes and mix well.
  3. In another large bowl, combine flour, currants, nuts, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and allspice. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix just until dry ingredients are moistened. Batter will be thick.
  4. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Bake for 17 or 18 minutes, or until muffins are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in center of muffin comes out clean. Remove muffins from pan and cool slightly on a wire rack. Serve warm.

from Eat, Shrink & Be Merry! Great-Tasting Food That Won’t Go from Your Lips to Your Hips!by Janet and Greta Podleski

Muffin Mondays: Mom’s Pumpkin Quinoa Muffins

This post begins a fall series on that best-loved of breakfast foods: the muffin. In all its varieties, the muffin captures special moments in the guise of the commonplace.

I am honored to present this inaugural guest post by my mother, Sheri Ward, whose solution to one of life’s transitions inspired the idea to devote my Mondays to muffins. I’ve invited some of my favorite bloggers and writers to share their most muffin-esque words and recipes, which I will dutifully post on Mondays throughout the coming weeks.

So if your mornings are lacking luster on these chilly days, check back often for new reasons to mix up a muffin or two.

Hello readers, this is Jen’s Mom writing. As I was thinking of how to begin my first (and hopefully not last!) guest post here on my daughter Jen’s food blog, I thought what better way to begin than this?

With the word “Mom” comes many things … gifts that have been lovingly passed down through generations of mothers before me, gifts that I have endeavored to pass on to my own children. For my love of cooking, and especially baking, comes from my own mother, and hers before that, and hers before that. It seems we all just can’t bake enough! It is almost a sacred thing to the women of our family: the dreaming and planning, then the creation of some warm and wondrous treat. And then of course the best part, the tasting — usually with a mug of freshly brewed coffee. We women have been known to curl up in bed with a favorite cookbook or food magazine, in search of another new recipe.

My husband Don and I recently embarked on a new stage of life: We are now “empty nesters” On the one hand it’s a lovely time of life, with a quieter household and a time of re-discovering each other. But after almost 30 years of baking and cooking for a family of 5, I found myself somewhat lost in this new chapter. Who would I bake for now? Yes, we both still enjoy fresh cookies, but a dozen muffins for two people? It was a real dilemma!

And then it came to me. I would start a muffin club with my Mom and sister Judi, also a recent empty nester. Every Monday morning we’d take turns baking a dozen muffins or scones, and deliver four of them to the others, keeping 4 for ourselves. And so, the “Monday Morning Marvelous Muffin Club” was born.

We are blessed to live within three miles of each other so this has made it somewhat easier. What a delightful treat is has been to open the door into my garage on Monday morning to find a basket of warm muffins waiting. We are all loving it.

Fall always draws me to the fragrant spiciness of all things pumpkin: pie, scones, and of course, muffins. And so it was that the first recipe I baked for our Monday Morning Muffin Club was Pumpkin Quinoa muffins, a new and healthy twist on what is no doubt a favorite with many of you. Quinoa, an ancient grain, is a comlete protein and gives these muffins a nice texture and a slightly nutty taste. The addition of pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, adds just the right amount of crunch.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, and that maybe I’ve inspired you to start your own muffin club with one or two close friends. Happy baking!

~Sheri Ward

Sheri and Jen

Pumpkin Quinoa Muffins

makes 12 large muffins

In a large bowl combine:

1 ½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp baking soda
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup raisins
¾ cup cooked and drained quinoa (best made the day before, the grains fluffed with a fork).

Combine in another bowl:

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree
¾ cup buttermilk or kefir
4 Tbsp melted butter
2 tsp vanilla extract


Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients until just incorporated. Spoon into muffin pan lined with paper liners or buttered. Sprinkle with a little cinnamon and sugar, and bake at 400 for 25 minutes (until nicely browned and passes the toothpick test). Let rest 5 min, then remove to a rack to cool.

Hi…I’m Jen’s Mom. As I was thinking of how to begin my first (and
hopefully not last!) guest post on my daughter Jen’s food blog,
freshcrackedpepper, I thought what better way to begin than this? For with
the word “Mom” comes many things….gifts that have been lovingly passed
down through generations of mothers before me, gifts that I have endeavored
to pass on to my own children. For my love of cooking, and especially
baking, comes from my own mother, and hers before that… and hers before
that. It seems we all just can’t bake enough! It is almost a sacred thing to
the women of our family…first the dreaming and planning, then the creation
of some warm and wondrous treat, and of course the best part…the
tasting…usually with a steaming mug of freshly brewed coffee. In our
family, we women have all been known to curl up in bed at night with a
favorite cookbook or new food magazine, in search of yet another new
recipe…we enjoy this more than most novels!My husband Don and I recently embarked on a new stage of life…we are now
“empty nesters”! While it is a lovely time of life, with a (much!)quieter
household and a time of re-discovering each other, after almost 30 years of
baking and cooking for a family of 5, I found myself somewhat lost in this
new chapter of life. Who could I bake for now? Yes, we both still enjoy
fresh cookies and baking, but a dozen muffins for 2 people? I was in a real
dilemna! And then one day it came to me….I would start a muffin club with
my Mom and my sister Judi,also a recent empty nester! Early every Monday
morning, we’d each take turns baking a dozen muffins (or scones) and deliver
4 piping hot muffins to each other, keeping 4 for ourselves. We are blessed
to live within 3 miles of each other so this would make it easy. And so the
“Monday Morning Marvelous Muffin Club” was born! And what a delightful
surprise and treat is has been to open the door into my garage early every
Monday morning and find a basket of fresh warm muffins waiting for me on my
freezer! And it is so nice to bake one week, then have a surprise waiting
for me the next 2 weeks. We are all loving it!


The season of fall always draws me to the fragrant spiciness of all things
pumpkin….pumpkin pie, pumpkin scones, and of course pumpkin muffins. And
so it was that the first recipe I baked for our Monday morning muffin club
was Pumpkin Quinoa muffins, a new and healthy twist on what is no doubt a
favorite with many of you. Quinoa, an ancient grain, is a comlete protein
and gives these muffins a nice texture and a slightly nutty taste. The
addition of pepitos, which are pumpkin seeds, also adds a nice crunch.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, and that you are inspired to start your own
muffin club with one or two close friends…enjoy!!

Happy baking!
Sheri Ward

raspberry kefir coffee cake

These are the kinds of things I did before I started school. I’d traipse out to a berry farm with some friends, sling an old plastic bucket ’round my waist, and walk, eager-handed, along hedges heavy with sweet crimson teardrops.

Now my cell phone and Microsoft Word compete for my companionship, and I am haunted by a no-time-to-bake sense of loss. But the memories at least are cheerful, like the piles of open-mouthed raspberries we collected on that late August afternoon…

I meant to freeze them for daily use in the kefir smoothies I posted about last, but it turned out they were too good. They resisted my futile gestures of preservation like a silver dandelion puff resists the wind. They just refused to be eaten any other way: fresh from the bucket, or doused with cream.

These little guys had all the best things of summer stored in their small caverns, and delivered it to us again and again as the days marched steadily into fall. As I learned on the berry farm, raspberry picking is best in late summer and early fall. Around here that can take you well into early October. Apparently, one or two nights of frost actually makes the berries sweeter, so get thee to a berry farm, folks.

It turned out I had one small victory over my must-eat-fresh berries. As the bucket’s bounty waned in the fridge, I knew there were more to these berries than red soggy handfuls. And there was one more to kefir, too: muffins and breads and buns, and and and . . . coffee cake.

As a child I used to think all coffee cake tasted like coffee, and thus avoided it. At some point, I learned the truth, and life has never been the same. Blueberry, lemon, poppyseed, cinnamon, my mother’s own version of heaven on a plate. It’s all fair game, and goes so well with a steaming cup of Joe.

Armed with my remaining berries, I put together a little internet search for an appropriate raspberry-lemon yogurt coffee cake. After sifting through many results and tweaking them to create my own, I came up with this Raspberry Kefir Coffee Cake. It’s a mouthful, I know, but just wait until you taste the cake.

This recipe can be modified in countless ways. As long as you follow the basic amounts, you can substitute yogurt or buttermilk for the kefir, really, if you must. The recipes I consulted called for baking powder, but one thing I might change next time is to add a little baking soda to the mix. Apparently, soda is used in recipes that have an acidic ingredient (like kefir or yogurt), and powder in recipes that don’t. Some recipes don’t seem to follow this general rule, and so next time I’m going to experiement a little further and see if I can get a wee bit more lift out of the cake.

Oh yeah, and this cake is baked in a Bundt pan. My favorite baking dish moniker ever: Bundt bundt bundt: doesn’t it just roll off the tongue? Trust me, this cake will go down easy as a sweet summer day, slipping serenely into fall.

I’m sorry, but it’s true. Now go and pick those last hangers-on while they’re at their sweetest. And if you can’t, just dream with me.

*farm pictures courtesy of the lovely and talented ms. june

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i want you: to drink kefir

If you’ve spent any time around me lately, you’ve heard me singing the praises of fermented foods. If you haven’t, then allow me to introduce you to kefir, the best thing to come my way since kombucha tea.

As fermentation teaches us, good things take time. And so too with this post. I’ve been trying to craft a really great one for this, my latest obsession. Finally I’ve shot enough photos and schemed enough ways to convince you to bring kefir into your home.

Whether or not I succeed, this is what I’ve got; I happen to think it’s good. Better than does a body good, good. I bring you kefir: beloved breakfast champion, superhero of lactose-intolerants, rescuer of milk + vinegar buttermilk substitutions. Apparently they’ve been doing it for years, and I’ve been stuck in the dark with plain old milk and yogurt laced with added sugar (and who knows what else).

Red Raspberry

Now that I’ve lured you in with the pink tart and tang of a fresh raspberry blend, I’ll show you how it’s done. There are TWO STEPS here. Got that? TWO STEPS. Try to follow the complicated procedure as best you can. Really, it’s very scientific:

obtain some kefir grains from a fellow fermentor*

put the grains into a jar of milk and let everyone hang out for a few hours

Contrary to making yogurt, kefir pretty much takes care of itself. I have tried making yogurt about four times, to no avail. I wanted it so badly, but it just wouldn’t happen: The first time, tasting like the pickles that had occupied the jar prior to it, the second time refusing to thicken. Despite tedious temperature testing and the more sophisticated hot-tub incubation method of the third go, the milk still wouldn’t yogurtize. I gave up, dejected, forced to live with mediocre milk lacking the happy bacteria I’d so earnestly sought.

And then, kefir arrived on my doorstep. My dear mother had heard my plea, and sent me a container of the grains via husband-on-Amtrak, as I had done only weeks prior (with a kombucha colony in a Nalgene bottle). It was all so old-fashioned, trading gifts like this through a handsome rail messenger. We both succeeded in bringing the other over to the world of fermented foods; “good milk,” as Alton Brown says, “gone bad.” Or as I say, “gone better.”

Orange Nectarine

Orange Nectarine

Properly pronounced “keh-fear,” this fermented milk drink comes to us via the Caucasus region, comprising the geographical areas of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Southern parts of Russia, and North Eastern Turkey. It used to be made in animal skins and hung from doorways. Passersby would bump their heads against the bag, helping to keep the grains and milk well-mixed. In our house we keep it in a jar. We only bop our heads against it once in awhile, but it works out just fine.

Kefir is rapidly gaining on yogurt in popularity. (Go kefir, GO!) You can find it in grocery stores that have a good selection of health foods, but it’ll cost you about double that of yogurt. Now that I’ve got a never ending supply of the stuff, I’ve stopped buying yogurt altogether. It satisfies my craving, is much more versatile, contains even more healthful bacteria, and tastes like the champagne of smoothies.

best supporting actor . . . blueberry blend

Bannana-rific Blueberry

Lactose intolerant people benefit especially from consuming kefir. Why? Well, the yeast and bacteria in the grains survive by eating sugar. Guess what the sugar in milk is called? You got it: lactose. Being the only sugar those little guys can get their jaws on, they quickly gobble up all the lactose and leave a nice tangy product in its place. I’m not lactose intolerant, but apparently kefir (and its cousin yogurt) are more easily digested by such folks. See Alton Brown’s video for a cartoony lesson on the hows and whys.

Strawberry-Nectarine Blend

Strawberry-Nectarine Blend

Not only is kefir wonderful with all the above additions, quickly blended in with a convenient immersion blender, it makes a great buttermilk substitution. I mean, how often do we have buttermilk around, really. But kefir? In our house, all the time. Not only does it make wonderful smoothies, kefir can be used in creamy salad dressings, muffins, quick breads, buns, pancakes, waffles, and ice cream. Yup, you heard that right, and we deem it a success.

Have I hooked you yet?

The other day I was haranguing a friend we’d given kefir grains to turn his kitchen into a probiotic factory like ours. He told me to send him a photo of me, Uncle Sam style, and he’d make me an I WANT YOU TO MAKE KEFIR poster of my very own. I’ve got to get on that. When I do, I’ll post it next to Sammy here…

In the meantime, I’ve got a Mango Kefir Lassi on the kitchen counter with my name on it.

*Sites for finding kefir grains:

International Kefir Community

The Kefir Lady

Kefir Country


chlodnik (summer borscht)

I’ll get to it, just chill with me for a moment.

Reading over my last post, I appear to have begun mourning summer’s passing a wee bit early. Yes it’s winding down, but it’s doing so rather gently. Good, kind summer. To a girl who sat in an excessively air conditioned classroom for the better part of July, summer is leaving me cordially — with flowers and long conversations and plenty of “I’ll miss you’s.”

Take last weekend. Friday evening swirled with the currents of the day’s leftover warmth. Downtown, patios hummed with aestival gladness. Saturday morning the farmer’s market was awash with color, and my bags weighed heavy with local produce. My companion and I were each given a Crispin apple for our hike later that day, proving that you can get things free after all. I’d never tried this variety, and because my apple vocabulary pales in comparison even to the signs at Wegman’s, all I can say is that it was delicious. Not quite as good as my standby Macs, but sweet and crisp.  When I’m ready to trade berries and peaches for fall apples, this one might just be worthy of my basket.

Fresh garlic is also abundant enough to be found in braids, one of which we purchased from our “garlic guy.” Before he came into my life, I had no idea there were German and Italian varieties of garlic. I also didn’t know garlic aged, until I bought an old bulb weeks ago and the thing practically turned to sponge. But the garlic guy set us up, and our braid is promised to last us into the spring.

Let me tell you about these cloves. They are the most crisp and fragrant I’ve ever seen, so juicy they leave your fingers sticky from mincing.

We hiked all afternoon, and like Boy Scouts photographed mushrooms and delighted in the popping seeds of the Jewelweed plant. I also discovered that if I were a mushroom, I would definitely want to be the Jem-Studded Puffball. Apparently they’re edible, but we didn’t know that until later. Oh well, leave only footprints, take only pictures, right? I’ve spent far too much time in national parks…

But back to the market. Slung over my shoulder, I brought home escarole (a green in the chicory family), peaches, and farm-fresh eggs. But best of all were the beets. I know I’ve written about them before, but I wouldn’t be my grandmother’s granddaughter if I didn’t turn them into borscht now would I?

I scored the biggest, heaviest bunch on the table, and last night took it to battle. Ruby juice took over my kitchen, turning hands, knives, countertop and cutting boards into fuschia casualties. I chopped and sauteed, simmered and stirred for the better part of an hour.

I grew up eating my grandmother’s borscht. I’ve made it twice now, and though excellent, it will never, ever taste like hers. Maybe my Ukrainian blood is too diluted. We’d go over there for lunch and she’d disappear into what seemed to me a cellar, fully stocked with things in jars and tins of baking. It was just a basement, but it was full of treasures.

She always kept her soups in a hodge-podge collection of glass jars. It would slosh in her hands as she carried it upstairs to put to boil on the stove. The tang of her vinegar-spiked Old World borscht, sopped up with a puffball-soft hunk of her buttermilk buns is still unmatched in my world. It would shimmer with a little grease from the pork broth it was cooked in — something my fat abstaining generation fears too much. I am always pleased with my vegetarian version, but I sure could use one of those buns right about now.

Since converting from yogurt to making my own kefir (a fermented milk drink I will post about soon), I’ve been ravenous for ways to incorporate it into my cooking. I’ve also been craving soups lately (that darn impending Fall again), but with the persistent warmth of summer I thought I’d tackle the Chilled Soup. It never made sense to me up until now. It always seemed anticlimactic until I realized I could have it both ways.

First, over at A Cat in the Kitchen I found a chilled borscht called Chlodnik that is popular in Eastern Europe. With my interest thoroughly piqued (and so my love for how Europeans always say “beetroot”), I began to scheme about the beets and kefir sleeping away in my fridge. Then the Amateur Gourmet posted about a popular NYC hot spot where the soup is not and the people are — probably.

It didn’t take long for me to hit the stove and start bringing the bowls of cool upstate.

A few minutes of researching recipes later, I decided to just try adding kefir to some chilled grandma-borscht. And did it ever do me fine. I’ve included her recipe, lovingly transcribed by my mother, in their characteristic casual prose. It’s a wing-it kind of thing, so if you want ABC’s, try one of the above links.The great thing about this recipe is that it’s just as good hot as it is cold. I’m not sure other chilled borscht recipes would be as good as a hot soup, but this one is, as I discovered today, made for the transitioning world of summer to fall.

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