Lilli’s birthday is at the end of the month, but her Hebrew birthday, the 14th of the month of Shvat, is on Wednesday. It is also the day before the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, or Jewish Arbor Day. And in my kitchen, that means making dishes that celebrate the seven foods from Israel that the Bible praises: wheat, barley, figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and grapes.
With Lilli’s birthday so close to the holiday, my goal each year is to celebrate her Hebrew birthday using at least some of these foods in a birthday dish. I found this recipe for white whole wheat fig muffins with goat cheese filling from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals a few weeks back, when I baked up a couple of artichoke-rosemary tarts with polenta crusts. Because Rich and I both have meetings after work on Wednesday, we celebrated Lilli’s birthday today with these muffins.
I ended up taking a few liberties with this recipe, and even consulted with Maria about an ingredient substitution. We met in person a few years back when her wonderful cookbook came out and she gave a lecture at Boston University. My friend Sara was my date that night, and she was definitely a little embarrassed when I used the opportunity to promote my favorite kitchen tool, the pressure cooker, as the ideal kitchen tool to cook up all those ancient grains. (My persistence has paid off, as Sara broke down a bought a pressure cooker this week. Victory!)
The main concern I had was with the two tablespoons of honey that are mixed with the goat cheese, lemon zest and vanilla. Doctors warn about not feeding honey to babies that are younger than one because of botulism fears, so I checked with my stepfather, a doctor, about feeding a 50-week-old honey. He said it was probably fine, but warned that the spores are not killed by baking. There are some moments when it is better to be safe than sorry, so honey was out of the picture. I thought of maybe using agave nectar or Golden Syrup from the United Kingdom, but Maria suggested maple syrup.
A word about maple syrup: People will tell you how much better Grade B syrup is than Grade A, but since I buy my maple syrup at Ocean State Job Lot, I grab whatever is on the shelf. Of course, it was at this point that Sara sent me a link about how botulism is found in both maple syrup and high fructose corn syrup. But since the two things the pediatrician warned us against were honey and milk, I decided to move forward with the maple syrup.
When I went to double check to make sure I had all the ingredients in the house, I discovered that my white whole wheat flour canister had oat flour in it, so I decided to do a mixture of whole wheat and white flour. I also decided to use the leftover cream cheese from the rugelach instead of a market run for goat cheese.
Maria has some notes about measuring whole grain flour which I think are worth repeating, especially since I futzed with the recipe: Use a digital scale, regardless whether you use whole grain or regular flour. If you don’t yet have a scale, she suggests using the “spoon and level” method for measuring whole grains:
Unlike when you dig your cup into your flour jar, this method results in less flour in the measuring cup and thus lighter results. Here is how you do it: Fluff or stir the flour with a fork to aerate slightly. Spoon flour into your cup until it is overflowing. Do not pat down, shake, or bang the measuring cup on the counter, as this will compress the flour. Using a knife or a slim metal spatula, sweep across the top to level the cup.
Maria also suggests having an oven preheated for at least 20 minutes, something I will try and do more frequently for my projects. As for having room temperature eggs, a few weeks back I came across a Cook’s Illustrated suggestion for placing eggs in a warm bowl of water to speed up the process. I don’t have fine sea salt in the house, so I swapped out that half teaspoon with a pinch of kosher salt. We had buttermilk in the house for a breakfast dish that Rich made for us; buttermilk is just one of those things that survives because it’s already spoiled. But I predict these muffins won’t have a long life in this house. They’re really terrific. Just ask Lilli.
Fig Muffins with Cream Cheese Filling, adapted from Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals
¾ cup (3 ounces) softened cream cheese
2 Tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
(If you’re using a scale, these two mixed flour will equal 8 ½ ounces.)
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
Pinch kosher salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
¾ cup packed dark or light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup virgin olive oil
¾ cup buttermilk
1 cup chopped dry figs, stemmed
3 Tablespoons turbinado or granulated sugar, for sprinkling
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400F. Lightly butter a standard-size 12-cup muffin pan, preferably nonstick, or coat with cooking spray.
To make the filling, combine the cream cheese, maple syrup, lemon zest, and vanilla extract in a small bowl. Beat with a fork until smooth.
To make the muffins, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, lightly whisk the eggs to blend. Gently whisk in the brown sugar and vanilla extract, and then the olive oil and buttermilk until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the egg mixture to the center of the flour mixture, and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Do not overmix; the batter should look lumpy. Fold in the dry figs.
Using a soup spoon, fill each muffin nearly half full. Add a bit more than 1 teaspoon of the cream cheese filling to the center of each muffin, gently pressing in. Top with the remaining butter. (The filling should not be visible.) Generously sprinkle the muffins with the turbinado sugar.
Bake until muffins are nicely domed, the edges start to brown, and the tops spring back when gently pressed, about 13 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes before gently twisting the muffins out of the pan. Cool them completely on the rack, or eat warm.
The muffins cane be baked 1 day ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature, or frozen for up to 1 month.