My Not-So-Secret Recipes

By: Jeanne Reynolds

I love reading about food, restaurants and recipes. I have a thick white binder stuffed with recipes I’ve clipped from magazines and newspapers or begged from friends and family. Most of them I’ll probably never make, but there are a few I go back to time and again. You can tell them by the yellowed paper they’re printed or written on and the splatters of overly enthusiastic stirring.

If you flip through the pages of this notebook, you may notice a skew toward baking, and two types of treats in particular: brownies and muffins. Although I love these freshly baked goodies as much (or more) than the next person, the abundance of brownie and muffin recipes isn’t so much because they’re my favorites as it is because it seems so hard to find a really great, foolproof recipe for either.

“This one looks really good, and pretty easy,” I’ll say to myself as I clip out yet another recipe. “This one never fails,” a friend assures me as she emails me her version. And yet the results are never as roll-up-your-eyes-and-slap-your-momma wonderful as I hoped.

Until now.

I’m going to share with you two nearly perfect recipes, one for brownies and one for apple-cinnamon muffins. You can thank me later.

Oh-my-goodness brownies

OK, this one is more advice than a recipe: If you need to bring a dish to a potluck, tailgate or holiday meal that people will rave over, make brownies. And use a boxed mix. Yes, you read that right. I’ve made many scratch versions over the years and there isn’t enough difference to make it worth the trouble. The secret is to not stop there. First, substitute Kahlua or Amaretto for half the water called for. You won’t taste the liqueur but the flavor will be subtly rich and decadent.

Then, make your own frosting. This makes all the difference in the world. That travesty in a can is the frosting equivalent of spray cheese. Never, I repeat never, use it. Making enough chocolate frosting for a pan of brownies takes about 3 minutes and 4 ingredients: butter or margarine, cocoa powder, powdered (aka confectioner’s) sugar and a little liquid, which can be water, milk, vanilla, coffee or the liqueur you used in the brownies. I don’t measure and the proportions are to taste depending on how sweet or dark you prefer it, but it’s roughly equal parts butter and cocoa powder, about two to four times that much sugar, and liquid to spreading consistency. For example, ¼ cup butter, ¼ cocoa, ½ cup to 1 cup sugar and a teaspoon to a tablespoon of liquid. Combine the butter and cocoa first, then gradually add the sugar, tasting as you go and alternating with a little liquid at a time to loosen it up.

This might sound tricky but it’s really not. Do it once or twice and you’ll be able to whip it up in your sleep (and you might find yourself dreaming about it, too). Get ready for ooh and aahs.

Oh, two more tips: Line your pan with foil with enough overhang on either side so you can lift the whole thing out and put it on a board to frost and cut. No more brownies stuck in the pan. And don’t overbake, unless you prefer dry, crumble brownies (if you do, you stopped reading this long ago). Test for doneness before the minimum baking time is up and keep testing until they’re just barely done.

Best-ever apple-cinnamon muffins

This recipe is a combination of a few I clipped, with modifications to make them easier for what I typically have on hand. I like these because they actually rise up like they’re supposed to and they’re not too sweet. They’re great for breakfast or with a cup of hot tea on a cold afternoon.

Combine in a large bowl:

  • 2 cups unsifted flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix in just until dry ingredients are combined:

  • ¾ cup milk (skim or low-fat is fine, even lactose-free)
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil (original recipe calls for melted butter or margarine but this is easier and works fine)
  • 1 egg

Gently stir in as many of these as you want:

  • 1 cup chopped apples (any kind, and no need to peel them)
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Line a 12-cup pan with paper liners and use an ice cream scoop sprayed with nonstick spray to fill each cup. Sprinkle a little sugar and cinnamon on top of each muffin. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.