When will my quest for the Perfect Muffin end?

Posted on September 29, 2011


Let me just check here… I’ll pull out my trusty calculator, let me just punch a few numbers… tap, tap, tap… Oh, right, ok, that would be… um, Never!

Here’s why. My husband has been getting up earlier and earlier to put more hours in at work. He is already famous for refusing to eat breakfast, and these earlier hours just make it worse. I have made it my mission every morning to make sure he Stuffs His Face.

You can’t imagine how delighted I was when my little muffin discovered a natural love for those huge honking Costco muffins. (He would only eat half of one, but I still give him credit.) I L-O-V-E love muffins, and I think I know a good muffin when I see one. The Costco muffins sure look like the real deal, but I was not fooled — just sugar, fat, and preservatives in masquerade. (Yet, while my husband would be nibbling away on his half, I sucked down a whole one and still wanted another.)

On our last trip to the store, when my husband put his chosen dozen in the cart, I eyed them suspiciously and said, “I could probably make better muffins.” And as we pushed our way around the rest of the store, the sense of indignity these muffins imposed on me became stronger. I really started to hate those muffins. Did they really think they could show up in my kitchen and win my husband’s heart and stomach just like that? I have spent years trying to figure out how to get him to eat breakfast, and they think it’s so easy! “I can’t believe you are buying more muffins,” I said again to my husband. “Those ones are no good. I can make way better, healthier, more delicious, and…” — here’s the kicker — “and much cheaper muffins.”

My husband shrugged, “Ok.” Ha, I would show those baked goods imposters. I didn’t just drop those boxed-up, cellophaned “muffins” next to the peanut butter. I stalked all the way back across the entire store and put them back in their place!

I have been baking muffins like mad ever since. I have been working hard to find the perfect muffin-baking technique. Some of the muffins I baked were too biscuity. Some were too tiny. Some looked frumpy. Some were too sweet. Some just did not live up to my muffin-top standards. I read about the scientific properties of baking powder, played around with different flours, succeeded in no-added sugar options.

In the last week, I have made Banana Crumb, Lemon Poppyseed, Date Nut (twice!), Coconut, and Strawberry Jam-filled muffins. I still want to improve on the Coconut and Lemon Poppyseed recipes, and make attempts at new recipes for Cornmeal, Chocolate, Pistachio, Cranberry Orange, and Bran muffins. My mindset has been that I will find the perfect technique for each. I will be the master muffin-maker, the muffin monster, the walking muffin-top.

Yes, that will be me because I am a perfectionist. I do enjoy baking and experimenting with all these different recipes simply for the good of muffin-kind, but also… even though it probably isn’t true, I want to bake muffins galore in my kitchen just because I feel like buying muffins from the bakery is admitting defeat.

No, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if my husband wants to buy baked goods at the store every once in a while, but it feels like it to me because I want to be Super Wife!  Dan-dan-nana! Now that I am really getting the hang of cooking, I want to make everything and anything, and it’s happening with more and more food groups.

On one hand, this is a good thing. It goes along with my eating healthy goals (including going completely #Unprocessed for the month of October — Check out the challenge at Eating Rules, and join us!). I really like knowing now what goes into what I am eating. This interest has really changed my perspective not only on my own health and wellness, but on the state of the national food system and the disparities in health that are caused by such a misunderstanding and mismanagement of our food systems. I am glad I have learned this, and that I am up to taking the challenge to change.

On the other hand though, it’s very easy for me to take it too far. I will admit here that my perfectionism is likely part of what motivated me to get into the kitchen in the first place. When I got married and realized that the best wives know how to cook for their husbands, I got to it. I want to be the best! And boy has it been a hard road. You can’t become the best overnight. A lot of disappointment comes with perfectionism.

I worry sometimes about becoming a mother, just because I can’t imagine having another million things to do for my kids on top of what I do already as a wife. Admit it, Super Mom is like ten times more scary than Super Wife. (You can tell by the difference in her jingle. It’s more like, “Super Mom, Duhn, duhn, duhn…”) I actually have mentioned before that I don’t want to be June Cleaver, but I do want to be, you know, recognized as doing what is expected of me. Perhaps what I haven’t considered before, though, is that the bar is set pretty high these days for women in this society, like Martha Stewart high.

This was pointed out to me in a self-help book written bycognitive psychologist Dr. Alice Domar, which I found while wandering the library the other night.  Her book’s (perhaps kitschy) title Be Happy without Being Perfect jumped out at me. The book is a somewhat geared towards suburban middle-aged housewives, but does a good job of pointing out the common cognitive distortions that often plague perfectionists with a continuous cycle of anxiety and depression.

A cognitive distortion is a thought that isn’t quite rational. An example would be the thought that I must make the best muffins on the face of the earth for my husband. This is somewhat of an irrational thought. It’s not really something I must do, though perhaps something I would like to do. These muffins don’t necessarily have to be the best compared to every other muffin out there either. They just gotta be muffins, ya know? By allowing such flexibility, I maybe wouldn’t have felt so bad the first time around with the Date Nut recipe, which I didn’t notice yields six instead of twelve muffins. I got really dopey, small looking muffins, that honestly could not compete with the Costco muffin blimps.

It was at that point another common perfectionist cognitive distortion came up: I never can do anything right. Now, really, that just can’t be true. Besides, while my first Date Nute muffins weren’t something to talk about in terms of appearance, considering factors of taste and nutrition, they beat out those abnormally large Costco guys hands down. It’s good thing I didn’t throw those kids out in my frustration. I actually made them again because they were so delicious (full size this time)!

The real reason “never” is the estimated date of completion for Mission Quest: Muffin is that another cognitive distortion perfectionists often tend to is minimalization, that is, we self-depreciate, disqualifying any achievements to focus on negatives. Nothing is really ever perfect; we never live up to our own standards. It’s a trap, but one that can be disassembled.

To start, I’ve talked myself into accepting some sloppy muffins in my kitchen. I may even go out and buy some at the bakery one day, if I feel like it. I’m going to keep baking muffins, but I’m not going to work myself into a tizzy if they dont come out as expected. I will rather just try to enjoy the fun that is baking… and that probably is only way that I will learn what it means to enjoy a, “Perfect Muffin.”

I am really loving the blog where I found this recipe originally. Anja has so many great healthy and delicious recipes! In this recipe, she uses buckwheat flour, which is gluten-free, and doesn’t call for any additional glutinous flours or added sugar! That’s my kind of recipe. I added a teaspoon of baking powder to help with the poof in the muffin top. I also don’t have buckwheat flour in the house — yet! I made a whole wheat flour substitution, which worked fine (for those of us still eating gluten that is), but I look forward to trying the recipe with buckwheat soon.

Date Nut Muffins
adapted from Anja’s Food For Thought

1/2 cup dates, chopped
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole wheat (or buckwheat) flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup almonds, chopped
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease or line 6 muffins cups.
In a small saucepan, combine dates, milk, and baking soda. Bring to a boil, then simmer for three to five minutes. Let cool, then transfer to a blender, and pulse to a wet paste. In a large mixing bowl, beat together eggs, olive oil, and vanilla extract. Stir in date paste
In a seperate bowl, combine flour and baking powder, then gradually stir into wet ingredients.  Divide batter among six regular sized muffin cups. Top with chopped almonds.
Bake for 25 minutes, then let cool completely. Yields six muffins.
(Some of my new-found muffin baking tips: Try not to overmix the batter because mixing wakes up gluten in the flour, making muffins tougher and less crumbly. Also, baking powder is activated by moisture, so try to bake the muffins right away after mixing wet and dry!)