September 13, 2006

Au Bon Pondering: Chocolate Cake Muffin

We were at Boston Children’s yesterday, and whenever we’re there we stop at the Au Bon Pain, and get a mozzarella pesto tomato sandwich to share.

I invariably float toward the pastry shelves and gawk at the different offerings, transfixed while Maggie is ordering our sandwich. Staring back at me are the apple-filled pastry, the buttery coffee cake. Shortbread cookies are plain, or dipped in black and white chocolate to make them hyper-caloric. Various types of croissant beckon… plain… with cheese… with ham and cheese…

I ogle the pastry while busy people are zipping around me, the hospital patients, parents, doctors and other employees all with purpose and speed. All I can do is look because I’m “trying to be good.” Maggie says I shouldn’t torture myself with the voyeurism, but even when I’m not being a glutton, I am one for punishment.

What Muffins?Calorie for calorie, these pastries are pretty much equivalent to Ring Dings. But they look all highfalutin, including the names. Here (pictured) we have a “Chocolate Cake Muffin.” In the real world we have a name for these things. They’re called “Chocolate Cupcakes.” It raises the question*: “what is a muffin and how is it different from a cupcake?”

Having baked both muffins and cupcakes from scratch on numerous occasions, I think I well know the difference. And it’s not rocket science. A muffin is a sort quick bread baked in a muffin tin. A quick bread is a heavy bread raised/leavened chemically (with baking powder, for example) instead of biologically (with yeast). The chemical leavening takes less time than yeast, thus the name “quick bread.” A cupcake is a cake baked in a cupcake tin. A cake is… OK, here’s where we get into trouble.

Cakes are leavened chemically, like quick breads. But cakes usually use a finer flour than quick breads, more sugar and more eggs to yield a much lighter texture. The mixing and baking methods are different. Some will argue that there is a continuum of cakes to quick breads, with carrot cake inhabiting the frightening no-man’s land in between. I’ll give you that. But carrot cake aside, people can tell a banana bread, a lemon poppy seed bread and cornbread from a chocolate cake based on the texture and heft.

I grant you that there is no difference between muffin tins and cupcake tins (not that I know of). Cupcakes and muffins are the same shape. When I started ranting about chocolate cake muffins in the car to Maggie, she thought I said “chocolate muffin” and argued that a chocolate muffin is different from a chocolate cake. I agree completely. However, it is an oxymoron to have “cake” in the name of a muffin. It’s like “soufflé soup” or “drumstick ribs.”

Let’s be honest here. This thin veneer of “muffinhood” does not obscure the clear message of “cake.” They know that “muffin” sounds more healthy to people than “cupcake” and more like a food an adult would be caught eating. But they throw the “cake” in the name because they definitely want you to know what it’s going to taste like. They want the selling point of “cake” — no mistake. The benefit of the word “muffin” in the name is illustrated by the following conversations:

Conversation #1

Id: I’m hungry.

Superego: It makes sense to eat something and avoid low blood sugar.

Id: Yum!

Superego: What’s that you have there?

Id: A muffin.

(time passes)

Conversation #2:

Spouse #1: What did you end up having for lunch?

Spouse #2: I was in a hurry, so I had a couple of muffins.

And there you have it. “Muffin” in this context is a useful fiction passed on from the baker to the patron to subdue the superego and any other pesky adults. By removing that barrier, they sell more cake and everybody is happy. I’ll leave the moral implications to you, the reader.

On a final note, a word of caution. Whenever there are unsupervised and poorly-supervised children about, keep in mind that by buying pastry from open shelves that are less than three feet from the floor means that you are buying pastry that quite possibly has been fondled, poked or taste-tested by young children. I conclude this as a result of direct observation. People who have a problem with this might want to stick to the uppermost rows of pastry, or make their selection from the back.

[*] Note that it raises the question, it does not beg the question. Please help stamp out the blandification of language by avoiding common misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” Yell at the TV when politicians and city officials do it! Do it for the children!

Posted by James at September 13, 2006 8:33 AM
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You figure out how to make "Drumstick Ribs" and you'll be a millionaire.

And that's just from the money *I'll* spend on them.

Posted by: DG at September 13, 2006 10:06 AM

Batter-fry them, and you'll be a billionaire. :)

Posted by: Julie at September 13, 2006 10:32 AM

I assumed branding something a muffin meant it was somewhat denser than a cake and therefore mysteriously more suitable for breakfast. All we want as consumers is someone to tell us it is okay to eat cake in the morning. That's probably the true purpose of the word muffin. :-)

Posted by: Mike at September 13, 2006 11:51 AM

That's exactly what I think the difference is, Mike -- muffins aren't as light and fluffy. And I didn't think anybody was fooled that the word "muffin" connoted "healthy," but apparently it's still chic to eat a muffin. Perhaps the difference is the flower and the sugar, as James says. And there is "carrot cake," and there are "carrot cake muffins," and I'm not sure what the difference is. Chocolate cake and chocolate muffins are actually one of the few forms of chocolate that I don't enjoy!

Oh, wait, I know. Cupcakes have frosting. I mean, for most people. James' mom will make cake with nothing on top or just sugar (or sometimes whipped cream), but everyone else I know puts frosting on.

Posted by: Maggie at September 13, 2006 12:41 PM

I hate you all. We have no Au Bon Pain. I need a pumpkin muffin from there so badly I'm off to see if they do mail order.

Posted by: pippa at September 13, 2006 12:45 PM

Dunkin Donuts has an incredible pumpkin muffin.


I don't think they're out yet, but now I must find out.

On frosting: Muffins often do have some sort of frosting or icing (according to the recipes I have), and the cake muffin in question had powdered sugar.

Posted by: James at September 13, 2006 12:50 PM

Obligatory link: MuffinFilms

Posted by: Mike at September 13, 2006 12:57 PM

On your final point, I hear ya! I was once in a candy store at the mall, one of those places where the candy is in clear plastic bins and you lift the lid and scoop it out with a provided scoop. There was this guy there with his kids and the youngest was clearly sick with a nasty cold. And I watched horrified as the kid was allowed to wander from bin to bin, open the lid and stick his face in, while coughing to beat the band.

Kids are walking disease dispensers, especially when their parents aren't paying attention.

Posted by: Chuck S. at September 13, 2006 9:59 PM

On the subject of disease -- how about salad bars? What good is the sneeze guard if you have child patrons at the height of the food? Yuck!!

Posted by: Maggie at September 14, 2006 11:03 AM

bleah - I stay far away from salad bars in general. I see too many adults not washing their hands after using the bathroom or wiping their runny noses or coughing/sneezing into their hands to think no lovely germs are floating around in there. Not that the staff at many places are any cleaner.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at September 14, 2006 12:00 PM

Re: Bob's post, this is why you should never ever take the mint at the cashier's in a restaurant. Yes, some of them are individually wrapped, and those wrappers are then coated with urine, just like the mints.

If you need an after dinner mint, bring your own.

Men and handwashing just don't seem to go together.

Posted by: Patti M. at September 14, 2006 3:48 PM

Urine mints.


That's why a restaurant is supposed to have a spoon for picking up the mints.

Posted by: James at September 14, 2006 4:01 PM

And the spoon has pee on it. Just bring your own.

Posted by: Patti M. at September 14, 2006 4:03 PM

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