When I tasted my first bran muffin at the corner of College and Bathurst at The Mars, it was a revelation. I was 19, wore a peasant skirt over Kodiak boots and rolled my own cigarettes with Drum tobacco. I thought myself street-wise but was anything but … Just incredibly curious and always, always hungry. Thus, that first ravenous bite into a Mars bran muffin – dark with molasses and dense like black forest cake – is pure gold in my food memory bank.
My boyfriend Bob was also a revelation. Nothing about him resembled where I came from. He hadn’t grown up in North Toronto or gone to Upper Canada College (like my brother, father or grandfather) but he sure knew enough about betting to pique my father’s gambling instincts and instill a gin rummy playing camaraderie between them.
One summer evening at a family cottage dinner, my stately grandmother innocently asked “And what is it that you do, my dear?” while passing Bob the gravy boat.
“I’m a bookie,” chirped Bob grinning like a cherub, thrilled to make this reveal. Nonnie promptly cleared her throat and my grandfather mumbled “Holy sailor” but no one else asked another word, quickly sweeping this unpleasant news under the nearest carpet.
But back to the muffin. The Mars muffin. It was big, filling and dotted with plump, fat raisins. They were served hot from the oven, sliced in half with a large pat of cold butter wedged inside and fully melted in seconds. Diners, breakfast eggs, take-out baklava and percolated coffee played large in my coming of culinary age. These gigantic muffins were new to diners in the 70s and customers would line up in front of the cash register hoping to leave with half a dozen of these towering –no, glistening – babies stuffed inside a Mars embossed, white cardboard box.
Near that same cash register, along the long, white Formica diner bar, were stools occupied by inner-city characters of dubious distinction. Bob seemed to know them all. They had nicknames like Baldy, Joe the Dipper or Car Fare. Some came “packing” and others had Mafia affiliations following them like shadows.
Bob, being Bob, liked to break away pieces of my W.A.S.P. veneer by unexpectedly pushing me in front of one of these cigar smoking men at the Mars saying, “Hey Dukey, meet my girlfriend Lynn. She’s a Haver-girl.” I seethed at these embarrassments… but they didn’t stop me from moving to New York with Bob a year later and attending an Ivy League college while he worked as a bouncer at Studio 54.
But back to the muffins. I made some today in my West coast kitchen as the rain pelted across a gray, foggy horizon in a day-long deluge. I searched through my baking boxes and pulled out a bag of wheat bran, which now looks oddly old school next to newer fibrous fads like chia, flax or hemp. I found some spelt which adds such friendly nuttiness to any baking equation.
I mixed the dry and wet ingredients in two separate bowls. Quick breads and muffins all like this preparatory segregation with just minimal combining prior to the bake. Crosby’s molasses is a necessary must if you want real tasting bran muffins. And remember to measure the oil in the measuring cup first as prep for the molasses, which will slide out of the measuring cup effortlessly if you do.
Unlike the Mars bran muffin, these ones are good for you: moist, satisfying and rich. I’m willing to place a double-or-nothing bet on Crisco as the trans-fat source of those yesteryear muffins. Yet still, I savour that muffin’s nostalgia and happily munched on all these memories when creating, baking and eating my latest version.
Banana Bran Muffins
Healthy, fibre-full muffins with a rich, moist texture and just a hint of banana or apple flavour.
1 ½ cups wheat bran
¾ cup all purpose flour
¾ cup spelt
¾ cup raisins or chopped dates
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 eggs mixed
1 cup mashed, really ripe bananas (about 2 ½) OR unsweetened apple sauce
¾ cup plain yogurt
½ cup milk
1/3 cup molasses
¼ cup vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 400 F
Mix dry and wet ingredients separately in large bowl. Combine until just mixed. Use a ¼ cup measure to dollop into large paper muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes. Makes 12 large muffins.