Vanilla Versus Vanilla

May 6, 2008


[That’s our little Vanilla, in the middle]


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As always, thanks for reading.  I look forward to seeing you at the shiny new Diet, Dessert and Dogs!

“Um, Mum, we are coming with you, aren’t we? Because (and sorry to have to tell you this), we actually have more fans than you do on this blog.”]  

So, I heard somewhere that it’s hockey season now.  Oh, don’t look so surprised: despite having been raised in Montreal (a hockey town if ever there was one), I am indifferent to the sticks-and-pucks revelry. Personally, I’d rather read about the latest face-off between, say, brownies and blondies than between the Habs and the Flyers.

In fact, I can’t say that I’m too interested in any team sports–or, come to think of it, any sports at all. Is it any wonder?  Perpetually the “anchor” in tug-of-war; too uncoordinated to hit a baseball with a screen door; lacking even the modicum of balance necessary for hockey (though I did go skating, once, when I was about 15, soley to impress a guy I had a crush on.  Oh, I made a lasting impression, all right–somewhere on the upper right thigh, just where my skate sliced through the flesh, if memory serves.)

This is not to imply that I don’t enjoy a good competition with myself every now and again, in a constant effort to improve on my own “personal best.” (And speaking of competitions, I’ve just gotta say it: time to wave goodbye to Jason Castro, don’t you think?). I’m forever asking questions like, “Can I increase my speed on the treadmill this week?”  “Can I accomplish a bicep curl with a 15-pound weight?”  “Can I use up every single veggie from our weekly organic box?” “Can I manage to sweep my kitchen floor every day three times a week monthly before the dust bunnies take up permanent residence on the living room couch?”–and so on.

(“You know, Mum, we’d be happy to chase those bunnies for you.  And while we’re on the subject, why are they allowed on the couch when we’re not?”)

As far as I’m concerned, a little healthy competition in the kitchen can only be a good thing. In order to improve a recipe-in-progress, I might tinker with it 10 or a dozen times to get it right, often in a single day (why, yes, it’s true: I don’t have anything better to do!). Is the muffin better with agave or maple syrup?–let’s bake a new batch and find out!  Should I use barley flour or oat in the apple bars?–only another round of baking will tell! Can the cashew cookies stand up to cardamom, or would ginger be better?–let’s test ’em out and see!

This somewhat peculiar proclivity in the kitchen was the impetus behind a strange experiment last week, one I conducted after receiving my copy of Carole Walter’s James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More, in the mail. As some of you may recall, my recipe for Maple-Walnut cookies won the book in a recent Cookthink Root Source Challenge for recipes based on maple syrup. (Hmm.  Yes, I suppose that made me “competitive,” though of course not in the athletic sense.)

As soon as I ripped open the package, I was charmed by the clean, clear layout, the stunning full-color photographs and the innovative, precisely written recipes (200 of them!). And even though it’s filled with traditional recipes with conventional ingredients (think eggs, milk, butter, etc.), the book focuses on homey, classic treats, which are fairly easily adaptable to NAG principles.

Virtually everything in the book appealed to me, from the Vanilla Bean Poundcake to the Irish Whiskey Cake to the Apricot and Dried Pineapple Muffins to the Fig and Walnut Loaf.  Lest you think the book is partial to goodies baked in pans, Walter also includes recipes for cookies, bars, biscuits, strudel, danish, buns and braids–plus many more treats shaped by hand.

My gaze lit upon a recipe called “Favorite Vanilla Muffins.” Vanilla muffins?  Sure, I’d sampled many a vanilla cake in my time, but never a vanilla muffin. With its denser, moister texture, might a muffin be a better foundation to showcase the fragrant, floral tones of pure vanilla extract? A competition was in order!

I thought about the differences between the two.  Like the Olson twins (though of course, in this case, actually connected to food), muffins and cupcakes are the same, but different.  Both are single-serving renditions of a larger baked good (loaf or cake); both sport domed tops, flat bottoms and angled sides often encased in frilly paper liners. To muddy the batters even further, both may (but are not required to) contain chopped fruits, nuts, or chocolate.

A few Googled pages later, I discovered that the cupcake versus muffin debate was already in full swing among bloggers and other writers (two good sources are recipezaar’s concise take on the issue, and the more detailed viewpoint on Curious Foodie’s blog).

How, I wondered, would that Favorite Vanilla Muffin stand up against its cakey counterpart? I decided to bake one of each (both using my adaptations of Walter’s recipes) and compare the results. Granted, my creations (no matter how delectable) would never be exactly as Walter intended; but I was okay with that. I chose a Classic Sour Cream Cinnamon and Nut Coffee Cake (without the cinnamon/nut filling) for my cupcake, mostly because, like the muffin recipe, it called for sour cream (and I needed to use up the tofu-based batch I’d be concocting). That would leave me with one vanilla; two vanilla (any more than that and we’d have the unfortunate Milli Vanilla).

[Coffeecake cupcake–with its intended filling. Get a load of that cinnamon-pecan swirl!]

Which won the competition? As expected, the muffins were heavier and denser. In fact, apart from the shape, they were a different animal entirely. For some reason, in these particular muffins, the vanilla essence proclaimed its presence assertively, even before you bit into the soft, moist interior; the sweet, floral aroma fairly radiates. And even though I knew my “sour cream” was soy-based, there was an incredible richness to these muffins that rendered them filling and satisfying; no need for fruit or fillers.

The cupcakes, for their part, were equally delectable.  Undisputably more delicate with a tender crumb, the cakes were lighter both in texture and color. The vanilla essence here was definitely noticeable as well, though in a more understated fashion.  Like pitting Ella against Diana singing Cole Porter classics: each transformed the outcome into something unique and exceptional, though clearly hailing from the same original concept.

So, in the end, it was a tie.  Two winners–two delicious baked goods to eat.  Everybody wins!

Since the recipes highlight vanilla, I thought this would be a perfect entry for the Master Baker Challenge, hosted by Master Baker.

Vanilla Muffins and Cinnamon-Pecan Cupcakes (inspired by recipes in Carole Walter’s Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More)


 [Left to Right: Cinnamon-Pecan Coffeecake Cupcake; Vanilla Muffin; Vanilla Muffin with Cashew-Cardamom variation]


For the Cinnamon-Pecan Coffeecake Cupcakes:


23 Responses to “Vanilla Versus Vanilla”

  1. Johanna Says:

    the muffins vs cupcakes debate is a great old chestnut (must more interesting than the latest sports results). I confess to not being very excited by vanilla, although I have left behind the phase when I wouldn’t ever add vanilla to cakes, but I do admire your perseverence in testing and tweaking your recipes!

  2. Liesl Says:

    Hi, Ricki – These sound great! Could you please tell me what I might substitute for Salba? Thanks.


  3. Lizzie Says:

    Is it odd that I don’t want your posts to end? I love the way you write and the comments from the girls crack me up. A true highlight of my day, Ricki!

  4. shellyfish Says:

    My just-turned 3-year-old calls muffins “breakfast cupcakes”!
    Both sound so good, which one to make first? (Husband says to make both and not hassle myself with such philosophical quanderies.

  5. Lisa Says:

    Vanilla muffins? That’s a new idea. Anything vanilla is good if you ask me. Very entertaining post Ricki.

  6. You might just be the only person who grew up in Montreal and ISN’T hockey-obsessed. Unlike you, I AM a huge hockey fan… however, that doesn’t mean I’m not all for a face-off between brownies and blondies (or muffins and cupcakes)!

  7. Those all look fantastic! I will be trying both of them in the near future.
    I don’t think I could ever enter the great cupcake vs. muffin debate. I’m an equal opportunity baked goods eater 🙂

  8. Lucy Says:

    I don’t know where to start…they both look glorious.

    I understand the sports-aversion. Hockey looks really violent. But, inexplicably, I adore Rugby Union. And Football (soccer). Hate the rest, though.

    Lovely vanilla-y goodness.

  9. Courtney Says:

    Um…YUM! Vanilla is my absolute favorite and I cannot wait to try making these this weekend! Is it Saturday yet?! And I love that they use spelt flour–thank you! Question: do you think that melted earth balance would be a suitable substitute for coconut butter in the vanilla muffins?

    Oh, and don’t feel bad…I live in MN (another HUGE hockey place), and I couldn’t care less about it. I don’t even know when “hockey season” is! I am guessing in the winter?!


  10. jenny Says:

    I just love reading your blog, I love your style of writing – you make everything so interesting!! 🙂

  11. oh how i love vanilla!

  12. LisaRene Says:

    I love finding posts like this because I can show them to my husband and say “See, I’m not the only one who compares similar recipes or makes the same recipe over and over with minor changes…”

    Nice to know I’m in good company 🙂

  13. Ricki Says:

    I must admit that vanilla’s not usually my favorite, either, but these were both a nice change (esp. w/ the cinnamon/nut topping!) 🙂

    Thanks so much for your comment, and for visiting the blog! The original recipe called for all-purpose wheat flour, so I’m guessing that would work, of course. You could also try barley flour, which is sometimes a great substitute for spelt or wheat. Let me know how they turn out!

    Thank you so much! And your comment was the highlight of MY day!! 🙂

    I’m with hubby! More baking is better than less baking, 99 times out of 100. 😉

    That was my reaction, too–had never heard of vanilla muffins before. A great way to showcase vanilla, as it turns out!

    I know, I’m an anomaly. I also hate snow. Am I really a Montrealer??

    Thanks so much for visiting, and for your comment! Please note that these aren’t GF goodies, though (you can check my recipe index for a whole list of GF stuff, at the right). I’m sure you could try them with GF flour mixes, though. . . let me know if you do!

    I, too, have found hockey too violent. I remember when I was a kid watching hockey, it was more about technique and skill than beating each other up. Soccer (football) is a beautiful sport to watch (most of the time), I think–though I haven’t watched much, I do think there’s a certain grace to the movements.

    Thanks so much! I’m sure you could use Earth Balance instead of coconut butter, or even a bit less oil. And yay for another non-sportie! Believe it or not, hockey season is NOW. . . and goes until JUNE. (Huh??) 😉

    Thank you so much for your comment! Truly, that made my day and means a lot. I’ll do my best to keep at it! (PS that Rottweiler puppy?? BOY are they cute at that age!!) 🙂

    happy herbivore,
    Glad I could give you more vanilla recipes!

    Nice reassurance for me to hear that, too. . . it’s not wacky, it’s FUN, right? 😉

  14. amsiewong Says:

    Hey there, glad you found my muffin vs. cupcake post useful. 🙂 Whatever the case, muffin or cupcake, as long as it is delicious – that’s all that matters ain’t it? 😉


  15. Deb Schiff Says:

    Could I use flax for salba?

    By the way, these look fantastic!

  16. Monika Says:

    I’ve never been a huge vanilla cake person, but I’d definitely be willing to give these a try!

  17. The texture of the blender cereal is definitely thicker– like cream-of-wheat.

  18. maybellesmom Says:

    Your blog is new to me, and it is wonderful. While I am not vegan, I do a lot of vegan baking–and I am very impressed.

  19. Ricki Says:

    Thanks so much for visiting. I did find the post very useful–thanks! And I daresay these were both, indeed, delicious 🙂

    Thanks! You could definitely use 1 Tbsp flax for the salba, but I find the texture with flax is a little bit heavier and a bit dryer. . .just depends on what you’re looking for 🙂

    Funny, I’ve always felt that way, too. But the idea of a vanilla MUFFIN was just too intriguing. And I did like it!

    Thanks! Will give it a try.

    Thanks so much for visiting, and for your kind comment! I think you’ll find lots of the kinds of recipes your looking to serve Maybelle in the index. 🙂

  20. Mihl Says:

    A lot of coffee shops and bakeries in Germany sell muffins. I would say they are more like huge cupcakes without any frosting and people over here have no idea that there is a difference. Every time I show up with a batch of home-made, frosted and decorated cupcakes some people look at them as if they were aliens!
    I like all of your versions, they sound truly delicious and I’ve saved the recipes.

  21. Ricki Says:

    That’s so funny about the cupcakes! (I can’t imagine anyone looking at FROSTED CAKE–whatever size–as alien!!). 🙂

  22. Ashley Says:

    I just got a sample of Salba in the mail but I really have no idea what it is. Great muffin/cupcake experiment! I recently bought this cookbook and while I haven’t made anything from it, I am completely in love with it and can’t wait to bake from it. It’s just such a beautiful book with the layout, photos and recipes. Anyway… what do you do with the 10 batches of muffins you might make in one day? I play around with recipes too but not all in one day because then I’d have way too much to eat.

  23. I love it! Great way to vary the ingredients ever so slightly and see how they turn out. I say bake cupcakes, muffins, and coffee cake–and then vary the ingredients within for a smorgasbord of options.

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