Art. An artist’s source of inspiration takes on many forms. A wooden palette, a blank canvas, a page and a pen, a sculptor’s chisel, a music sheet, a glass blower’s torch, a chef’s plate… Yes, food is definitely art: in the composition of its raw elements, in its creative process, in its presentation, in the harmony of the finished product. I’ve always been drawn to art, most specifically the visual arts. When I was a wee child, my very first favorite activity was coloring. When I was old enough to take the city bus on my own, at the tender age of ten (which was totally respectable and acceptable back in the 70s) I would often find myself visiting the National Art Gallery of Ottawa. Back in those days, when parents were less fearful, there was a lot of room for children to come into their own and get an early start on how to deal with the world outside the family bubble. I suspect the dangers were the same but the awareness of such dangers was not what it is today. At any rate, we had a lot of freedom to explore and that was really cool! My bestie Dom was a regular companion on these escapades and we explored not only the gallery but every museum (all free admittance back in the days) in Ottawa. Aside from the gallery, we also particularly enjoyed the Museum of War which used to be located on Sussex Drive, right next to the Royal Canadian Mint. One summer, we visited so often the security guard knew us by name! We were way too young to understand the horror that was presented to us in this museum and with the innocence of youth as our ally, we spent hours pretending we were in war zones, playing in life size trenches and military camp recreations. We were equally fascinated by miniature models of epic battles. If we were lucky, to complement our day escapades, our moms would have topped our bus fare with a few more cents to be spent on a snack and a drink, or maybe even lunch! The lunch counters of Woolworth or the Metropolitan on Rideau became our sophisticated munching places: grilled cheese and tomato soup, yum! And sometimes, we even splurged for the Hamburger Deluxe Platter at Simpsons on Sparks Street, what a treat!
As often as Dom and I gallivanted through downtown Ottawa together, buzzing from one museum to the next, I spent an equal amount of time venturing out alone (with my mom’s blessings infused with words of wisdom and caution). This budding new independence and freedom allowed me to discover “life” on my own terms. I found myself returning to the Art Gallery over and over again, completely absorbed by the beauty of art and the talents of the creators. Only alone could I loiter at my own pace and contemplate my “favorites”. Truth be told, I am a devoted Renaissance and Impressionism chick, love a wide array of contemporary art but seem to gel a fair bit less with cubism and surrealism. Must be because I am less of an innovator and more of a reproducer myself, the type to be inspired by scenes and people rather than a wild interpretation of a dream or illusion. I am inspired by life around me as I interpret it, as my eyes see it, and as my brain captures it. When I think back to that child sitting quietly in front of old masterpieces at the Art Gallery, one thing strikes me every single time: the types and styles of paintings that drew me in. Do you know what my absolute favorite painting was? A majestic composition of a bourgeois family dinner set in the 16th or 17th century. Had my love affair with this one canvas been analyzed by a career and interest counsellor, I think culinary arts would have won over right then and there. That particular scene drew me in every single time: the conviviality of the dinner guests, the table setting and accessories, the limp pheasant void of life and ready to be plucked and roasted, the abundance of fresh fruits and nuts. All those details created such a perfect dinner scene, it seemed timeless even though the epoch was so disconnected from my own. I could sense the joy of the moment oozing from the picture and I particularly enjoyed the intermingling of the generations. Who was the artist? Shamefully, I do not know but he was famous enough to have his painting exposed in a renowned museum. Over time, I stopped going to the museum on a regular basis: other interests popped up, fees were introduced and eventually, it moved from its familiar and easily accessible site to a new home. These days, it seems I wait for a big exhibit to hit town to visit this most amazing place. When I do though, it goes without saying a pilgrimage will be made to that one picture that sent me in dreamy contemplation many moons ago…
How those this little peek in my earlier life relate to this recipe? Comically enough: as I was arranging the star ingredients on the slate board before transforming them into muffins, my mind drifted to art. And as the mind does its own thing, images often awakening memories, I was transported to this precious moment of my childhood. As I scrutinized the picture I snapped, my thoughts wandered to those earlier days, reminding me how I got intimately acquainted with the beautiful art of creating food and the equally beautiful act of sharing a meal. And yes, I do see beauty in a simple, unassuming muffin…
Oh and you should know, in my friend Susan’s own words: these are my absolute favorite muffins in the whole wide world.
PEAR ALMOND & CHOCOLATE MUFFINS
makes 12 regular or 6 jumbo
What you need
- 2 cups muffin flour¹
- ¾ packed brown sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 cup milk (can be swapped for buttermilk, plain yogurt or kefir)²
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup oil (select your preferred neutral tasting oil)
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 1¾ cups fresh, peeled³ and diced pears
- ¼ cup coarsely ground toasted almonds
- ¼ to ½ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate or chocolate chips
¹ You can use all purpose or an equal mix of all-purpose and whole wheat. For best results though I recommend using my go-to muffin flour mix recipe which follows below
² I have never tried using nut milks or coconut milk, which is why these ingredients are not listed as potential swaps. I suspect they would work fine but I hesitate to recommend a swap I have not yet experimented with. As for the other types of dairy, I use them interchangeably in all my muffin recipes and found the results to be equally successful.
³ Peeling pears is strictly a matter of preference and choosing either will not alter the final results because the peel of pears is very tender, unlike an apple.
How to make it
- Heat oven to 375°F
- On a cookie sheet, lay out raw almonds in a single layer and set to toast in the oven until golden brown. This will take 10 to 20 minutes depending on the almonds you use, whether they are sliced, slivered or whole. Set a timer for 10 minutes and add time as needed in 5 minute increments. Let cool before grinding (in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle)
- Line with paper cups or grease muffin tins
- In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredient: flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Set aside
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: milk, eggs, oil, vanilla and almond extract
- Peel and dice pears in small pieces and chop chocolate in chip size chunks if using a chocolate bar, set aside
- Add wet mix to dry and stir gently until just moistened. Stir in almonds
- Reserve ¼ of the pear cubes and an equal amount of chocolate to sprinkle on top of the muffins. Add remaining pears and chocolate pieces to the batter and gently fold to incorporate
- Sprinkle muffins with the reserved pears and chocolate. If there is any ground almonds left, sprinkle a bit as well on each muffin
- Bake 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown on the edges and just set in the middle
Muffin Flour Blend
Why use this muffin flour? It yields tender centers and crispy tops.
Make a big batch ahead and have it ready at your finger tips.
5 cups all-purpose flour
5 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup wheat bran
1 cup ground flaxseed
- Mix well together and keep in a well sealed jar, refrigerated is recommended for long-term storage but will do fine at room temperature for up to 4 months
- This flour can be used in most muffin recipes. Why use this muffin flour? It yields tender centers and crispy tops. It is packed with nutrition, fiber, a bit of protein and a bit of good omegas. It can also be used in sweet loaves/breads such as banana & zucchini for instance
- I am not experienced in gluten-free flour mixtures and cannot offer substitutes for a gluten-free mix.