As we approach St George’s Day, the baked good to plump for seems obvious: the English muffin. Unlike St Patrick’s Day or Burns Night, St George’s doesn’t have an intrinsically associated dish, but the eponymous nature of this muffin makes it a safe bet. It is easy to distinguish them from their American namesake, a totally different beast in just about every respect. The US version is sweet, cake-like and plump, whereas the English muffin is savoury, ‘bready’ and flat.
There is a suggestion that – the horror! – English muffins were in fact created in America, albeit by an Englishman, Samuel Bath Thomas, who emigrated from Plymouth to New York in 1874. And while it’s true that they were popularised by Thomas and his recipe patented in 1894, the muffin’s history precedes him, with Hannah Glasse giving a full recipe in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Simple in 1747, the modern recipe deviating little from hers.
During the Victorian period, muffins were often sold door-to-door, although the muffin man who bore them was more of a middle-muffin-man. According to Henry Mayhew, writing in 1851, the muffin man would buy the muffins wholesale from bakers and tout them around genteel homes, selling them hot. In lieu of a modern muffin man, we tend to get ours from the supermarket, but making them yourself is really simple, and yields a gorgeous bun.
English muffins are probably seen most now in swanky hotels or bottomless brunch joints, in the form of the very American Eggs Benedict, with ham and poached eggs and hollandaise piIed on top of the muffins. As St George’s Day approaches, I’ve eschewed this, and opted to embrace the most ‘English’ English muffin accompaniment imaginable: Marmite. I’ve added a tablespoon to the dough recipe; this is, of course, simply a bonus, and entirely optional. If you’re a traditionalist or a Marmite naysayer, replace it with 6g salt, adding it when you combine the dry ingredients and being careful not to touch the yeast, and you will have – gorgeous – traditional English muffins. But please do give the marmite addition a go: unsurprisingly it is more subtle than if you were to slather spoonfuls of the stuff on your hot muffins, and has a deeper, toastier flavour than the plain version. It might even convert the Marmite hater in your life.
Two things to note if you do opt for the Marmite version: first, there is no need for extra salt, as the Marmite effectively seasons the dough. Second, the muffins will come up darker than if the marmite wasn’t used, so be aware of this when you’re cooking them in the pan, and make sure they are thoroughly cooked before removing to cool.
Eat them as Glasse instructs: toasted again after cooking, broken open, and with butter melting between the two halves.
Very English muffins
Makes: 8-10 muffins
Takes: 2 hours, including proving
Bakes: 10-20 minutes
1 generous tablespoon Marmite (optional), or 6g salt
170ml whole milk
300g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
6g fast-action yeast
15g caster sugar
15g softened butter
1 medium egg
1. Warm the milk gently and add the Marmite, stirring until it has dissolved. Remove from the heat and briefly set to one side.
2. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl and add the yeast and caster sugar.
3. Add the butter, egg, and Marmite-y milk to the flour and begin to mix. If you’re using a stand mixer, set it going slowly until all the ingredients are homogenous, and then up the speed and leave to mix for around 10 minutes. If you’re doing it by hand, it’ll take nearer 15. The dough will be soft and sticky, but will become more manageable as you work it; don’t expect it to end up in a neat ball like bread dough would.
4. Decant into a lightly oiled, clean mixing bowl, and cover with cling film. Leave in a warm place for an hour, or until the dough has roughly doubled in size.
5. Dust a surface and two baking trays lightly with flour. Turn the dough out onto your floured surface and flatten the dough out to around 2cm high. Using a 6-9cm round biscuit or scone cutter, cut out rounds and place them, spaced apart, on the trays. Sprinkle with remaining flour and leave to rise for another 30 minutes.
6. Heat a non-stick pan to a very low heat. Using a small spatula or a palette knife, lift a muffin up and place it in the pan. Leave it alone, without moving it for seven minutes. When you now turn it, it should have a dark brown base, and smell toasty but not burnt. Flip onto its other side, and leave it for another seven minutes. You can cook several muffins in the pan at one time, but will need to do so in batches; be aware that the muffins will expand a little as they cook, so give them space to breathe.
7. When browned on both top and bottom, set to one side to cool. When thoroughly cool, break in half and toast. These should be eaten hot with lots of butter melting into the broken, toasted insides.