Gluten-free Carrot Zucchini Muffins, and a Muffin Rant
Whoa. This question totally blew my mind. Other than the obvious phenotypical distinction (#1) that a cupcake has frosting and a muffin doesn’t (or shouldn’t), I was stumped.
And so, the research began. I learned quite a bit about baked goods esoterica in my quest to better understand the taxonomy of carbs, as a matter of fact. Here are some interesting distinctions:
- (#2): There are differences in process: Cupcakes are made by creaming together butter and sugar, then adding the remaining ingredients. Muffins, as other quickbreads, are made by adding all the wet ingredients to all the dry ingredients. As a result, cupcakes tend to have what food scientists refer to as a “more tender crumb.”
- (#3) There are differences in ingredients: The platonic ideal of a muffin is mostly flour with an egg, a relatively small amount of sugar (~1/4 cup) and fat, usually in the form of oil (~1/4 cup). Cupcakes should have at least double the sugar and fat, and usually more eggs as well. As a result, they’re richer and sweeter.
One might expect, based on point #3 above, muffins to be healthier and lower calorie than cupcakes. And while this may have been true at some point in the 1950s, I can assure you that this is rarely the case.
For one thing, there is the portion issue. New York City muffins are on steroids. I recently confiscated an uneaten breakfast muffin from a client of mine who came to see me for weight loss. (Yes, I am mean like that. If you come to my office with a muffin and you are trying to lose weight, I will take it away from you and make you a bowl of oatmeal instead.) I proceeded to lug this enormous muffin home so that I could weigh it on my kitchen scale. It was 8oz exactly. As in, a half of a pound. As in, if I had another one in the bag I could do bicep curls with it. When I consulted the USDA’s National Nutrient database to determine how many calories this 8oz (or, 227 gram) muffin likely had, I discovered that the USDA defined an “extra large” commercially prepared Blueberry Muffin as being “only” 168 grams (and 660 calories). In other words, the standard NYC breakfast muffin was 35% bigger than the standard extra large muffin. Based on this data, I estimated it to clock in at 891 calories, with 43g of fat and 61g of sugar. A more “standard” 5oz muffin (which, incidentally, is considered “large” by the USDA), such as one you would find at Au Bon Pain or Starbucks, has about 500-550 calories.
Compare that to your standard cupcake, which, despite being topped with a crown of pure butter and sugar, tends to come in more modest sizes. The cupcakes at Au Bon Pain are between 350-400 calories; or, less than their muffin counterparts by quite a margin. Even among more generously-sized cupcakes, such as those sold at Crumbs, you’re looking at a calorie range of 480-790 calories per cupcake according to the sources I consulted. That is still less than the gargantuan muffin I confiscated.
In other words, these days you’re probably better off having a cupcake for breakfast than a muffin– if you didn’t bake it yourself.
Which brings me to the next chapter of the muffin story: my Sysiphean quest to find recipes for truly healthy muffins to bake for myself.
Close your eyes, if you will, and imagine being the poor kid of a dietitian mom who kills everyone’s joy by exposing how many calories are in their favorite indulgences. Are you with me? You are a toddler growing up in America who has never tasted ice cream, Goldfish crackers, a chicken finger, a slice of pizza, a hot dog or a lollipop. Your mom gave you cake on your birthday–which was awesome–and then the cake never resurfaced again. This mom of yours, not completely oblivious to the deprivation she is subjecting you to, wants to find a compromise: something a little bit sweet but still, on balance, nutritious. Your mom wants to bake you muffins.
And so: I googled. I weelicioused. I checked all my usual haunts for “healthy muffins,” “whole wheat muffins,”… you name it. All of the recipes I encountered had *at least* 1/2 cup sugar–and most had more. And if 1/2 cup sugar doesn’t seem like a lot, here’s the math that I did: 1/2 cup is 24 teaspoons. Or, two teaspoons per muffin in a recipe that makes 12 muffins. If the average ADULT female is only supposed to have 6 teaspoons of added sugar in her diet per day, should a toddler who weighs only 24 pounds have two in a single muffin?
And then I found a lower-sugar muffin recipe… that was ALSO gluten free… from the unlikeliest of sources: Giada Di Laurentiis. Better known as the Food Network’s queen of glutenous Italian cooking. Not only did Giada’s recipe use one of my favorite gluten free flours– high-protein, low carb Almond flour– but it also called for a full cup of grated vegetables. The best thing about this recipe, of course, was that I could eat the muffins, too.
These muffins were a cinch to make, had a moist and delicate crumb and tasted delicious. With 1/3 cup maple syrup (I left out the raisins), each muffin would only have ~1 tsp sugar. If you make mini muffins as the recipe instructs, the minis would have about 1/2 tsp each.
Adapted everso slightly from Giada Di Laurentiis
- 1 cup almond flour
- 1/4 cup brown rice flour
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/3 cup grapeseed or canola oil
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup grated carrots (from 1 medium peeled carrot)
- 1/2 cup grated zucchini (from 1 medium unpeeled zucchini)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 24 mini-muffin cups with (1 1/2-inch) paper liners. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine together the flours, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon.
- In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the oil, syrup, and egg. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Mix in the grated carrot and grated zucchini.
- Using 2 small spoons, fill the prepared muffin cups 3/4 full with the batter and bake until light golden, about 15 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes. Transfer the muffins to a wire rack to cool completely, about 30 minutes.
Approximate nutrition info per mini-muffin (assumes batch makes 24): 70 calories, 5g carbohydrate, 1.5g protein, 5g fat (mostly the heart-healthy, monounsaturated kind).
Double the stats above if you make 12 regular sized muffins instead and you get 140 calories each. Pair this with some plain yogurt, a hard boiled egg or a piece of fruit and you could still have a muffin-based for breakfast for under 300 calories! That’s even less than a cupcake!
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