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Magical, Marvelous Muffins

14:59 October 08, 2014
By: Kim Ranjbar

A friend of mine has a T-shirt that reads: “Muffins are just ugly cupcakes.” Beneath the text is a prissy, pink cupcake sporting swirled icing and bright sprinkles sneering at a forlorn, brown muffin. While I found the quip (and the tee) amusing, I couldn't help but feel for the sad little muffin. After all, muffins can be vastly superior to cupcakes. Just consider their versatility ...

You can binge on a chocolate muffin with rich chunks of chocolate hidden inside it that is just as sinful as a cupcake, or you can get a little fiber in your diet by munching on a dense bran muffin followed by an ice-cold glass of milk. Muffins can stand in as an entire meal – case in point being the breakfast muffin complete with eggs, cheese and bacon – or they can be both sweet and savory – for example, have you ever had a sweet zucchini muffin smothered in herbed cream cheese? To call muffins boring and unattractive is downright rude and just plain wrong. Although I could bake all kinds of delicious muffins to offer further proof, it’s much more fun (and less time consuming) to experience quality muffins created by the hands of masters.

Although New Orleans has always been a city that is super-serious about its bread (ahem ... Leidenheimer vs. Dong Phuong bakeries?), in the past few years bakeries have been popping up left and right. Everyone has their favorites, but one of mine would have to be Maple Street Patisserie. Pastry chef and co-owner Ziggy Cichowski is not only one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, but also a dough master. From croissants, cakes and bear claws to baguettes and challah, there is no pastry Ziggy can’t master, and that definitely includes his muffins. For example, try one of his chocolate chunk muffins with a swirl of vanilla inside and crunchy, sugary crumbles on top. Though you may not be able to eat them both (let alone one!), you could buy two of these mammoth muffins and a hot cuppa joe and still have funds left over.

Over on Magazine Street, chef Lisa Barbato and her husband, Chris, are firmly implanted in their new digs, dishing out delectable lunches, heavenly pastries and Illy coffee at Rivista. It’s a terrific spot to spend a peaceful lunch lingering over Bistecca – grilled flank steak with eggplant, ricotta and chimichurri – or digging into a Couscous Salad with summer veggies and pistachio mint vinaigrette. Many folks who visit the Crescent City Farmers Market are familiar with Lisa’s famous tomato tarts, which she still busts out now and again, but there’s so much more to love, such as her golden-brown croissants, herbaceous focaccia, chewy bagels and (my favorite) Chunky Monkey gluten-free muffins. I love sitting at Rivista and scarfing a Chunky Monkey, a banana muffin stuffed with hunks of dark chocolate and walnuts, while sipping a frothy cappuccino.

Located on South Jefferson Davis in the modern Woodward Design building, Gracious Bakery and the skills of pastry chef and owner Megan Forman are something every New Orleanian (and tourist!) should sample at least once. Folks in the area already stop in on a regular basis for lunch, indulging in everything from a Turkey & Havarti with pear and walnut chutney on green onion bread to a Meatloaf Sandwich made with Two Run Farm beef and dressed with tomato jam and melted cheddar on heavenly ciabatta. But I like to delve into the pastries. Blueberry Slab Pie with brown-butter icing, a moist bran muffin with cream cheese or a Hazelnut “Kermit” Cruffin (named after our famous trumpeter Kermit Ruffins) with hazelnut and chocolate spread between layers of croissant dough and baked like a muffin … it’s what’s for breakfast.

Finally, toward the river end of Oak Street you’ll find another newcomer, Breads on Oak. Chef and owner Sean O’Mahony is serious about his bread. Having studied at the French Pastry School in Paris, O’Mahony wanted nothing more than to bring “Old World French breads” back to the New Orleans area, and we’re oh-so-glad he did. Choose from French baguettes, multigrain bread, ciabatta, brioche, olive bread and more. Breads on Oak also offers a rotating menu of breads such as sourdough, dark rye, Irish soda bread and Italian sesame. Other than dreamy loafs, Breads on Oak prides itself on using organic, locally sourced ingredients for everything they make, especially their muffins, which are also quite often vegan. Scarf yourself silly on their Pineapple Coconut, Pumpkin Pecan, and (one of my favorites) Strawberry Vanilla muffins.

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