Monday, January 30, 2012

Lemon Ricotta Muffins

Many times for me cooking is about recreating a memory.  I can't bake bread or smell vanilla extract without picturing myself as a little girl of 7 standing next to my grandmother in her bakery kneading my own little ball of dough.  Every time I cut into an apple, I can see the group of women and girls around my Mom's kitchen table slicing pound after pound of apples for Thanksgiving pies.  I treasure each and every one of those pictures from the past.  So for me, the best part of my obsession with the kitchen is knowing that as I continue to cook and bake the way I was taught, I am creating those same sort of memories for my boys.

So what is the memory associated with these muffins?  Well, it's certainly sweet, but not related to my family in any way (unless you consider your best friend from high school to be family, which I most certainly do).  Like most teenage girls, my best friend and I spent quite a lot of time at the mall (duh).  What else are you going to do in South Jersey when you're 16?  We'd wander through the stores, trying on all the best lotions at Bath and Body Works, checking out what cute boys from our school were there that day, and laughing over shared stories over pizza at the food court.  My BFF and I were connoisseurs of the food court, knowing exactly which establishments served the best and cheapest food.
The best place to grab a quick bite, keeping my raging sweet tooth in mind, was a little shop at the edge of the food court in which another of our friends worked.  It was a little muffin shop that 20 years later is still there.  We'd stop by trying to see if our friend was working and I would get 3 mini lemon cheese muffins for $1.  Those little guys were very economical.  I'd snack on them as we checked out the Gap and Eddie Bauer for anything that we could afford.  I loved those little muffins and to this day they still hold a soft spot in my heart.  When I go to that mall on family vacations to visit my parents, I always try to grab a lemon cheese muffin.  It reminds me of being young and good times with good friends.

I have been working on my own version for a while now, and I think I may have finally gotten it right.  What clued me in?  My littlest son's face as he scooped out the muffin's sweetened lemony ricotta filling with his tongue.  You just can't get any better than that.  I can only hope that I am helping them to make their own food memories that they will share with their own children many years from now.  And they get to eat some darn good muffins at the same time.
Lemon Ricotta Muffins
Makes 12 standard muffins

I've made these muffins with just the lemon and cheese to recreate my muffin memory, but I've also made them with dried cherries.  Lemon and cherry is one of my favorite flavor combinations.  If you would like to try the muffins with the cherries, soak 3/4 cup dried cherries in hot water while you prepare the batter.  Drain the cherries and add them to the batter after mixing in the dry ingredients.

For the muffin:
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1 egg
zest of 1 medium lemon
2 tbs lemon juice

For the filling:
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup whole milk ricotta
1/3 cup mascarpone or cream cheese at room temperature
1 tsp lemon zest

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Line a standard muffin tin with cupcake papers or butter the muffin wells.

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda and baking powder.  Set aside.  In a second large bowl, mix together the oil, milk, ricotta, egg and lemon zest and juice.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until just combined. Spoon the batter in to muffin tin, filling the cups about 2/3 of the way.

In a small bowl, beat the powdered sugar, ricotta, mascarpone or cream cheese, and lemon zest together with a wooden spoon.  Using a teaspoon, scoop some cheese mixture onto the top of each muffin.  Lightly press the cheese mixture into the muffin batter (it may get pushed right out of the muffin as it bakes if you skip this step). 

Bake the muffins for 18-20 minutes.  You won't be able to use the toothpick test with these muffins because of the cheese filling, but the edges of the muffins should be golden brown and the cheese filling should look set and not shiny and wet.  Let the muffins cool for 3 minutes in the pan and then carefully remove them and cool completely on a baking rack.

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