When I started thinking about how I would add my own distinctive “twist” to this classic recipe, I thought about where it was supposed to have come from, as opposed to where it actually came from. After all, I had done all that research on what lumberjacks ate – it’d be a shame to let that knowledge go to waste!
First of all: the fruit. I opted for dried apples and prunes, as both had been mentioned in some of the archival sources I had read.
A note about prunes – there is much contention and confusion surrounding plums vs prunes. My understanding of the breakdown is thus: all prunes are plums, but not all plums make prunes. Kind of like how all wolves belong to the dog family, but not all dogs are wolves.
It likely doesn’t help straighten matters out that in French, prune means plum and pruneau means prune and perhaps the best known prune plum is the prune d’Ente (or plum of Ente). When dried, they become pruneaux d’Agen. California prunes (which have now been rebranded as “dried plums” to escape the stodgy, good-for-your-bowels image that “prune” evokes) come from a hybrid of the prune d’Ente which Californians just call the “French Prune”, but is a plum, until it is dried, when it becomes a prune.
Anyway, in addition to changing up the fruit, I thought soaking them in water was a wasted opportunity to add a little flavor boost, so I soaked them in what Yanks would call apple cider – a soft drink, not usually carbonated but in this case, I reached for the Bundaberg. I skipped the baking soda.
As for the dry ingredients – the process of refining flour has come along way in the last 150 years, so I swapped out a ½ cup of plain (or All Purpose) flour for whole wheat flour to better get that feel of coming from lumber camps in the 1800s. And if you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between home cooks and restaurant cooks, it’s that restaurant cooks generally use more heat, more fat, and more salt than home cooks are comfortable with, which is probably why I added a bit of salt to my mix as well (plus, I didn’t use baking soda in the soaking liquid, or salted butter in the batter, so I had to compensate).
For the wets, I went with shortening, since that seemed to be something all the camps had, whereas butter seemed more limited. This required a little mathing, since butter has more water in it than shortening, so I’d need to use a little less shortening and add a little extra moisture. I also added maple flavoring instead of vanilla for that little extra je ne sais Quebecois… In hindsight, I shouldn’t have bothered as it didn’t bring much to the table and it’s not easy to find here (read: I’ve NEVER seen it anywhere in NZ! If you have, PLEASE let me know).
As for the topping – well, it wasn’t going to be coconut, I knew that. But I wanted something like coconut, to provide a textural different and to sort of resemble wood chips… a suitable substitute that got mentioned a couple times in the sources was oatmeal. Additionally, I had read that sugar was often in short supply in the camps, and reserved for desserts, so since I’d put it IN the cupcakes, I’d use molasses for the topping – how thrifty of me. Of course, the only molasses I could easily find in the shops near me was blackstrap molasses and that wasn’t what I was looking for, so I went with treacle instead.
Sidebar on Molasses vs Treacle:
Both are by-products of the sugar-refining process and both come in variety of flavours/colours. Golden syrup is very much like Light Molasses – produced from the first processing cycle of sugar. Medium/Dark Molasses comes from the second processing cycle of sugar, not unlike black treacle. “Treacle” as it’s sold in stores here, is somewhere in between the two stages – it’s usually from the second processing cycle, but is often lightened and sweetened with refinery syrup these days. A third processing cycle yields blackstrap molasses, which contains about 1% of your daily recommend intake of sodium.
The lesson: if a recipe doesn’t specify blackstrap, and you can’t find any other kind of molasses, reach for treacle. However, if a recipe specifies treacle, and you can’t get your hands on it, you might find molasses too bitter to substitute 1:1, so you may need to cut it with corn syrup, golden syrup, or glucose (depending on your location and what’s available to you).
The result: another delicious muffcake. Again, the texture was not at all cupcake-like but it had a lot of flavor and I really liked the texture the dried apple gave. I didn’t find the oat topping as good as the coconut – the oats were a little too crunchy relative to the moistness of the crumb, and they needed help staying adhered to the dome of the muffcake. But I reckon the lumber camp would hire me.
Here’s my recipe:
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C and line your cups with paper liners.
In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine your finely chopped prunes and dried apples. Pour over a cup and a half of sparkling apple cider and put in the microwave for 3 minutes. Then let it all sit for about 10 minutes, at which point the fruit should have plumped nicely and there won’t be much liquid left.
In another bowl, sift together the flours, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of your mixer, measure out the sugar and softened shortening and beat on medium until light and fluffy. Add water, maple extract and egg and mix well on low. Add the fruit and all of their soaking liquid and stir to combine. Fold in the flour and baking powder. Scoop or spoon the mix into your lined cups and bake for about 20 minutes.
While the muffcakes bake, make the topping by combining all the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium low heat. Bring to a simmer and maintain for about five minutes, then remove the pan from the heat.
From there, it’s pretty much the same as the last:
“When the muffcakes are pretty much cooked (a toothpick comes out clean), pull them out of the oven and switch it to grill (or broil, for the Yanks reading this) . Spoon the topping over the muffcakes and put under the grill and WATCH CLOSELY. Remove from the oven and DONE!
Let cool partially before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. The muffcakes will keep for up to 4 days in an airtight container.