Marion Cunningham’s Fresh Ginger Muffins Are Indeed Genius—Here’s Why

September 21, 2016

Marion Cunningham’s recipe for fresh ginger muffins is one of those that sort of floats around among cooks who’ve been doing this for awhile, a small part of her vast legacy.

It hangs cozily within reach, becoming part of that shared language we adopt as cooks—right alongside the Purple Plum Torte, the Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, the Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. (If you haven’t heard about these muffins yet, don’t worry—you’re about to know a lot more.)

This is how I learned—blogs like Orangette and Lottie & Doof spread the word. Nozlee Samadzadeh and Sarah Jampel, two of the smartest cooks I know, told me to make it. I’d pause on it every time I pulled out my squat, sticky copy of The Breakfast Book to hunt for something comforting to bake.

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But I didn’t realize, until I baked it myself, how much cleverness was tucked away in the method—ideas that themselves will stay in the air near me (and you), ready to pluck.

First, and most obviously, is the brightness suffused by a rather massive amount of ginger. “It is better to have too much ginger than too little,” Cunningham writes in the recipe. As fresh ginger became more available in the 1980s, she created this recipe out of an older one that called for ground ginger. (Fun fact: Heating fresh ginger makes it sweeter, while drying it makes it spicier.)

She—emphatically—doesn’t peel the ginger. As soon as you listen to her once, you will question whether you ever need to peel it again. The papery skin goes unnoticed, and you’ve just saved yourself 10 minutes of chipping away at crevices and knobs.

But she doesn’t just toss the ginger in—she warms it first with an equal amount of sugar to form loose, barely candied bits pooling in gingery syrup. Sugar tends to take on the personality of nearby aromatic ingredients, so this move helps the flavor travel further and more pervasively than scattered bits alone would have. Cunningham applies this principle again with the lemon zest, blending it with a few tablespoons more of the sugar to make a heap of citrusy-bright powder.

If this sounds more complicated than your average muffin recipe, it is, but barely so. “Pretentiousness is indefensible,” as she would say. You can use whatever tool you prefer—Cunningham suggests a food processor or a knife; a Microplane would work well, too. All make quick work, though it’s helpful to remember that the finer the grind, the stronger the flavors will be.

Once you stir together the ginger-sugar and the lemon-sugar, you have a spunky jam that’s very good on its own. (Sarah suggested nesting it in thumbprint cookies.) But keep going—finishing out the buttermilk batter is straightforward from here, with this goo getting stirred in toward the end.

In the oven, the muffins turn to tender puffballs with a crystalline crust, and fill the house with warm-spicy-lemony-dizzy smells. All your sugar work and not-peeling have done their jobs, and now not only do you have hot, heady muffins—but now you can unleash their tricks as you please.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Nozlee Samadzadeh and Sarah Jampel for this one!

Photos by Alpha Smoot

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


bonnie R. October 3, 2020
i tried these with coconut sugar because that was all had on hand. i'm sure it changed the color of the muffins but they are delicious. at first i was afraid i'd ruined them as the batter before adding the flour looked really weird (like it had oatmeal in it). but after adding the flour everything coalesced just fine. can't wait to try them with regular granulated sugar.
sally October 7, 2016
Boring! Not enough ginger flavor and not enough lemon flavor. Would definitely never make them again
Kathie September 29, 2016
This recipe was prepared using measurements for one and a half batches. This gave me 12 decent sized muffins rather than 24 very small muffins. Next time I will triple the recipe in order to get 24 muffins.
Liz K. September 25, 2016
Yes! These and her cinnamon puffs are my all-time favorites, so nice to see them get the recognition they deserve.
PhillipBrandon September 25, 2016
I'm pretty sure this muffin recipe just tricked me into making cupcakes...
Julie September 25, 2016
This little book has turned out to be one of my favorite cookbooks. I bought it not knowing it was a gem. Yet I have not made these muffins yet -- can't wait to give them a try -- thanks so much for showing me why its worth the effort!
BakerMary September 25, 2016
This recipe is awesome! I top with coarse sugar. Also FYI the buttermilk muffin alone (w/o lemon&ginger) makes a truly awesome blueberry muffin, topped with streusel.
Nozlee S. September 22, 2016
Ahhhh how long has it been since I've made these!? Can't wait to make these this weekend. <3
Carole W. September 22, 2016
That should read "fine early morning read". Typing before coffee ...
Carole W. September 22, 2016
This is absolutely next up for baking. A delicious-sounding recipe and one of the most convincing/tempting/inspiring food posts I've read. Thanks for the fibe early morning read.
SoupLady September 21, 2016
Thank you, Kristen! I've made a lot of muffins from The Breakfast Book (Irish Oatmeal and Cinnamon Puffs are favorites) but I've always been hesitant about the Fresh Ginger Muffins because of the unpeeled ginger. I have no idea why, Marion Cunningham has never lead me astray - when she urges you to use pancake syrup rather than maple in a muffin recipe I don't think twice. Thank you for taking the plunge for me, these are getting made this weekend.

Mrs. Cunningham's The Breakfast Book is my 'desert island' cookbook. I love all of her books but this one is suffused with her straightforward, lovely personality and some of her best recipes. She makes me want to have custard for breakfast with a small plain cookie (often). I'm happy that there are so many people who appreciate this book and recognize that it's genius!

LauriL September 21, 2016
I am not a baker...ok, so I made Phyllis's wonderful cookies twice in one week! I'm terribly afraid of sugars and what they do to my waistline!! So now after reading this Genious recipe, I'll put my fear aside and try these irresistable muffins.....ginger always wins me over!