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.
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.
- A 2-ounce piece unpeeled gingerroot
- 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon zest (from 2 lemons), with some white pith
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, room temperature
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
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