Orange Pecan Muffins

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When I was in the sixth grade, my dad got very interested in genealogy. He would spend any spare time at the downtown branch of the Fort Worth Public Library looking through microfiche. It was usually Saturday morning, and as E3 and I were under twelve, we were dragged along. We spent most of the time looking at websites that were blocked by our AOL Kids accounts and generally making the librarians crazy. The best part, hands down, was breakfast. There was a little bakery caddy-corner to the library that we’d go to–just us, my dad, and the Wall Street Journal. They had little cartons of Tropicana orange juice and these unbelievable orange pecan muffins. Soft and sweet, nutty and not too orangey, perfectly golden brown, and standard-size, so I could have two. This was nearly twenty years ago, and that bakery has since closed following a tornado that tore through downtown Fort Worth in 2000. But I still remember those muffins.

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Whenever I’m in a coffee shop, I check to see if they have orange pecan muffins, but they never, ever do. While Texans put pecans in everything, New Yorkers choose walnuts. I know it’s just a geographic thing, but it still makes no sense to me. Why on earth would you choose walnuts when you could have pecans?!

…but anyway, back to the muffins.

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They start with toasting pecans. In Brooklyn, you simply can’t buy toasted pecans–believe me, I’ve tried. Homemade are better anyway. So, we throw a cup of pecan pieces on a baking sheet and let them toast just until they become fragrant, about five minutes. Watch them very carefully–nuts burn with no warning, and burnt pecans are decidedly not delicious.

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While those are cooling, make the orange muffin batter. We get orange flavor in there in two ways. First, we rub orange zest into granulated and light brown sugars. Rub the sugar and zest together like you’re trying to remove dried Elmer’s glue from your fingers. This releases the orange oil into the sugar. Once it all looks well-mixed and smells like heaven, add in flour, nutmeg, leaveners, and salt. Then squeeze in the juice of that orange you just zested, along with some yogurt, milk, a little oil, and an egg. Don’t stir the batter too much–if the gluten in the flour is overdeveloped, you’ll get tough muffins. And that would be a travesty. This is not the place to use an electric mixer. Use a whisk and a silicone spatula so you can really feel the batter coming together. It shouldn’t take more than 25 strokes to combine all the wet and dry ingredients. The batter will be extremely thick. Gently fold in the toasted pecans and divide your muffin batter into the twelve cups of a standard muffin tin (I use a cookie scoop). I like to sprinkle a few extra pecan pieces on top, purely for aesthetics. Once all the muffin cups are full, tap the whole pan on the counter five times. This is to release any big air bubbles and to help the batter spread.

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These muffins start baking for five minutes at 400F and finish for 14-18 minutes at 350F. The initial 400F blast of heat allows these muffins to rise high–these dome like a dream. We turn down the heat so that the outsides turn golden (but don’t burn) and the insides cook through and stay soft and tender. If we kept the oven at 400F, our final product would be burnt and tough on the outside, and potentially raw on the inside. Yuck. When these are removed from the oven, they should be tall, puffy, and so, so soft. Once they cool for a few minutes, the warm muffins will be perfect for slathering with cold salted butter. These are best the day they’re made, but cooled muffins will keep covered at room temperature for up to three days.

Orange Pecan Muffins are perfect for breakfasts, brunches, and snacks over the upcoming holidays. Just set a basket of them on the table with a pot of coffee and some fruit–you won’t have any complaints.

Looking for more breakfast items for the holidays? Check out my Apple Pie Cinnamon Rolls!

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Orange Pecan Muffins
makes 12 muffins

1 cup pecan pieces
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
zest of one large orange (about 2 tablespoons)
2 cups all purpose flour*
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
3/4 cup plain yogurt*
1/4 cup milk*
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (about one large orange-worth)
1/4 cup neutral-flavored oil*
1 large egg, room temperature

Preheat oven to 400F.

Spread pecans on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast in the oven for five minutes, just until fragrant. Let pecans cool while you prepare the muffin batter.

Grease a 12-cup standard muffin tin, or line with cupcake liners. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine granulated sugar, light brown sugar, and orange zest. With your fingers, rub the orange zest into the sugars until it is evenly dispersed and fragrant. Whisk in flour, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, combine yogurt, milk, fresh orange juice, and oil. Whisk in egg. Add dry ingredients in three installments, scraping down the bowl as you go. Do not overmix. Fold in toasted pecan pieces.

Divide batter among muffin cups. Bake for five minutes at 400F, then turn the oven temperature down to 350F and bake for an additional 14-18 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for at least five minutes before removing to a rack to cool completely. Serve immediately, or keep covered at room temperature for up to three days.

Notes:

  1. One cup of the flour may be replaced with whole wheat flour. Do not use whole wheat flour for all of it, or you risk dry, heavy muffins.
  2. I use 2% Greek yogurt. I do not recommend fat-free yogurt. Vanilla yogurt may also be used.
  3. I use whole milk. Any low fat cow’s milk or plant-based milk will work. Do not use fat-free or skim milk.
  4. I use canola oil, but vegetable or melted coconut oils would work here.

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