“Be a muffin in a world of cupcakes.”-Unknown
A friend of mine has a t-shirt that reads “Muffins are just ugly cupcakes.” Beneath the text is a prissy, pink cupcake sporting swirled icing and bright sprinkles sneering at a forlorn, brown muffin. While I found the quip (and the tee) amusing, I couldn’t help but feel for the sad little muffin. After all, muffins can be vastly superior to cupcakes. Just consider their versatility.
You can binge on a chocolate muffin with rich chunks of chocolate hidden inside that is just as sinful as a cupcake, or you can get a little fiber in your diet by munching on a dense bran muffin followed by an ice-cold glass of milk. Muffins can stand in as an entire meal – case in point being the breakfast muffin complete with eggs, cheese and bacon – or they can be both sweet and savory at the same time, for example, have you ever had a sweet zucchini muffin smothered in herbed cream cheese? To call muffins boring and unattractive is downright rude and just plain wrong. Although I could bake all kinds of delicious muffins to offer proof, it’s much more fun (and less time consuming) to experience quality muffins created from the hands of masters.
Although New Orleans has always been a city super-serious about its bread (ahem… Leidenheimer vs. Dong Phuong Bakery?), in the past few years, bakeries have been popping up left and right. Everyone has their favorites but one of mine would have to be Maple Street Patisserie. Pastry chef/co-owner Ziggy Cichowski is not only one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, he is a dough master. From croissants, cakes and bear claws to baguettes and challah, there is no pastry Ziggy can’t master, and that definitely includes his muffins. For example, try one of his chocolate chunk muffins with a swirl of vanilla inside and crunchy, sugary crumbles on top. Though you may not be able to eat them both (let alone one!), you could buy two of these mammoth muffins and a hot cuppa joe and still have funds left over.
Over on Magazine Street, chef Lisa Barbato and her husband Chris are firmly implanted in their new digs, dishing out delectable lunches, heavenly pastries and Illy coffee at Rivista. It’s a terrific spot to spend a peaceful lunch lingering over Bistecca – grilled flank steak with eggplant, ricotta and chimichurri – or digging into a Couscous Salad with summer veggies and pistachio mint vinaigrette. Many folks who visit the Crescent City Farmer’s Market are familiar with Lisa’s famous tomato tarts, which she still busts out now and again, but there’s so much more to love like her golden brown croissants, herbaceous focaccia, chewy bagels and (my favorite) Chunky Monkey gluten-free muffins. I love sitting at Rivista and scarfing a Chunky Monkey, a banana muffin stuffed with hunks of dark chocolate and walnuts, while sipping a frothy cappuccino.
Located on South Jeff Davis in the modern Woodward Design building, Gracious Bakery and the skills of pastry chef/owner Megan Forman are something every New Orleanian (and tourist!) should sample at least once. Folks in the area already stop in on a regular basis for lunch, indulging in everything from a Turkey & Havarti with pear and walnut chutney on green onion bread to a Meatloaf Sandwich made from Two Run Farms beef and dressed with tomato jam and melted cheddar on heavenly ciabatta. But I like to delve into the pastries. Blueberry Slab Pie with brown-butter icing , a moist bran muffin with cream cheese or a Hazelnut “Kermit” Cruffin (named after our famous trumpeter Kermit Ruffins) with hazelnut and chocolate spread between layers of croissant dough and baked like a muffin … it’s what’s for breakfast.
Finally, towards the river-end of Oak Street you’ll find another newcomer, Breads on Oak. Chef/owner Sean O’Mahony is serious about his bread. Having studied at the French Pastry School in Paris, O’Mahony wanted nothing more than to bring “Old World French breads” back to the New Orleans area, we’re oh-so glad he did. Choose from French baguettes, multigrain bread, ciabatta, brioche, olive bread and more. Breads on Oak also offers a rotating menu of breads like sourdough, dark rye, Irish soda bread and Italian sesame. Other than dreamy loafs, Breads on Oak prides itself on using organic , locally-sourced ingredients for everything they make, especially their muffins which are also, quite often, vegan. Scarf yourself silly on Pineapple Coconut, Pumpkin Pecan, Orange Cranberry and (one of my favorites) Strawberry Vanilla.
*Article originally published in the October 2014 issue of Where Y’at Magazine
**Rivista is closed