Much is made of Thomas Jefferson’s love for haute cuisine, but when he moved to Washington as president in 1801, he missed the simple muffins made by his cook Peter Hemings back home at Monticello. Well, not that simple — Jefferson’s French chef in Washington could not master them. The president wrote to his daughter Martha, “Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”
Peter Hemings was a slave who became head cook at Monticello in 1796, after Jefferson freed his brother James, the previous chef. (They and their sister Sally were probably the children of Jefferson’s late wife’s father.) James had trained in Paris and taught his brother French cooking techniques, but there was a strong tradition of Anglo-American food at Monticello as well. The muffins that Jefferson loved so much were yeast raised and cooked on the griddle — what we now call English muffins.
Here is the recipe for those muffins, which was recorded in a manuscript cookbook by Jefferson’s granddaughter Septimia Randolph Meikleham and is on the Monticello website:
To a quart of flour put two table spoonsfull of yeast. Mix … the flour up with water so thin that the dough will stick to the table. Our cook takes it up and throws it down until it will no longer stick she puts it to rise until morning. In the morning she works the dough over … and makes it into little cakes like biscuit and sets them aside until it is time to back them. You know muffins are backed in a gridle in the hearth of the stove not inside. They bake very quickly. The second plate full is put on the fire when breakfast is sent in and they are ready by the time the first are eaten.
The English muffin is probably descended from ancient Welsh cakes called bara maen, small round yeast breads that were baked on hot stones. According to Wikipedia, the word “muffin” first appeared in print in 1703, spelled moofin. The first recipe I could find for something like the Monticello muffin was in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). She called for “a bushel of Hertfordshire white flour” and “good ale-yeast” combined with water. The dough was pulled off in pieces, rolled into balls, flattened, and cooked on an iron over a fire. Glasse’s recipe is too long to reprint, but I love her extensive instructions for serving the muffins:
When you eat them, toast them crisp on both sides [in a hearth], then with your hand pull them open, and they will be like a honey-comb, lay in as much butter as you intend to use, then clap them together again and set it by the fire. When you think the butter is melted turn them, that both sides may be buttered alike, but do not touch them with a knife, either to spread or cut them open, if you do they will be as heavy as lead, only when they are buttered and done, you may cut them across with a knife.
Note that Glasse described the “honey-comb” inside. These 18th century muffins clearly had nooks and crannies, much like modern-day Thomas’s muffins!
Remember the nursery rhyme “Do you know the muffin man”? Many sources say it refers to this kind of muffin. In 18th- and 19th-century England, bakers sold them door-to-door:
I don’t think there were any muffin men in America, but 19th century American cookbooks did have recipes like Glasse’s, including Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824). Several decades later, Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1851) included a similar recipe, called “Water Muffins,” but the batter for these was ladled into rings instead of shaped into rounds. And as the 19th century progressed, muffin recipes often called for milk instead of water.
In the 1870s, an Englishman named Samuel Bath Thomas immigrated to New York City and opened a bakery where he made a similar muffin. Thomas’s muffins were soon a hit, his business thrived, and eventually his muffins were sold throughout the United States. Perhaps it was because of Thomas that they became known as “English muffins.” That term was also used to differentiate them from the sweet cupcake-like muffins, made with baking powder, that became increasingly common.
While the English muffin grew in popularity in America, it did the reverse in England, where it was largely supplanted by the crumpet, a similar yeast bread cooked on a griddle. Crumpets are a little softer, and they contain baking powder, which causes holes to form on top. I think English muffins are better, but maybe I’ve just never had a decent crumpet. If anyone can shed light on why the English muffin has become rare in England, I’d love to know.
I was curious whether early English muffins tasted like the commercial variety we eat today, so I made an adaptation of the Hemings recipe from the book Dining at Monticello, edited by Damon Lee Fowler. This recipe calls for a combination of white and whole-wheat pastry flour, to better approximate the soft-wheat flour that was used in Jefferson’s time. The only significant change I made was to increase the amount of yeast.
My first batch of muffins turned out well, but the dough was very sticky, making it hard to form into rounds. I didn’t attempt throwing the wet dough down as described by Jefferson’s granddaughter, as I was pretty sure that would end badly for me! Instead I made another batch using a little more flour. The result was still sticky, but the dough has to be somewhat wet because moisture is what creates holes inside the muffins — water evaporates when the dough is heated.
My second batch were more consistently round, and they tasted good — somewhat like Thomas’s, but softer and fresher. Perhaps there weren’t quite as many nooks and crannies, but their freshness more than made up for that. My family loved them, which was a good thing since we now had several dozen of them. Serve these muffins warm, toasted, and topped with butter, jam, or whatever you like.
Monticello English Muffins
Adapted from Dining at Monticello, edited by Damon Lee Fowler
¼ ounce packet (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
18 ounces (approx. 4¼ cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ounces (approx. ½ cup) whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons stone-ground white or yellow cornmeal
1. In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water, and let sit for about 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours and the salt until well combined. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the water-yeast mixture. Gradually stir the flour into the water, then keep stirring until the dough is smooth.
Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for about three hours, until doubled. (The dough can also be refrigerated overnight, covered, then brought to room temperature.)
3. Dust a wooden board or other work surface with four tablespoons of cornmeal. Gently deflate the dough with a large spoon, and sprinkle the surface with the remaining cornmeal. Lightly flour your hands, and pull off handfuls of dough. Form each into a round ball, then flatten that into a disc about one-half inch thick and three inches in diameter. The dough will be sticky and hard to handle, so you’ll need to keep reflouring your hands. Place the discs about one inch apart on the prepared work surface, and let rest for about 20 minutes, allowing them to puff up a little.
4. Heat an ungreased griddle or large, shallow skillet (enameled cast iron works well) over medium-low heat. Using a thin spatula, transfer muffins onto the griddle or skillet, leaving a little space around each. Cook about 8-10 minutes until lightly browned, then flip over, press down on each muffin with the spatula to flatten slightly, and cook for another 7-8 minutes, until lightly browned on the bottom. Watch carefully to make sure they don’t burn.
5. Remove muffins to a rack or plate and cool slightly. Split muffins apart with your fingers or a fork — not a knife. Toast and top with butter, jam, or other toppings. Makes about 12-14 muffins.