What is a muffin? Is it a single-serving poundcake? Or is it - God forbid - a cupcake without the gaudy frosting? Although belonging to the "quick bread" family - no baking powder or baking soda* before the 19th century - as it uses chemical agents to raise the dough, it is not a "bread," either. (*Well, the Egyptians used baking soda, but making mummies is not exactly the same as making muffins.)
Muffin dough differs from the poundcake in that it has more liquid and less butter and sugar; it differs from the unpronounceable cupcake, which is just a rudely abridged version of a real cake with a fancy hat. The technique of leavening places muffins in the quick bread category, but the use of either baking powder or soda inevitably puts anything (e.g., scones, banana bread, etc.) into that category, so that is no help.
While it is not easy to define a muffin, but the attributes of a good muffin is clear enough. A muffin must have three components - a muffin top, a muffin bottom and the crumb - so that it will look like an overblown mushroom.* (*There is the other more elegant and elongated version using stiff paper cups; but the paper collars make them too stiff (in removal) and also in shape (too upright) and, quite unforgivably, the paper constriction does not allow the dough to have the freedom to overflow so there will not be a muffin top!)
The muffin top must spread over the baking tin to form a mushroom cap, so that the texture is a bit crunchy and chewy like a cookie (the American version); furthermore, the top, in its glorious entirety, must be easily removable, like a snugly fit hat, so that a bit of wiggle should accomplish the job.
The bottom must be wearing the signature translucent paper skirt, so anticipation can properly built up in removing it. On some days, the agitated fingers will move too fast and remove a chunk of the muffin by mistake; other days, the paper will come off too clean as to leave nothing for the teeth to graze. Sans paper skirt, the bottom of the muffin should show ridges left by the paper liner, which provides another textural dimension to be enjoyed.
In terms of browning, the top must be browned the most, so the dough can be properly caramelized* and the Maillard reaction** can occur. (*due to sugar; **due to sugar + amino acids) The bottom must also have similar reactions, albeit on a lesser level.
The inside crumb, however, must neither be browned or chewy or crunchy at all. It must be crumbly, light but not spongey, moist but not dense.
Although making of a good muffin is not a rocket science, it is hard to come by in a muffin developing country like Japan. As per Japanese custom, every imported food must be toned down to suit the local sensitivity (let's not delve into their double standard in pursuing "B-class gourmet"); therefore, a Japanese muffin is often a light, fluffy and not very sweet cake with a pale face and a spongy bottom. In fact, its petit size and airy texture make them more like a fairy cake than a real muffin. Even at self-claimed American style bakeshop - i.e., Bonny's Bake Shop in Osaka - the muffins are shockingly light in substance and flavor. Not bad, by all means, not bad at all are these Japanese muffins: after all, it is significantly difficult to find a truly inedible thing in Japan. No, not bad, but it is not the real deal.
However, a muffin shop has popped up in the heart of Osaka, on the second floor of a nondescript building. Not even a shop, Wattz Muffin is just a bar counter with six seats. There is a small (Japanese small) oven at the corner, which allows only six muffins to be baked at any one time. Wary new comers - as anyone will be after climbing the shadowy, steep stairs - to his psychedelic dominion are greeted by, none other than, the Wizard of Muffin himself with a wide smile and a beret.
"Just ten more minutes until the carrot cake muffins are ready," he said with a twinkle in his eyes, "so how about some board game?" He was already pulling out a deck of cards from a secret niche behind him. On this day, the 10-miniute wait flew by in a frenzy of "Double" - a beguilingly simple yet belittlingly frustrating French card game.
Just as the game started to heat up, however, the carrot cake muffins were done being heated. A chime sounded.
"Ah, they are done...perhaps...you'd like to..." the wizard said, with a rueful smile. However, the smell of the freshly baked buttery flour and warmed spices were just unbearable. "Yes! The muffin, please!"
The steaming mushroom-shaped muffin had a wide cream cheese hat, adorned with walnuts and raisins - indeed, a proper muffin top to be proud of. After grazing around the rim of the muffin top, the paper skirt was removed gingerly; and a whiff of the fragrant spices took turns, perfuming the nostrils with cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and ginger. The moist interior hid more raisins and walnuts to provide a toothy bite against the light crumb.
While there are various muffins on offer each day, the reigning king of wizards must be the brown butter muffin. Impossibly rich with almond flour, decadent with ample beurre noisette, sweetened with honey and textured with whole-wheat flour, the muffin is just sublime. Perfect texture, perfect flavor - just perfect.
"Come again! We have to finish the game," the wizard tweeted. But he did not need to say it, as the magic spell has already been cast.
Address: 2-1-13 Tokuichi, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka, Japan.
Closed on Sundays and holidays.