These maple oatmeal muffins are vegan, whole-grain and naturally sweet

One of the food-writing clichés I try to avoid is, “You won’t miss the [whatever ingredient it doesn’t have] in this [whatever the dish is].” After all, any recipe that is gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, meatless or whatever specific dietary need you want to talk about should be able to stand on its own merits. It’s good for what it is, not despite what you’re comparing it with or what it’s lacking.

That being said, as I wrote the introduction to my recipe for Maple Oatmeal Muffins, I completely forgot to mention that they are vegan. (Yes, I added it!) Whether that says more about how comfortable I’m becoming with vegan baking or how indistinguishable they are from muffins made with dairy and eggs, I’m not sure.

Get the recipe: Maple Oatmeal Muffins

What I am sure about is how much I love these muffins. They’re tall, tender and barely sweet, the kind of treat that feels more like a nourishing breakfast than dessert.

Because I’m not one to take the easy way out, I challenged myself to create a muffin that was whole-wheat, vegan and naturally sweetened. I wanted something that would appeal to as many people as possible without tasting like I was settling for anything less than “wow.”

Now, all those requirements might sound disparate. In fact, they’re pretty complementary. The ingredients used to address one part of the equation often help solve another problem. For example, whole-wheat baked goods can be on the dry and crumbly side. Extra moisture can lend that coveted plush texture. I decided to use unsweetened applesauce, oil and maple syrup to boost tenderness. Of course, those ingredients are exactly what you might use when you want something that’s vegan and sweetened without refined sugars.

I still worried about the crumbly, grainy texture that can happen with thirsty whole-wheat flour, as well as in the absence of egg as a binder. My mind jumped to bread baking. I had become enamored with porridge breads, thanks in part to the recipes and technique I picked up from Wordloaf, the “breaducational” newsletter by Andrew Janjigian. These breads use a cooked grain porridge in the dough. As he wrote in one edition, “Because the water in the porridge is locked up within its starches, it allows a baker to add more water to a dough without making the dough stickier or softer.” This was just what I needed for these muffins. Could I make it work with oats, my grain of choice?

Get to know your oats, and all the types and ways to eat them

The answer was a resounding yes. The key is allowing the oats to soak in boiling water for 15 minutes. This causes them to swell and soften, trapping that liquid and ensuring that, by the time the oats are added to the muffin batter and baked, they burst, almost completely melting into the crumb and giving up their starch power to bind everything together. Unlike a lot of other baked goods with oats, there are no tough flakes to chew through. You would probably not even know they were there, unless you ended up with a few on the top of the muffins.

Just as I enjoy a drizzle of maple syrup on my morning bowl of oatmeal, the two breakfast staples made an ideal pairing here. Even taking into account the applesauce, the muffins were barely sweet. In fact, a few tasters thought they could be a tad sweeter, so I increased the amount of dried cherries — even tart, unsweetened did the trick. Feel free to swap in dried blueberries, cranberries or raisins. Chopped apricots or figs would be lovely, too.

Using whole-wheat pastry flour, which is softer and lower in protein than regular whole-wheat flour, was another way to guarantee a tender muffin. If you don’t have it, a 50-50 blend of all-purpose and regular whole-wheat flours works just as well and is maybe even slightly less crumbly, if that’s something you’re worried about.

The muffins need no adornment to be satisfying and rich-tasting (without the rich ingredients!), though on subsequent days they’re especially good toasted with a bit of butter or jam.

Get the recipe: Maple Oatmeal Muffins

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