Often the best, most interesting and wonderful things in life are also the hardest to find. True friends and soul mates are hard to find; likewise, buried treasure, and exotic species are quite elusive, and can avoid discovery for generations. But as hard as these entities are to allocate, they are all the more valuable once found.
Recently I read about the po’ouli bird, a species likely related to a honeycreeper that was first discovered by University of Hawaii students in 1973. Here’s a pic:
The po’ouli is structurally dissimilar to any other living bird species, and nests in the rainforest in trees with a name so hard to pronounce I won’t even try, (though I’m sure it sounds beautiful in the native language) and dines on pesky creepy-crawlies such as spiders (go, po’ouli birds!) When it was discovered, the species was already endangered. Despite efforts to conserve and regrow the existing population, it continued to dwindle until there were only three known individuals alive in 1997. Desperate attempts to get these lonely survivors to produce offspring were made, but to no avail.
Today, there are only two males left, and the chances of expanding the population using tissue samples or some other artificial method are slim, as no females are left. Due to habitat loss, disease, loss of prey species, and other factors likely highly influenced by humans, the po’ouli bird is now practically extinct. This rare and beautiful creature has been like a fleeting dream fluttering across the stage of human knowledge between its discovery so late and its disappearance too soon.
I imagine it was very exciting for those University of Hawaii students to come upon an undiscovered species quietly existing in the heart of the forest right by their school. All life is a treasure, but a scientific and historical treasure indeed was the discovery of this understated bird. And to let the population dwindle to a measly few individuals keeping the species of po’ouli alive, hanging on by a thread to the earth as it turns away, led by the rope of human ignorance, this sad occurrence is akin to a pirate’s lifetime of gold and jewels being devoured by a black sea wave and buried under thousands of leagues of murky scum. A treasure, first unknown, then under-appreciated, now lost if we do not act at once. The most valuable treasure is the one that is taken for granted until it is gone.
Now, onto a cheerier discussion of a much different type of elusive treasure…the legendary perfect crumb muffin! You know, that delicious-yet-super-fattening muffin with the brown sugar/cinnamon crumble on top that fills your mouth with sugar and brightens your whole day yet simultaneously causes you to feel extremely guilty for eating the soft, moist baked treat covered in sinful streusel? I have tried several times to make a healthier version of crumb-topped baked goods at home, but I can never get it just right the way they do in bakeries…either the crumbs roll right off the muffin, or they sink into the batter while baking heretofore losing the delightful texture of grainy crumbly bits. They just don’t want to stay put on top of the muffin!!! As you might imagine, these repeated failures have frustrated me to the point that I’ve vowed to myself never to try and make a crumb muffin again, lest I suffer the annoyance of misbehaving crumb topping on yet another occasion. Yet the inexplicable call of the crumb muffin beckons me to the kitchen, over and over throughout the years, armed with a new recipe or technique, somehow sure this time will be different, this time I will conquer the great and terrible crumb muffin and pull something magical out of the oven. This time the crumbs will neither sink into the batter, nor roll away.
Needless to say, this different, special day has not arrived yet. But like a scientist whiling away his life searching for a new species, like a pirate traversing the world ocean in search of mythical treasure, I have some sort of irrepressible urge to continue trying, until the day I prevail. Or the day my oven breaks, whichever comes first. That’s what drove me to make these crumb muffins last week. An image of banana blueberry muffins with that impossible, magical cinnamon crumble topping popped into my head, and I simply could not get rid of it. The only thing to do was bake the muffins, and hope that this time would be different. I mixed up the batter with banana, blueberry, steel-cut oats, tart yogurt and cream cheese, and other good stuff. I popped them in the oven, took them out around halfway through the baking process to gingerly adorn each one with a sprinkling of my crumble topping, placed them back in the oven, then crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Maybe this batch would be my perfect crumb muffins, my treasure.
When the timer shrieked I whisked the muffins out of the oven and saw at once that treasure…these were not. At least, in terms of looks. The all-important crumble wasn’t looking so crumb-y: it had sunken a bit into the center of each muffin, making them look more like little depressed volcanoes than chipper crumb muffins. Glumly I snapped a few pictures on the off-chance they’d taste all right, though I already knew they weren’t the treasure muffins I was hoping for.
As it turned out, they tasted marvelous! The tart flavor of the yogurt and cream cheese came through only faintly, I was hoping for a bit more tart flavor, but they still tasted great, mostly like delicious banana, flavorful blueberries, nourishing whole grains and oats, and a nice, melty layer of sugar and spice on top. My mom said they tasted “healthy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Maybe I’m used to things tasting “healthy,” but personally I prefer the hearty texture of a homemade healthy muffin to a light, buttery bakery one made heavy with guilt. When served warm, with the not-so-“crumb”-y topping rolling down the sides and melting in your mouth, these muffins are the perfect breakfast treat! Even if they don’t look perfect, they are a true treasure for the tastebuds. And a treasure in terms of nutrition as well: the batter is packed with real fruit and whole grains, and they are low in fat and calories – one filling muffin is less than 200! Since they have steel cut oats and whole wheat pastry flour, instead of just finely ground white flour, their glycemic index is lower than that of many traditionally-baked muffins.
The take-away? Looks aren’t everything. Look carefully at your trash and you may find treasure where you least expect it. Protect your treasure well, whether it be in the form of gold, endangered animals, or a muffin on your plate that you don’t want anyone to steal!
Here’s the recipe I used. If you know a better technique for baking perfect crumb muffins, please do let me know in the comments!
Banana Blueberry Crumb Muffins
Based on recipe from babylovingmama.com
Makes 12 regular size muffins
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
- 1/2 cup dry steel cut oats
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- dash cinnamon
- 2 large bananas
- 1 egg (I used 3 tbs Lucerne brand egg substitute)
- 2 tbs organic light agave syrup
- 2 Laughing Cow brand Smooth Sensations cinnamon cream cheese spread
- 1 Chobani brand strawberry banana flavored 2% milkfat Greek yogurt (or use your favorite brand of lowfat or nonfat Greek yogurt.)
- 3 tbs skim milk
- 1 1/2 cups blueberries
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 2 tbs whole wheat pastry flour
- pinch cinnamon
- 1 tbs Earth Balance Whipped Buttery Spread (or use original; we just happened to have whipped in the house)
- 1/2 tsp organic light agave syrup
- 1 to 2 tsp water
Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit. Line a regular-sized muffin tin with 12 paper liners, or spray with nonstick spray.
For Muffins: In a large bowl, combine the flour, steel cut oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Mix.
Place the bananas in another large bowl, and mash them a bit with a fork. Then add the egg substitute, 2 tbs agave, and 2 Laughing Cow cheese wedges. Combine using an electric mixer until all the ingredients are pretty well incorporated (my mixture was still somewhat lumpy.)
Pour wet mixture into dry. Add the yogurt and 3 tbs skim milk. Stir just until combined. Add blueberries and mix gently.
Pour muffin batter evenly into muffin cups, filling each 3/4 full or more (these muffins are pretty big but don’t rise too much during baking.) Bake for about ten minutes before you add the crumb topping, and 6-8 minutes after (16-18 minutes total.)
For Crumb Topping: In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, 2 tbs whole wheat pastry flour, and cinnamon. Toss mixture. Cut in 1 tbs Earth Balance in little pieces. Mix with your fingers until mixture becomes crumbly. (Mine was way too dry so I added an extra 1/2 tsp agave and a few drops of water, which gave it more of a crumbly texture, so do this if needed.)
After muffins have baked at 375 Fahrenheit for 10 minutes, remove from oven and sprinkle the crumb topping evenly on top of each muffin. Return to oven for another 6-8 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Serve these muffins warm to those people you treasure in your life!
Po’ouli bird photo credits: (in order of appearance)
Cartoon muffin pic from: