The English muffin had humble beginnings. Muffins were originally only made for the servant class from leftover bread dough scraps and mashed potatoes that were combined and fried into light, crisp crusted muffins full of nooks and crannies meant to drink up melted butter. These delicious muffins quickly made their way into upstairs society. The Oxford Companion to Food says the word muffin is a term connected with moufflet, an old French word applied to bread, meaning soft. The word muffin first appeared in print in the early 18th century, and recipes began to be published in the middle of the 18th century.
In Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy, she advises:
“And when you eat them, toast them with a Fork crisp on both Sides, 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 butter'd alike, but don't 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 quite butter'd and done, you may cut them across with a Knife."
After toasting they were placed in a silver or porcelain muffin dish to keep them warm (the holes in the dish kept them from getting soggy) and served with afternoon tea with clotted cream and jam.
19th Century Limoges Muffin/Pancake/Biscuit server
19th Century Spode Tower 3 Piece Muffin Dish
1870 English Silverplate Muffin Dish
English muffins began in America in 1880, when Samuel Bath Thomas, newly arrived in New York City,opened a bakery shop selling his English muffins at 163 Ninth Avenue. Although Thomas died in 1922, the business prospered and remained in the family until 1970.
Here is a recipe for English muffins that is an adaptation of the most wonderful Bert Greene’s recipe that includes mashed potatoes as in days of old. Over the years I’ve made small changes but it is the best English muffin I’ve ever had and it makes amazing Eggs Benedict!
1 small potato (enough for 5 T, riced) or better still, 5 T leftover mashed potatoes with butter and milk
2 T. milk
1 package yeast
¼ t. sugar
1 t. salt
2 cups flour + ½ c. for kneading (either all white or 2 ¼ cup white and ¼ cup whole wheat)
Cook the potato, sliced into quarters in 2 cups of water. Remove, reserving water, and peel and rice the potatoes. Stir the generous 5 T. riced potato (press down on the potato as you measure) with the 2 T milk.
Take ¼ cup of the potato water and add yeast and sugar… taking care that it has cooled to lukewarm. Let it sit for 10 minutes.
Combine the potato, the yeast mixture, the flour and salt and blend with 3/4 cup of the reserved water. Use approximately ½ c of flour to knead the dough (sometimes you may have to use more or less flour depending on dryness). Knead for a minute or two. It will be a wet, loose dough.
Let this rise for 1 hour.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Use oiled English muffin rings or just place flattened balls on a cornmeal-covered baking sheet. Cover the muffins with another pan or oiled plastic wrap. Let this rise for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425º and cook the muffins for 12-15 minutes if not using rings, 15-20 minutes if you are using them. Turn the pan around in the oven midway through cooking time so the muffins cook evenly.