I still can’t believe I got to intern at America’s Test Kitchen. This was a dream opportunity to experience what it’s like to work in the most renowned professional test kitchen on the planet.
While most of the ATK internship involves assisting test cooks and supporting the kitchen operations team (lots of mise en place, final testing of recipes about to be published, preparing recipes and ingredients for video shoots, organizing grocery orders, cleaning kitchen equipment etc.) the interns do get to create a recipe for their final project.
Affectionately known as “the muffin project”, ATK interns create a muffin recipe and write an article about it in the style of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. Interns make their final muffin recipe for all of the ATK test cooks to taste and evaluate (no pressure!) and are assigned an editor to review their recipe and article.
This project was one of my favorite parts of the internship. Once you decide on a muffin flavor (perhaps the hardest part), the process involves researching your muffin, making five established recipes to taste side-by-side, and then creating your own muffin recipe from the best parts of the tasting feedback.
I made versions of a banana sesame muffin at least 20 times in one week before presenting the final to the ATK team. I’m very proud of the recipe and I received some great feedback in the tasting evaluation:
- “This is the muffin I’d pick at a bakery based on the attractive topping and promise of banana. I would not be disappointed. It was excellent.”
- “One of the best muffins I’ve had in an intern test.”
- “I was skeptical about how impactful the sesame would be, but I am now a convert.”
- “A grown up version of classic banana bread.”
- “Bakery quality. One of the best muffins I’ve ever had.”
Below is the article and muffin recipe I submitted for the ATK internship project. While the recipe does not incorporate tea like others I post on this blog, these muffins are delicious paired with your favorite brewed tea. I especially enjoy eating them while sipping any green or oolong tea.
Happy cooking and sipping!
Banana Sesame Streusel Muffins
A nutty-tasting yet nut-free twist on a classic
Article by Suzanne Klein for America’s Test Kitchen Internship
Is it possible to improve one of America’s most beloved breakfast treats, the banana nut muffin? When presented with an America’s Test Kitchen muffin assignment, I wondered if a nut-free alternative exists for a banana nut muffin for those who struggle with nut allergies.
Inspired by an out-of-this-world sesame banana bread from a trendy coffee shop, I set out to recreate the toasty flavor of that delectable loaf in a handheld, nutty-tasting muffin.
I started with an established America’s Test Kitchen recipe for banana nut muffins. Could I tweak this tried-and-true classic simply by tossing in sesame seeds instead of nuts and spiking it with potent toasted sesame oil?
Tasters liked the muffin’s classic domed look and tender center but were disappointed with the flavor. The sesame oil overpowered, taking the muffin in a distracting savory direction. The sesame seeds inside were confusing; tasters couldn’t tell what speckled the muffin, and the tiny seeds did not create the nutty crunch I was after. Finally, the banana flavor tasters expected was missing.
Next, I turned to the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook library to find out if anyone else had conquered a banana sesame muffin. I selected five promising recipes with one common sesame component—tahini.
Tahini (toasted sesame seed paste) is an ingredient most frequently associated with hummus and Middle Eastern sauces. When ground, sesame seeds release their rich, toasty, and nutty flavor. In baking, tahini can be used like any other nut butter to provide fat, moisture, and unique flavor.
Tahini, however, was the only commonality between the five muffin recipes. Presented side-by-side, the muffins varied in size, color, texture, and flavor, not to mention ingredients and preparation.
With so many variables, I looked to tasters to guide my next steps. What does one expect when presented with a banana sesame muffin?
Overall, tasters preferred the muffins that ate more like a moist banana bread, less like a lofty cake. To achieve banana bread texture, I opted for a traditional quick bread mixing method, using melted butter and folding wet and dry ingredients together, which results in a slightly dense yet still tender crumb. I relied on very ripe (almost black) mashed bananas and brown sugar to amp up the moisture.
I made progress on texture, but the muffins were lacking the rich brown tones one expects from banana bread. I swapped out some of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour to add both color and slight nutty flavor. I also used part white sugar instead of all brown sugar. Brown sugar (which is white sugar plus molasses) provides a tender chew and gives a rich flavor to the muffin, while white sugar helps the muffin brown and crisp, especially around the outside.
Tasters also expected strong banana flavor with an obvious punch of sesame. Finding that balance proved to be my biggest challenge.
Too little tahini is easily overpowered by the sweet banana. Yet too little banana leads to a drier muffin that is not at all banana bread-like. After several tests, I found 1 ½ cups of mashed banana, ⅓ cup of plain yogurt, and ⅓ cup of tahini to be the perfect combination. The banana provides sweetness, the yogurt tang, and the tahini an interesting background note of toasty nuttiness.
Still missing was the recognizable sesame flavor that tahini alone did not achieve. I turned to sesame seeds and experimented with several seedy toppings. The star turned out to be a streusel studded with toasted white and black sesame seeds. Sesame seeds are fifty percent oil by weight, and the heat from toasting activates the seeds’ natural oils where all the aroma and flavor reside.
The streusel topping looked beautiful and tasted nutty, but I wanted it to have a bit more crunch. I experimented with the oven temperature and discovered that starting the muffins at a higher heat then lowering the heat halfway through baking did wonders for the topping. This high-to-low heat method browns the streusel faster for a crisper, more nut-like texture without affecting the tender interior of the muffin.
Finally, tasters wanted the muffin to look like a muffin, not a squat, round version of banana bread. The streusel helped with the muffin top look yet weighed down the already height-challenged muffin with its hearty, banana bread-inspired texture. To create a bit more lift I re-evaluated the traditional quick bread mixing method.
I wondered if I could mimic some of the effects of creaming butter and sugar—to create air bubbles the leaveners could latch on to—with a handheld whisk. Thirty seconds of whisking the melted butter, sugar, and eggs did the trick; I could see the bubbles forming. Another thirty seconds whisking in the bananas, yogurt, and tahini aerated the mixture even more.
The now airy batter still did not rise with the help of baking soda alone; I simply didn’t have enough acid (brown sugar and yogurt in this case) for the baking soda to react with and release the carbon dioxide that makes baked goods rise. I added baking powder to achieve the lift I was after. Baking powder already contains an acid (cream of tartar) and needs both moisture and heat to provide lift. Too much of either leavener can leave a soapy or metallic taste, or cause a muffin to rise then collapse on itself. After trial and error, I found that 1 ¼ teaspoons of baking powder plus ½ teaspoon of baking soda gave the muffins a slightly rounded top without affecting the flavor.
While creating this nut-free yet nutty-tasting muffin was not as simple as tossing in an ingredient that mimics nuts, the end solution was worth the discoveries. This is a sophisticated twist on a classic muffin that will have nut lovers and nut avoiders alike coming back for seconds.
Banana Sesame Streusel Muffins
Recipe by Suzanne Klein for America’s Test Kitchen Internship
Makes 12 muffins
While I prefer the flavor and visual appeal of black and white sesame seeds, you can use all white or all black sesame seeds in the streusel. The bananas that work best in this recipe should be heavily covered with black spots or almost black; they should practically melt when mashed with a fork but shouldn’t be juicy. You can use either low-fat or whole milk plain yogurt in this recipe.
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
⅓ cup (1 ⅔ ounce) + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (2 ¾ ounces) whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup (5 ¼ ounces) packed light brown sugar
¼ cup (1 ¾ ounces) granulated sugar
1 ½ cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 3 large)
⅓ cup plain yogurt (not Greek)
⅓ cup tahini
1. FOR THE STREUSEL: Combine sesame seeds in small skillet and toast over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant and all white seeds have turned light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Immediately transfer to small plate to cool.
2. Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together in medium bowl. Drizzle with melted butter and add toasted sesame seeds. Stir until combined. Mixture should resemble the texture of wet sand and easily press into clumps with your fingertips. Cover and transfer to refrigerator to chill while preparing muffin batter.
3. FOR THE MUFFINS: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Generously grease standard 12-cup muffin tin.
4. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in small bowl. Vigorously whisk butter, sugar, and eggs together in large bowl until lightened in color, about 30 seconds. Add bananas, yogurt, and tahini and whisk for 30 seconds.
5. Add flour mixture to banana mixture. Using spatula, gently fold dry ingredients into wet just until everything is moistened. Mixture should be slightly lumpy; a few light flour streaks are okay. Batter will be thick but pourable.
6. Using ⅓-cup measuring cup, divide batter evenly into each muffin cup, filling each cup almost to the top. Scatter 1 tablespoon streusel over top of each filled muffin cup; streusel should completely cover batter.
7. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake until tops are spotty golden brown, and toothpick dipped into center of a muffin comes out almost clean, 10 to 13 minutes. Let muffins cool in pan for 10 minutes. Using butter knife, gently loosen muffins from pan and transfer to rack to cool for 10 minutes before serving.