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Whatever happened to the great American muffin?

Holly Jennings' recipe for corn muffin.

Karoline Boehm Goodnick for The Boston Globe

Holly Jennings' recipe for corn muffin.

How the muffin, and specifically its once-proud top, went from a favorite food to a fashion faux pas — as in that roll of flesh hanging over your low-rise jeans — has a lot to do with what’s in it.

“The story of what’s happened to the American muffin over the last 20 years is really the history of sugar,” says food historian Betty Fussell, author of “Masters of American Cookery.” “Muffins have become sweeter and now we think of them that way,” she says.

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There have been other notable changes in muffin-making. Where once a muffin was made like a quick bread, now many bakers use the traditional cake-making method called creaming, whereby sugar and butter are blended in a mixer, then the dry ingredients are added. When they go into the oven, muffins are baked at a lower, more moderate temperature appropriate for cakes. These new more delicate and caky muffins are often baked in paper liners for easy removal and portability.

With the line between muffin and cupcake blurred — even by professional bakers — it’s not surprising that the muffin is suffering from an identity crisis.

First to the sugar: The uptick can be traced to the beginning of the low-fat health trend in the 1980s. According to a story in the trade magazine Baking Buyer, sales of low-fat or no-fat muffins were, by the mid-’90s, increasing by more than 10 percent annually.

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But to compensate for the reduction of fat, which is a conveyor of flavor, and also a tenderizer and moistening agent (to prolong shelf life), manufacturers and bakers increased the sugar. The result was an overly sweet flavor profile and a soft, sticky-to-the touch muffin top. Sugar helps to keep baked goods soft by drawing in moisture, which is an enemy of crust.

More sugar has invariably translated to weight gain. Health professionals are now increasingly blaming excess carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, for the country’s obesity epidemic.

In 2008, the saying “muffins are just ugly cupcakes” debuted on a T-shirt. Since then the saying has been the subject of YouTube videos, posters, and other memorabilia, as well as the topic of discussion for and against the muffin on social media sites. Comments reveal that many do not seem to know the difference between a muffin and cupcake, stating simply that muffins are bald cupcakes without frosting.

Not everyone is confused. Bobbie Lloyd, now president of the famed Magnolia Bakery in New York, the place credited with starting our nation’s insatiable love affair with cupcakes, sees a clear distinction between muffins and cupcakes. “As soon as you start beating the butter and sugar together, that’s cake,” Lloyd says.

At Magnolia, muffins are made the same way Lloyd’s mother made them, using the type of batter that would be used to make quick breads. Using the muffin mixing method, dry ingredients are thoroughly combined in one bowl, the wet in another, and finally the two are quickly and lightly mixed together with a spoon.

Using the traditional method, you can make a muffin with a satisfyingly dense texture, one that is more quick bread than cake, relatively wholesome, with a pleasingly crunchy muffin top.

Home-baked muffins have several advantages: You can bake them without paper liners, which prevent a crust from forming, and you have the option of eating them at their best — hot out of the oven with butter and perhaps a spoonful of jam.

Holly Jennings can be reached at h.jennings@hotmail.com.
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