Homemade English Muffins Inspired by the Novel 'The Dining Car'

Homemade English Muffins Inspired by the Novel 'The Dining Car'

Wednesday, 16 December, 2020

Food and drinks are some of the easiest ways — and the most fun— to vicariously experience another culture. When you add a great book to the mix, you've got the makings of a perfect evening. In Food+Fiction, we recommend a delicious read and a related recipe so you can try the taste of different destinations in your own kitchen.

This post is part of our Food+Fiction series.

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In the novel The Dining Car, our hero Jack is a skilled bartender with a troubled past and a big secret. When he’s offered a gig on a vintage 1930s Pullman car, the trip takes him from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., with grand adventure, shocking drama, and lots of cocktails and sumptuous food along the way.

This is a charming, laugh-out-loud then cry-into-your-tea story of found family. Each of the characters is on a literal and metaphorical journey to find themselves, and along the way, hijinks ensue.

The train car owner, Mr. Horace Button, is a food writer and gourmand extraordinaire. The menus he’s approved for his transcontinental journey are decidedly French: oysters Rockefeller, steak au poivre, frogs’ legs in garlic beurre blanc, boeuf en croûte, and escargots.

But it’s the onboard breakfast that most captured our attention because it features homemade English muffins with strawberry jam. What’s better than the smell of yeast wafting through the kitchen and toasty, golden nooks and crannies that trap tiny pools of butter?

These English muffins are shockingly easy to make — and the results are so very satisfying, with a lightly crisp exterior and a tender crumb inside. Eat them hot from the pan like crumpets or pop ‘em into the toaster for added crunch.

A note from Mel: I am not a baker. I have zero experience baking bread. I make, maybe, two cakes per year and a few batches of cookies at Christmas time. That’s it. So you can trust me when I say this recipe is dead-easy and crazy-delicious. We adapted this recipe from King Arthur Flour, and I’ve included notes based on my experience in the kitchen. If you want more insider info, this blog post is packed with helpful tips and photos.

buttered english muffins on a wooden table
Photo courtesy of Stephen Gibson/Shutterstock.

Homemade English Muffins

Makes 16. Prep 25 minutes. Cook 25-30 minutes. Total time 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups (397g) lukewarm milk
  • 3 tablespoons (43g) softened butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons (25g) sugar
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 1/2 cups (539g) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • semolina flour or farina for sprinkling the pan

Directions:

Mix the dough. In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the ingredients except the semolina/farina (or place in the bucket of a bread machine). Heads up: This makes a very soft dough. If you have a stand mixer, mix the dough using the flat beater paddle until it starts coming away from the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes at medium-high. It should be satin-smooth and shiny, and when you lift up the beater, the dough will be very stretchy. (If you have a bread machine, you can just use the dough cycle).

Let it rise. Scrape the dough into a rough ball and cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a dishtowel. Let the dough rise 1-2 hours, until it’s puffy.

Shape the dough. First, sprinkle a baking sheet generously with semolina/farina and set aside. Deflate the dough with a gentle poke and divide it into 16 pieces. (We used a scale to divide the dough into equal portions, rather than eyeballing it. It made the process much easier.) Lightly shape each piece into a smooth ball (don’t pack them tightly), then flatten the ball until it’s about 3 to 3 1/2 inches (8-9 cm) in diameter. (The dough is a bit sticky at first, and you might feel like there is no way you’ll be able to roll it into a ball. Trust! It comes together really nicely after a few seconds of rolling between your palms.) Transfer to the baking sheet. When all the balls have been flattened into discs, sprinkle the tops with semolina/farina.

Let them rest. Cover the muffins with a piece of parchment paper or a clean dish towel and let them rest for 20 minutes. They won’t rise a lot but will puff a bit.

Cook ‘em. Heat a large, nonstick skillet over low heat for 5 minutes. Add muffins with plenty of breathing room around them. Cover with a lid and cook over medium-low heat for 6-7 minutes per side, until the crust is golden brown and the interior is cooked through. If you have an instant-read thermometer, the center of a muffin will register about 200F (90C) when they’re done. No thermometer? Split a muffin open with a fork to check the inside. If it’s not cooked in the middle, place the muffins in a 350F (175C) oven for about 10 minutes to finish them. No biggie!

To serve, remove the muffins from the pan (or oven) and let them cool thoroughly. Use a fork — not a knife! — to split them open to create the nooks and crannies. You can eat them as-is or toast for extra crispiness. Serve with butter and jam (and peanut butter and cream cheese and all your favorite things).

The English muffins can be stored for 4 days at room temperature or frozen for future breakfast and snacking emergencies.

Note: To make these gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with your favorite gluten-free blend then add either 1 teaspoon xantham gum or 2 1/2 teaspoons arrowroot powder or potato starch.

I found the old Pullman parked on a rail spur alongside the warehouse… Her name, Pioneer Mother, was painted along the sides in a bold serif font I’ve always associated with Wells Fargo. Her forest-green paint, black mansard roof, and Victorian architectural flourishes brought to mind a haunted house on wheels. My steps slowed as I approached the railcar. I didn’t need any more ghosts in my life. A green-and-white striped canopy adorned the roof above the railroad car’s rear platform. It gave the Pullman the air of a country club veranda — a place for drinking gin Rickeys and watching the world go by. — Eric Peterson

The Dining Car

by Eric Peterson

Meet Jack, a skilled bartender with a troubled past and a big secret. When he’s offered a gig on a vintage 1930s Pullman car, the trip takes him from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., with grand adventure, shocking drama, and lots of cocktails along the way. If Jack is the heart of the story, Horace Button — prissy writer, gourmand, maybe alcoholic, owner of the vintage train car — is the catalyst for everything that happens on their transcontinental journey. Aboard the train, Jack finds himself assisting a comely and circumspect lady chef in the kitchen and serving a roving cocktail party of greedy publishing professionals, crooked politicians, and a spoiled celebrity chef. {more}

This cinematic novel (354 pages) was published in November of 2016 by Huckleberry House. The book takes you to a private car on a cross-country train. Melissa read The Dining Car and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.

The Dining Car

 

Top image courtesy of ChunChang Wu/Shutterstock.

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