People toss around the term “life changing” for the silliest things these days, like….. “OMG that smoothie changed my life!”, but in this case, with this muffin, the phrase really does seem to apply. Now, I’m not saying that this muffin will change your life, I mean it’s really good, but in the end it is just a muffin. What I am saying is that this muffin helped to change my life. That’s because this little lovely is partly responsible for my landing my job at Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen. It’s the muffin I developed and presented to my boss and the editors of CI as part of my application for a job at the kitchen. Crafting the recipe for this banana nut muffin was the last step in a multi-month long process required to join the ATK team.
Curious about what else it took to land a job there? If so, read on.
The process started with a letter of intent that stated my reasons for wanting to work at ATK in the first place, and to be honest, writing that letter was an eye opener for me. Why? Because for years I had found ATK’s stated mission of offering up the “best version” of any given recipe to be a bit presumptuous. “What with all the great cooks and recipes in the world, who are these people to say that they know how best to make Coq Au Vin?”. To my surprise though, over the past few years my opinion on the value of ATK’s methods and philosophy had been upended. Through my experience as a Chef Instructor with Share Our Strength’s “Cooking Matters” programs, teaching hundreds of students who lack even modest cooking skills and the kitchen confidence that they engender, I’d come to recognize the worth of the tried-and-true, bullet-proof recipes and kitchen wisdom offered by the family of ATK’s publications and broadcasts. Rather than bristle at the idea that a company could claim its recipes as “the best”, I had come to realize through my teaching experience that many home cooks don’t have the time, confidence, or creativity to “wing it” in the kitchen, and would only roll up their sleeves and cook a home cooked meal for their family if they have a trusted companion to quickly guide them through the process. Therein lies the real value of ATK’s work. I shared these thoughts and more in my letter, and they were well enough received for me to get my foot in the door.
Having cleared the letter of intent hurdle, I was invited in for a series of interviews with both my immediate boss (the Executive Food Editor of CI), as well as the magazine’s Executive Editor. There they asked me about my experience and food philosophy, and attempted to gauge my fitness as a potential CI team member. I was able to learn about the ins and outs of the job, what a career path at the company might look like etc. I got a tour of the place, my first glimpse of the test kitchen and a much better understanding of the day to day responsibilities of being a test cook. We also talked about this blog and my experience of building a passionate, food loving community here….. so yes, you all had a part in my ending up at ATK as well!
Next, I was invited to spend a day in the kitchen for what is known as a “bench test”. This is where perspective employees get to show their stuff (or not) by cooking two of the trickier recipes from the ATK archives. Without question, this was the most nerve-wracking part of the journey for me. I showed up with my chef coat and knife roll and was escorted to a corner of the kitchen where I worked “embedded” among a group of folks I’d never met before, cooking on equipment I’d never used, and having to find tools and ingredients in a space I didn’t really have time to explore. On top of all that, my future boss was positioned right behind me, peeking over my shoulder and watching every move I made. Aside from being able to properly execute the dishes, I think the main thing being assessed here was my ability to follow very specific instructions, and work with precision. The two recipes were ones that suffered if you took shortcuts, and were chosen to gauge a candidates ability to work with an almost scientific attention to detail. Apparently, this is where some restaurant cooks stumble as they are most used to cooking from instinct and will read the recipe quickly and then just roll-on with cooking, using years of muscle memory and intuition to cook the dish. The thing is, being a restaurant cook (even a very good one) and a test cook are two very different things, the latter requiring an ability to cook with attention to every detail, while exercising an almost unhealthy penchant for documenting the bejeezus out of your efforts.
Suffice to say that my anal retentive tendencies served me well that day and I passed the bench test! Up next was a full-blown recipe development and writing assignment for me to perform at home over the course of 2 weeks. I was asked to create a recipe for a banana nut muffin employing the development protocol used at ATK, and then write an article describing my journey, discoveries made, and how I ultimately landed at my final recipe, as if I was writing for Cook’s Illustrated. My kitchen smelled like a tropical rain forest for about week as I plowed through 30 pounds of bananas in my quest to develop the ultimate banana nut muffin. I spent my second week writing and re-writing an article to really sell them, and then sent the document and recipe to ATK where editors critiqued my writing, and my muffins were baked and assessed by a team of test cooks.
Then I waited…….
and waited, for what felt like an eternity for them to get back to me and let me know whether or not I had cleared this final hurdle. It turns out that I was running this gauntlet at the same time that many at the company were up to their eyeballs in planning for the 2016 season of the America’s Test Kitchen TV show which started filming just weeks after I started working there. They were anxious to fill the open Test Cook slot at CI, but just didn’t have the bandwidth to expedite the process with TV looming. In the end I received a happy call, and after a few reference checks to make sure I wasn’t a total wing-nut, was offered a job on the Cook’s Illustrated team.
Having just celebrated my 1 year anniversary at the company I can say that I am thrilled to be there. I love the people I work for and with, learn new things every day, and am excited to be part of such a dynamic team delivering great recipes to our readers.
So……now you know the “life changing” story of my muffins. Can I promise you the same life altering experience if you make them? No. But I can promise you’ll love them, so I hope you give’em a try.
Cheers – Steve
for the muffins:
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (7 1/2 ounces)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2/3 cup finely chopped pecans, toasted
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar (3 3/4 ounces)
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar (2 ounces)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 stick unsalted butter, browned and cooled (4 ounces)
- 1 1/2 cups mashed bananas, from very ripe bananas that have been peeled and mashed well with a fork (12 3/4 ounces)
- 2 tablespoons full-fat sour cream
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
for the streusel:
- 1/3 cup finely chopped pecans, toasted (1 1/2 ounces)
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)
- 3 tablespoons ground banana chips (see below)
- 2 tablespoons salted butter at room temperature
- Heat oven to 350℉ and place the rack in the top 3rd of the oven. Spread 1 cup of finely chopped pecans on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
- Increase the oven temperature to 400°F.
- Brown the stick of butter in a small, heavy bottomed pan set over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the milk solids are a caramel brown and the butter smells fragrant and nutty, 8-9 minutes. Pull from the heat and pour into a liquid measuring cup, making sure to scrape all of the browned milk solids from the pan as they carry so much of the flavor. Set aside to cool slightly.
- Place 1 cup of banana chips in the small bowl of a processor and blitz until it resembles coarse, wet sand, about 1 minute. (you will not need all of these pulverized chips for the recipe, but processing is much more efficient with at least 1 cup of chips in the hopper. Reserve unused ground chips for another use.)
- In a small bowl make the streusel topping by whisking together the turbinado sugar, flour, ground banana chips, and 1/3 cup chopped nuts. Add the salted butter and work it into the mix with your fingers until fully incorporated. Set aside.
- Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl. Add the 2/3 cup chopped pecans and whisk to incorporate.
- Beat together the brown sugar, granulated sugar, and eggs in bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment at medium-high speed (#6 on a Kitchen-aid stand mixer) until smooth and aerated, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low (#3 on a Kitchen-aid stand mixer) and add browned butter in a slow stream so that it emulsifies with the egg-sugar mixture (make sure to include the milk solids that will have settled to the bottom of the measuring cup), scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Make sure all of the butter is emulsified into the mix before moving to the next step.
- Stop the mixer and add the mashed bananas, sour cream, and vanilla to the bowl, mix on medium speed just until fully incorporated, 5-10 seconds. Remove bowl from mixer and using a large rubber spatula, fold in the flour-pecan mix gently but thoroughly.
- Spray a standard 12-cup non-stick muffin pan with cooking spray.
- Scoop the batter evenly into the greased muffin cups (a #16 or 2 ounce ice cream scoop is the ideal tool for this job). The cups should end up about 3/4 full of batter. Sprinkle an even amount of the streusel mix on top of each muffin and gently press the mix into place. Bake until the muffins are golden brown and the crown springs back when pressed with your fingers and a testing skewer comes out clean, approximately 16 minutes, rotating the pan front to back halfway through baking time. Cool muffins in the pan set on a cooling rack for 10-15 minutes, then gently twist the muffins out of their cups and set them on the rack to cool completely.