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Healthy muffins have a sweet (potato) side

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

When I told my mother – a fiend for candied ginger – that I was testing a batch of these muffins, she said she wished she could fly right over and dig in. She’s not the only one.

There’s just something about the combination of sweet potatoes and sweet spices that makes us happy. Every time my grandmother Ruth made her signature spice balls – wonderfully chewy cookies filled with every possible sweet spice – all the grandkids wafted into the kitchen from miles away.

These muffins start with cooked sweet potatoes, which not only provide great flavor and sugar, but also a tempting moistness. Slowly baking sweet potatoes in the oven intensifies their sweetness. For expediency, we chose to microwave them for this recipe. But if you’d rather do it the old fashioned (and tastier) way, plan to bake them for 1 to 1 1/2 hours at 400 degrees F.

However you cook them, consider making extra. You can freeze the pulp for future batches of muffins. And I don’t bother to puree the potatoes; I just mash them. It leaves the texture slightly and pleasantly chunky.

By the way, if you’re wondering about the difference between sweet potatoes and yams, don’t expend much energy on it. In the United States, just about anything labeled a yam (or a sweet potato) is really just a sweet potato. True yams, a staple of the Caribbean diet, are rough-skinned, starchy and not very sweet. The vegetable we love at Thanksgiving – and the right potato for this recipe – is the true sweet potato.

Though there are still plenty of die-hard devotees of white flour, I have snuck some whole-wheat flour into this recipe because it is a healthier choice.

And the finished muffin’s golden color will camouflage the whole-wheat flour. As a practical matter, when a baking recipe calls for white flour, you can almost always swap out half of it for whole wheat with little effect on the color, taste or texture of the finished product.

Another important player in this recipe is buttermilk, one of my favorite ingredients, especially for baking. I like buttermilk’s creaminess and its tang. And, contrary to the impression made by its luxurious texture, it’s actually very low in fat. Buttermilk is a great item to keep in the fridge; you can use up any extra by adding it to smoothies.

Finally, these bad boys are topped off with some chopped, crystallized ginger (also called candied ginger). But if for some reason you’re not a fan, you can top these with the chopped nut of your choice. Just don’t tell my mother.

• Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”

Sweet Potato Buttermilk Muffins With Candied Ginger Topping

Start to finish: 1 hour (30 minutes active)

Servings: 12 muffins

3/4 to 1 pound sweet potatoes (2 small or I medium)

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 cup white whole-wheat flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon table salt

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly ground

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, room temperature

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 large egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper cupcake liners or lightly spray the cups with cooking spray.

Prick the sweet potatoes several places with a knife. Microwave on high (or on the baked potato setting) until tender, about 10 minutes. Let cool, then peel and, in a medium bowl, mash with a fork. You should have about 1 1/4 cups of mashed sweet potato. Mix in the buttermilk, then set aside.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl stir together both flours, the baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and allspice.

In another medium bowl, combine the butter and both sugars. Use an electric mixer to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Using a spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg and vanilla, then mix on medium speed for about 1 minute, until thoroughly combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add half the flour mixture and beat the batter on low speed just until the mixture is partly mixed. Add half the buttermilk-sweet potato mixture and mix until combined. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix until just combined, then mix in the remaining buttermilk mixture.

Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups. Top it with the crystallized ginger and bake on the middle rack of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Remove the muffins from the pan and tip on their sides on a cooling rack; this prevents the bottoms from getting soggy. Let cool 10 minutes before serving. They are best eaten while still hot.

Nutrition information per serving: 180 calories; 45 calories from fat (25 percent of total calories); 5 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 30 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 11 g sugar; 4 g protein; 240 mg sodium.

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