"L'hiver", he said to me. "Il fait froid". I had a working understanding of French, I understood more than I could speak. Winter, he'd said, it's cold. And it was bitter, Belgium was snowed in. The flakes had fallen, thick and hard for the past few days, it was Friday afternoon. Our first snow day. I think we almost died when we heard school was cancelled. Our bedroom was the loft room so the sloped windows were blacked out and the garden had become - just white, like Jack Frost had been visiting. The skeletal ribs of trees were lightly dusted, the whole garden looked soft and downy, it was magic. There was a sweet hush, a feeling of coziness, that the neighborhood was under a soft quilt.
Our house was on top of a small hill, the driveway was at least 250m long and very steep. Since school was cancelled anyway, we persuaded our dad not to start shovelling - we were going sledding. We didn't have those nice wooden sleds, rather these plastic things, almost like saucers, that you just sat on, pushed off, curled your legs under and hoped for the best. They made for a pretty exhilarating ride and pretty wet clothes. So we spent the next few hours happily running up the driveway, finding new and more perilous ways to 'ride' those sleds.
Our neighbors were an elderly couple who lived at the bottom of that hill. Number 6 was a charming white cottage, mint green shutters, a small wooden deck, a row of tidy trees. They kept two sheep in their hilly garden, a few greenhouses and all winter I'd watch the smoke rise from their chimney, smell the veggie soup. They often spoke in Dutch with my dad, I knew they were nice people, but I was a shy 12 year old who didn't speak much of the language, I'd offer a wave and a smile when we passed them. The man's name was Frans and he'd come out along his snowy driveway to check his mailbox, which is where my sister and I crash landed every time our sleds brought us down. I knew he spoke both French and Dutch and under pressure to say something, I think I mumbled 'bonjour', he'd said hello, big smiles, weather talk for the 2 kids who enlivened the neighborhood. I think he was happy, to see us scrambling around in the snow, the town was aging, we brought with us the shrieks of laughter and spontaneous joy that add something to a white Christmas. After that he'd often wave, and we started to bring Therese and Frans muffins. Nothing fancy, maybe banana, blueberry if we were feeling creative, just a friendly neighbor thing.
In their garden they grew beautiful fruits and vegetables in weathered glasshouses. the vines were heavy with purple grapes, green stalks slumped under the weight of tomatoes and zucchini in summer, when they'd bring the overflow of their produce. Quiet, hardworking people who'd toiled away for years, actually living for a while in what became our house while they worked to build their own. They'd made something out of that small, hilly patch of land.
I grew up fast in those years. Snow went from being a fun novelty to an added chore, 4am we'd be out in -15 degrees darkness, listening to the tune of a Siberian wind that ate through our ski jackets. The charm quickly faded, and so did Frans. Dementia gets the best of them. It was fast, sudden, bitter, like a cold snap. My first funeral, gray February, dark spirits, black clothes, stone village church. He'd written us a letter, probably one of the last he wrote, he thanked us for the muffins, said he remembered us. Therese would visit him at the care home often, and we'd go down to the cottage, with muffins. To share with Frans, we'd say. And he remembered us as the two girls with the snow and the hill, the sleds. That winter had been years ago, I was way too cool to play in the snow, I preferred to clear it, salt it, watch it melt. I wondered what Frans would think, the melting snow made me think of childhood, giving way under the grit that life throws at it.
Till the day we left Belgium we went to see Therese. We branched out from muffins to tea - Therese loved tea, we'd buy it whenever we went anywhere new. Peppermint tea from Tanzania, earl grey from England, Darjeeling from India all passed through the doorway of that stone cottage. We'd talk about frans sometimes (my Dutch had improved to monosyllables at this point. It's not so hard to say 'ja' is it?) and she'd always say, whenever she brought the muffins and said it was from the snow girls, his face would light up, like that weak winter sun.
I have a little folder in my desk drawer. A few birthday cards from my sister, some from my grandparents and my dad. The rest are letters from Therese. She writes in her spidery script, I write back in my broken Dutch. If there was one person who I wish could see this blog, it's her. It doesn't snow much here, but when it does, I think of that house, when they were both there, the smell of a wood fire and the small figure of Frans, fetching logs, him raising a pale hand in greeting. Bittersweet, just like the winter.
And if there was one person who'd love these muffins it would be Frans. A gluten and dairy free, honey-ish muffin with a walnut streusel is sort of a far cry from those muffs but hey, proof of my improvement as a baker. This recipe makes quite a few muffs, but it's that giving season. You could give some away - maybe you know an elderly neighbor who's spending their first Christmas alone? Or there's the Amazon delivery guy who brings you a parcel at 9pm on a freezing Friday night when you're sitting in front of a fire feeling smug/snug. Or you could freeze some, or just eat them, they're mostly fruit, if you need persuasion. If you don't want/need them gluten free, I've added a spelt flour variation in the notes under the recipe. Chocolate, pears and substitutions? I spoil you. The crazy starts now, you ready? Wishing you a warm + cozy festive season, give a lot if you can, stock up on salt. Jeez I'm a cynic. Go string up your lights, this grinch did plans to do sothis weekend! Hugs guys xo
PEAR-COCOA MUFFINS WITH A WALNUT CRUMB
// dairy & gluten free // makes 12-14 medium muffs
A cozy cold weather muffin, light from seasonal pear and slightly sweet with honey, but rich with cocoa. Sprinkle with a nutty crumble that's a nice contrast to the fudgy muffin
3/4 cup (68g) oat flour, certified gf if necessary
3/4 cup (98g) buckwheat flour
1/4 cup (50g) natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons (14g) flax meal
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 free range egg
1/3 cup (80ml) milk of choice – I used almond, use what you have
3 tablespoons (45ml) honey
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45ml)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 medium pears (about 400g) ripe but firm pears, grated
// crumb topping
Heaped 1/4 cup walnuts (35g), chopped
1/4 cups rolled oats (24g)
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar *
1 tablespoon soft / room temperature coconut oil
preheat your oven to 180’C or 350’F. Line about 13 muffin tin – holes, evenly over 2 trays.
start by making the crumb topping. Add all the ingredients to a small bowl, mix with your fingers till the oil is no longer clumpy and the mix looks sandy. Leave in the fridge till you need it again.
in a large bowl, mix the flours, flax meal, baking powder and soda, salt, cinnamon and cocoa powder till evenly combined
in another medium bowl, add the honey, vanilla, oil, and milk, whisk till well combined; add the egg and whisk again
add the wet mix to the the dry flour mix and gently combine – once evenly moist, add the pear and again gently fold to combine
add about 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) to each muffin case, they can be filled quite high . Sprinkle a heaped tablespoon of streusel on top of each and pat it down gently, to adhere.
bake for about 20-22 minutes, till the top of the muffin springs back when touched. Because of the moisture of the pear, they always appear ‘underdone’ if you test with a skewer, so check the tops. The moisture is what makes the muffin so fudgy and special
they keep in an airtight container for about 3 days, but the extra freeze well in feeezer bags.
*Turbinado sugar is also known as raw sugar, which it is, essentially (it’s a sneaky one- in the UK It goes under demerara sugar). Where you want some texture, you’ll often find turbinado – crumbles, streusels, I also use it in cookies and pies. It’s a pretty golden brown color with big grains and is very unrefined, which is my jam of course. It’s made by simply crushing sugar cane and dehydrating the juice so it retains all the minerals and vitamins which is pretty sweet for sugar (lame pun). It’s also easy to find at any supermarket, I can find the supermarkets own brand.
You can use any nuts you want in place of the walnuts, hazelnuts would be good too. And of course, the streusel is entirely optional, but fun! For another option, you can use 1 1/2 cups + a heaped tablespoon (175g) spelt flour instead of the gf flours and flax. I’ve tried it, they are the tiniest bit less fudgy but no less great and maybe easier for some of you.
I think you could halve this for about 6-7 muffins if you’re ok with having half an egg hanging around – whisk the whole egg and weigh it, add half. Use the other half in scramble eggs or I think you could keep it in the fridge for a few days for egg wash for pies or scones? Never tried, just a thought.