We all have heard that "fresh is best," to avoid anything with more than five ingredients listed long or with ingredients we can't pronounce. These are definitely good guidelines, but they are often difficult with our limited budgets and times to follow consistently.
Now, some studies have identified a clearer classification of the "processed" foods almost everyone eats regularly. Yes, bread bought from the store or bakery is not made at home from fresh ingredients, and canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are also processed outside our own kitchens. However, the real items to avoid are what are now being called "ultra-processed foods." These are the ones that include the flavors, colors, sweeteners and hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers and other additives--all those things "that you wouldn’t cook with at home."
If you scroll through the entries on this blog, you will find a very limited number of ultra-processed ingredients. In fact, there are probably only two that will show up more than once or twice: processed cheese (aka Velveeta) and cake mixes.
And while I resort to cake mixes less and less these days, I do still keep one or two on hand for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are very versatile quick starts to things like a shortbread type crust for bar cookies or even for making rolled out cookies with the grandchildren. Secondly, if purchased when they are on sale, their loss leader prices make them a very economical start to a once in awhile dessert.
Have I given enough justification for using a cake mix in these muffins? Well, maybe I need to provide a little explanation of why I would want to turn cake into much plainer muffins. Why not just make cupcakes and be done with the whole matter?
Much of this comes back to my old-fashioned thought that a muffin should be a muffin and a cupcake should be a cupcake. Muffins are a kind of quick bread (think of banana bread or cornbread) while cupcakes are, well, cake. There is a difference in density and, in days gone by, there was usually much less sugar, and usually less fat, in muffins than in cupcakes.
No more. Muffins now often are as sweet and rich as cupcakes, sometimes having only the distinction of not being frosted--though a lot of the streusel-y toppings are probably at least as high calorie as frosting.
So today I was looking for a way to make old-fashioned muffins quickly and inexpensively.
Enter the white cake mix I had gotten on sale for 78 cents a few weeks ago. Add in the chunky applesauce in the refrigerator and I was on my way to making a batch of muffins with the right kind of texture, the (slightly) healthier mix of ingredients, and a quick bread that turned out to be popular with all my taste testers.
Yes, there were a few more preservatives than a from-scratch batch would have included, but the added fruit and oatmeal balanced that out, at least a little bit. There was no mixer to wash up, few ingredients to measure, and the "muffin method" meant these were stirred up and ready for the oven in less than 10 minutes.
Spiced Applesauce Muffins
1 white cake mix
½ c old-fashioned oatmeal
1 1/2 c chunky applesauce, homemade (see NOTE below)
1 T pumpkin pie spice
1/2 c dried cranberries
1/2 c chopped walnuts (optional)
1. Combine all ingredients except the dried cranberries and walnuts in a large bowl. Just dump them in all together.
Stir until just mixed and there are no dry lumps. No need to get the mixer out; in fact, they will be more muffin-textured if you just stir gently.
2. Fold in the dried cranberries and walnuts.
3. Spoon the batter evenly into well-oiled muffin pans. Unless you fill the pans very full (with the muffins spreading out over the tops of the pans after baking), this recipe will make about 14 to 16 muffins. It is okay to let the remaining batter sit while the first pan of muffins is baking.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly pressed with your finger.
5. Allow to cool for a few minutes before removing from the pan.
NOTE: If you only have access to applesauce that is not chunky, substitute 1 cup of that and 1/2 cup finely chopped apple for the chunky applesauce. OR, make your own chunky applesauce by cooking about 2 pounds of cored and coarsely chopped apples with a small amount of water in the microwave for about 3 to 4 minutes, until the apple chunks are very soft. Cool and measure out 1 1/2 cups of the applesauce, including juices.