In high school, aimless excursions to satiate late-night adolescent wanderlust always morphed into quests for blueberry muffins, a blaring Emo soundtrack in the background and miles of black road racing beneath our wheels. Maybe it was because Dunkin Donuts was the only place open past midnight within a 15-mile radius. But maybe — more likely — it was the sublime flesh of our beloved “bloobs” that beckoned us back, waiting wanly beneath fluorescent lights, a story of sugar-sticky steering wheels and clinging crumbs, of absurd coffee buzzes and pubescent peripatetics. Muffins are — for many quick breakfasters, afternoon snackers and late-night wanderers — the perfect food. Best eaten top to bottom (robust crust or bust), the archetypal muffin draws the eater into its depths even after its crystallized crown is gone. It’s all in the batter. Commonly made with vegetable oil or fat other than butter, muffins are breadier, lighter and more toaster-ready than their dry, aristocratic counterpart, the scone, or their saccharine cousin, the cupcake.
New Haven, it turns out, is a veritable muffin Mecca. Not only are there bloobs in profusion, but a plethora of fanciful flavors will breed confusion for even the stubbornest devotee. A three-block radius walk left me loaded with nine unwieldy bags full of muffins which later formed an endearingly lumpy procession across my tiny table. This is their story.
Flourescent lights are always deeply disturbing first thing in the morning. In Au Bon Pain, ease of access makes for a quick stop as long as other puzzled pastry patrons don’t block your path. Their blueberry muffin is truly unfortunate; square and squat, flabby with a burned crust and laced with incongruent cinnamon and disturbingly intact blueberries which generate a salmon roe-like pop between the teeth.
Dunkin Donuts’ is slightly better; a rather handsome muffin, browned top freckled with sugar crystals, crust robust and craggy, its glossy surface hides uninteresting, damp dough littered with stunted, frozen blueberries. The dough is suspiciously blueberry-tinged, either due to some seriously runny blueberries or, more likely, to blueberry extract (yeah, that’s fake). At $1.47, however, you can eat one and a half times as many muffins at Dunk’s as you can anywhere else. I’m in.
Unfortunately, Atticus’s offering was more of a bad scone than a muffin, speckled with emaciated blueberries and devoid of flavor save for a hint of butter. Its suspiciously idyllic shape give way to dryness that crushed my hopes for muffin magnificence. Not even butter and jam could save this sucker. The bran option was no better, staining the bag with a gratuitous amount of oil in spite of its choking dustiness.
I am so turned on by the size of Koffee’s bloobs that I almost overlook their cloying sweetness and malleability. The muffin — that is, the portion that hasn’t melted on my fingers — dissolves into mush when it hits the tongue. Predictably and redeemingly, the Koffee muffin boasts obese and tasty berries, but overall it is a reminder that size isn’t everything. Alternately, this muffin was made for all-day study sessions. I have been known to tuck into a lemon-poppyseed muffin (a more robust option) and emerge seven hours later clutching the nibbled remains. They say not to eat anything bigger than your head, but I like to live dangerously.
As many truly unfortunate muffins as lurk in the dark corners of college cafés, there are wonderful and surprising successes. At Book Trader, the tattooed-type hands me a divine-looking bloob baked by Jennifer, a smiling blond in crocs and a pink bandana. This is the muffin I have been searching for. Craggy and domed, it has no pretensions of fake bronzeage or sensationalistic size. It is, however, laced with the most sublimely sizeable, soft-baked blueberries; its crust peels apart in heavenly chunks, dense and cakey. And the dough, just the dough, tinged with a hint of vanilla, tastes like blueberries — real blueberries. This is the muffin your mama made — or would have made, had she been raised by muffin-baking ninja masters.
Claire’s proffers an equally heavenly, yet characteristically “crunchy,” bloob. Its sweet dough is laced with the complex flavor and astonishing texture of vegetable shortening and speckled with flakes of nutty bran. Like Claire’s cake, the dough is almost waxy, but with such a fabulous bite and differential from crust to center that waxiness translates as sublime richness. Tiny, tasteless blueberries take second stage to this muffin’s strange and wonderful substance, but it is worth trying to experience its texture.
The bloob is an elusive beast at Starbuck’s and The Publick Kup, selling out early or ceding window space to alternative pastries, but to limit oneself to this sole flavor is to refuse muffin nirvana. Starbucks’ Apple Bran muffin, slightly sticky, is made with whole wheat flour, brown sugar and honey; tart apple and cherries meld with molasses smokiness. The Publick Kup imports their muffins from Judie’s European Bakery (also found in the Bass café). The Pumpkin Cranberry, crowned with delectably crunchy pumpkin seeds, is incredible, with whole fresh cranberries and the earthy essence of pumpkin. Also of note: Koffee’s Mocha-Chip mini (read “normal-sized”) muffin.
So cure your nostalgia for Drury Lane — the muffin man is right here in New Haven, if you only know where to look.