Spiced Carrot Muffins with Dried Cranberries and Pecans

I have to admit, as a general rule I am pretty anti-muffin. As far as I am concerned, comedian Jim Gaffigan gets it right when he exposes muffins as yet another clever way we’ve devised to eat cake for breakfast. He laughingly lambasts muffins as “bald cupcakes,” and I have long been inclined to agree with him. No one is going to argue that muffins aren’t tasty – chock full of butter and sugar, how could they not be? But they’re nutritional value as a breakfast food is basically nil.

Don’t get me wrong – I love an oven-fresh, nutritionally bankrupt breakfast as much as the next person. Special mornings just cry out for scones, waffles, and pancakes. And that is a good thing! But when Anthony asked me to bake something tasty for a youth group breakfast, I just couldn’t bring myself to make something that, although undoubtedly delicious, would send their blood sugar through the roof.

I don’t know if you’ve read the New York Times article on junk food that came out last week, but I sure did. It wasn’t particularly groundbreaking; I think we’ve known for a while that neon orange food is bad for us. I wasn’t shocked by the long-hushed secret that snack food executives have hired scientists to engineer chips and cookies to be biologically irresistible to humans and more addictive than cigarettes, or that they’ve bankrolled marketing prodigies to sell us evermore crap. And I was saddened, though not surprised, to know that poor people in developing countries are the next great marketing frontier for all-American junk food. But what I couldn’t get out of my head was one of the images described by the author. He writes about the marketing guru who invented “Lunchables,” and describes of photograph of the man’s daughter on her wedding day – white dress, perfect hair, big smile, and a tray of Lunchables. When asked about that picture she admitted that she wasn’t really a big fan, but they were like the family’s “fourth child” since her father had spent so much time and energy creating them. Her own children, she said, have never had one. “We eat very healthfully,” she insisted.

I don’t know why this one particular image stuck with me, but it did. And it got me thinking about feeding people – kids, adults, anyone. Whenever I am asked to cook for folks, I want it to be delicious. So, I often make things that I know will please, even if it is not the healthiest option. Muffins made with butter, filled with jam, and topped with cinnamon-sugar. Baked macaroni and cheese with three incredible cheeses and a little bacon for good measure. The list goes on and on.

And, of course, there is a time and a place for all that. But this time, haunted by the image of a young bride and the children she would later shield from her father’s Franken-lunch creation, I decided to make something that tasted good, but still had reasonable nutritional content. After all, these kids (like all of us!) are bombarded daily with snacks designed to addict them and marketing specifically targeted to manipulate them. And I, for one, think they deserve better.

So, I fiddled with some recipes and came up with these Spiced Carrot Muffins with Dried Cranberries and Pecans. They do have some brown sugar and oil (but both can be reduced to 1/3 cup if you’d like a lower calorie breakfast), but they also have fresh carrots, low-fat yogurt, warm spices, dried cranberries, and toasty pecans. And I’m told they were a hit.

Spiced Carrot Muffins with Dried Cranberries and Pecans
Serves: Makes 12 large muffins
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ teaspoon table salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1⅓ cups low-fat plain yogurt
  • 2 large eggs
  • ⅔ cup light brown sugar
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups grated carrots
  • ⅔ cup dried cranberries tossed with 1 teaspoon flour
  • ½ cup chopped toasted pecans
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees and adjust the rack to the middle position. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with baking cups and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, yogurt, and vanilla. Using a spatula, stir in the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Fold in the carrots, dried cranberries, and pecans.
  4. Divide the batter evenly between muffin cups, filling them to just below the top. Bake until lightly browned and well risen, about 25 minutes.
You can use ½ cup of brown sugar, if you like a slightly less sweet muffin. Also, if you'd like to jazz up these muffins further, add ¼ chopped crystallized ginger.


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  1. says

    Sharon I love how you could have easily just read the NYTimes article like many of us, and simply disparaged the food execs for pushing bad food choices on the public, but instead you were self-reflective, and could see how we all do the same thing in different ways, wanting “our public” to like what we’re serving (esp at breakfast!) no matter the nutritional value.

    … Taking the log out of our own eye before we judge the speck in of our neighbor’s. 😉

    Thank you.

  2. says

    It took me a couple of days to get around to it. but I just got through reading that NY Times magazine article: I Feel So Sorry for the Public–inside the hyper engineered, savagely marketed, addiction-creating battle for American ‘stomach share.’

    I’m happy to know that as easily as it is for us to get addicted to high sugar, high sodium, high fat, artificially flavored and colored foods, that we can wean ourselves off it too. For me it was an eye-opener just how many of us baby boomers who know better don’t sit down and eat meals. That we’re part of this snacking culture too.

    One interesting observation… as I was reading about all those salty, crunchy savory snacks–even in such a negative context– I wanted some. Thank God there wasn’t any in the house!

  3. Susan says

    Thanks Sharon for your muffin recipe and for the suggestion to reduce the amount of sugar and oil.

    I have also read the article in NYTs. Glad that this info is finally coming to light.

    For years I suffered from unidentified food allergies that was life threatening. The medical profession was unable to keep me so I took charge. By removing additives, coloring agents and pretty much any ingredient I could not pronounce from my diet – guess what the allergy has disappeared.

    My family snickered under their breath when I would say no more high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners, no coloring agents or chemical we can’t pronounce. Over time they have come around.

    I’m sad in a way for this revelation because I’m thinking many people don’t have the skills to prepare simple meals from scratch. Thanks to your Mom and “How to cook without a book” cause it helped and encouraged me along my journey.

    I think there is also a food cost issue somewhere in this discussion although Americans spend less on food per capita than most developed nations we seem to be buying the wrong stuff and not eating very well at all.

    Thanks for your blog I love it!

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