Why We Cook: Cranberry-Orange Muffins

Cook, Why We Cook

This post comes to us courtesy of Melissa Graham, founding Executive Director of Purple Asparagus.


In the beginning, I cooked because I was hungry.


I was a young college student sick of cafeteria food. During my junior year, I lucked into a house with a large commercial kitchen. I signed up for the Cookbook of the Month Club, ordered Joy of Cooking. When they arrived, I borrowed my boyfriend’s car visited the local grocer and stocked the fridge. After burning a few dishes, undercooking a few others, I started a lifelong love of cooking.


Then there was law school, cities away from a second boyfriend, where I filled many an evening cooking through The New Basics. Making cakes for my housemates, hosting cocktail parties for my friends, I discovered the farmers’ market and the local gourmet store. (I blanch to think of the credit card bills graciously paid by my parents.) I cooked then for comfort and companionship.


After law school came Chicago. Engaged to my college sweetheart, I started a new life with new friends. I discovered Le Cordon Blue’s cookbook to build skills and ways to find ways to use my matrimonial bounty (much sourced from Williams-Sonoma). For my new family and friends, I hosted events large and small, but always centered around food. I cooked to impress, to fit in.


Sadly, the marriage failed and a few years later I lived on my own, in my own home. It was a darling little condo with two central hubs: a used Viking stove and a tin-lined, six top dining room table. While everyday meals were sparse, I still threw dinner parties for my friends. Dearly departed Gourmet magazine was an excellent guide for both styles. I cooked then to feel normal during a time when life was completely upside down.


Life goes on, and within a few years I was remarried, with a new son in a new home with lots of bookshelves that filled with cookbooks of all styles. Even in my tiny little kitchen, I turned out meals both simple and grand. In both, I cooked to nourish and nurture my new family and new life.


Today, after years of cooking professionally for both the high and the humble, I no longer use books as my sole inspiration. As a longtime cook, I use ingredients as my inspiration. I cannot look at a vegetable, a jar of honey or a cut of meat with conjuring visions of new dishes. My reason for cooking is less complex. I cook now because I do not know how not to cook. Cooking is a part of me, not merely a task but in some ways a calling. I’m just glad I was hungry enough to recognize it.


Cranberry-Orange Muffins with Chocolate Chips and Streusel Topping


This is a recipe that my son and I created together while experimenting in the kitchen one snowy day. It’s a sunny, sweet counterpoint to a winter morning.


For the muffin batter:


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

2 large eggs

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 Tbs. orange juice

1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

2 tsp. orange zest


For the streusel topping:


1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 Tbs. all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. orange zest

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into pieces


Preheat the oven to 400° F. Fill 12 regular muffin cups with silicone or paper liners. Combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, butter, and lemon juice in another bowl. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ones. Stir to combine. Gently mix in the cranberries, chocolate chips and orange zest. Scoop the batter equally into the lined cups.


Stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and orange zest in a small bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers. Sprinkle the streusel topping over the muffins.


Bake for 20 minutes in the center of the oven or until a tester comes out clean. Cool on a rack. The muffins are best eaten the day that they’re made. Makes 12 muffins.


About the author: Melissa Graham, a former attorney, is the founding Executive Director of Purple Asparagus, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to educating families about all things associated with good eating, eating that’s good for the body and the planet. Though its Delicious Nutritious Adventures program, Purple Asparagus has taught thousands of parents and children about healthful, sustainable eating in schools, community centers, and farmers’ markets throughout Chicago and the suburbs. Melissa speaks and writes regularly on child nutrition and sustainability both in the Chicago community and online, blogging at Little Locavores, as The Sustainable Cook on The Local Beet, and as a regular contributor to Kiwi Magazine’s KiwiLog. In recognition of her contributions to the Chicago community, the Chicago Tribune recently awarded her a 2011 Good Eating Award, an honor previously bestowed to Rick Bayless, Alinea chef Grant Achatz, and First Lady Michelle Obama. Melissa resides in Chicago with her husband and 7-year old son in a rowhouse built in 1896.

7 comments about “Why We Cook: Cranberry-Orange Muffins

  1. Laura Martin Bacon

    This is such a beautiful piece, Melissa — it inspires me to take on new challenges in the kitchen and in my life. And to dream and cook happily ever after.

  2. Lauren Harnick

    I loved this story. I am a former attorney (well, at least not practicing) turned teacher and I enjoyed reading your story as much as I’m sure I will enjoy the recipe. I cook because it relaxes me and my mother never cooked anything. I was determined to make almost everything from scratch on my own and instill a love of cooking and baking on my children. I can’t wait to make this one with my daughters, thanks!!

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