My first memory of envy is vivid; I can conjure up the feeling with a blazing ferocity. I’m in first grade, and it’s lunchtime (I know, I know! Capable of such intense emotions at such a tender young age, but what can I say, I peaked early).
Anyway, there I am, calmly unpacking my yellow canvas lunch bag. And what do we have? There is a little bag of baby carrots. A PB&J on homemade whole wheat sandwich bread. And of course, the pièce de résistance: a container of ripe whole strawberries with a teeny container of confectioners’ sugar for dipping. That was the height of decadence for our lunches: strawberries (with straight sugar, to be fair).
So it comes as no surprise that when my friends opened their lunchboxes, I seethed silently. Fritos? Lunchables? Pop-Tarts? If someone withdrew Dunkaroos, I’d practically have to close my eyes and put hand to head, like an old Italian grandma.
I would plead and wheedle, trying to convince someone to just let me have one little bite of a cheese sandwich made on squishy white Wonder Bread. “Come on guys! I’ll trade you one…no, no, two carrots! Two of my entire bag! That’s huge!” Oddly, this maneuvering was unsuccessful. I was left to lead a life fueled by sodium-free Wheat Thins. It was bleak.
And here I stand years later—alive and kicking—to tell the tale. Of course, it’s only now that I look back and realize how very lucky we were. Homemade sandwich bread every week? People should have been lining up to trade lunches! A hallmark of our meals were whole grains, but I can’t remember those words ever being uttered in our house. We wouldn’t have mentioned it, it was just generally how my mom cooked—with whole ingredients, mostly unprocessed, always from scratch. We had raw milk and cream from our cows, vegetables from our garden, and eggs from our chickens.
It’s funny to hear people talking up whole grains now, like they need a cheerleading squad, because I never thought of them as a penance or compromise, not when cooked and baked well. My mom would reach for whole wheat flour just as often as she’d reach for all-purpose, and when she used whole grains (brown rice over white or graham flour in her chocolate grahams), it was because they tasted excellent in what she made.
As a result, I feel very at ease baking with ingredients like whole wheat flour—ingredients that people often shy away from, either because they don’t know how they’ll behave in a recipe, or because they’ve tasted too many leaden, unpleasant whole-grain breads or desserts.
Another happy consequence of watching my mom cook and bake (and, I should add, live) is that I’m very adventurous with ingredients. She instilled a great confidence in me, both in cooking and in life, so I’m always interested in trying new things.
I was talking to a girl who works for a neat non-profit called Oldways, which works to educate people about “old cultural ways” of eating—like discovering sustainable ancient grains, and so on. This got me re-inspired to use some of the flours I have on the tippy-top shelf of my pantry: teff flour, millet flour, amaranth flour, and more. I like playing around with them and figuring out what recipes work best with their inherent flavors.
Which brings us to today’s recipe, which uses teff flour. Teff is tiny grain from Ethiopia, which can be eaten like a porridge or ground into a flour and used to make things like injera, that deliciously spongy, stretchy Ethiopian flatbread. It has a rich and earthy flavor: it’s more robust than whole wheat flour. I’d never baked with it until I tried and loved a fudgy chocolate cake recipe from Alice Medrich’s excellent Flavor Flours cookbook.
Teff is an excellent partner for chocolate: it amplifies the intense flavor of it without masking any of the chocolate. It’s also really good in baked goods where you want a denser texture (think brownies or flourless tortes or pound cakes).
I started with a pretty simple muffin recipe, adding both cocoa powder and two kinds of chocolate for extra chocolate oomph. Instead of sugar, I used a can of condensed milk: this creates a muffin with a crumb that is more moist than cakey, which I love. They’re sweet but not too sweet. If you want something with crunch, I recommend sprinkling the tops of the muffins with a mix of cacao nibs, turbinado sugar, and a little flaky sea salt before baking.
Listen, I know you’ll probably think: Do I really need to use two kinds of chocolate? And of course not. But I strongly recommend you try it—using both chips and chunks means they melt differently, leaving both chunks and pools of melted chocolate in the muffins.
Chocolate Teff Muffins
Makes about 12 muffins
2/3 cup (57g) cocoa powder (I use double Dutch dark cocoa here)
1 cup (115g) teff flour
1 cup (120g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (85g) semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup (85g) bittersweet chocolate chunks
1 can (400ml) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup (170g) buttermilk (or milk + 1 teaspoon vinegar)
1/2 cup (113g) melted unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard muffin tin with paper liners, or grease the wells.
Whisk together the cocoa powder, teff flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, espresso powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the chocolate chips and chunks.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, condensed milk, vanilla, buttermilk, and butter.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and fold gently to combine, mixing until the batter just comes together. Don’t overmix!
Divide the batter evenly between the wells—I sometimes have a little extra batter but you do want to fill them right up to the very top; they will dome some, but shouldn’t spill over.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the tops are set. Don’t overbake.
Remove from the oven and let cool until you can’t stand it and you just have to eat one.