Winter Breakfast Warm-Up: Applesauce Bran Muffins from The Bread Lab

Back in my college days in the 1970s, bran muffins were lumped into the category of "hippie food" along with granola, hummus, brown rice and pretty much all whole foods.

Stewed prunes from Joy of Cooking, 1955 edition.

In my grandmother's time, bran and other foods, like prunes, were used as "digestive aids," a euphemism for their laxative properties. I remember my grandmother, a ranch wife in Eastern Oregon, putting up a dozen jars of stewed prunes every winter, the little black fruits doled out in moderation lest they prove too effective at their task.

I, of course, would sneak them out of their hiding place in her fridge whenever I thought she wasn't looking, enjoying their savory sweetness and even sipping the syrup they were preserved in—with no discernible ill effect as far as my grade-school self could tell.

(I was kind of a weird kid, foodwise, preferring having a slice of pie to a frosting-slathered cake, chewing on raw rhubarb to sucking on candy and generally favoring savory to sweet. But I digress.)

Because "it'll help you poop"
isn't all that appetizing.

After my grandmother's day, bran's laxative superpower slid easily into the "health food" arena, synchronizing nicely with the booming weight loss industry of the 1950s and 60s. One television commercial from the era advised that if you consumed bran cereal it would promote "youthful regularity," and an article on the contemporary history of bran stated that "multiple diets emerged on the scene promoting bran as either the foundation of a healthy nutrition plan, or the secret weapon for preserving a rapid weight-loss strategy."

Here at home these days, bran is a fortuitous byproduct of Dave's home-milling, a result of grinding whole wheat for his sourdough bread and then sifting it to remove some (but not all) of the bran to get the result he wants. The recipe below probably uses bran from the same sifting process—the Washington State University (WSU) Breadlab, a group of WSU researchers, are dedicated to developing better tasting, healthier, affordable grains to support small-scale organic farmers while not pricing people out of staple foods. (Read more about The Breadlab's origins.)

As for the dead-simple recipe below, apples of all stripes are available this time of year, so find a nice tart variety—we are currently in love with Ashmead's Kernel from Kiyokawa Family Orchards in Parkdale and Liberty apples from Queener Farm—and make your own applesauce, or simply core and dice one up, sauté it in a knob of butter until it's slightly tender, then mix into your muffin batter.

Applesauce Bran Muffins

From the WSU Breadlab: These apple sauce bran muffins are made with 100% unsifted Climate Blend, with a ton of extra bran added. We say it every few months, but we do not understand bran muffins that call for white flour. Our lab, along with soil scientists, plant breeders, food scientists and medical professionals, is participating in a USDA-funded Soil to Society grant to create more nutritious, affordable and accessible whole grain-based foods. From the soil to your table, we think a muffin is a good start.

1 1/2 c. any whole wheat flour
2 c. bran and germ (if you sift use that) or a good all-bran cereal
3/4 c. tart apple sauce [or sauté 1 medium-sized chopped apple in 1 Tbsp. butter until tender]
Scant 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 c. milk
1 egg
1/4 c. oil

Soak bran in milk for a few minutes. Add all other ingredients. Mix by hand. Adjust moisture as needed. [We didn't need to add any more milk.] Line a muffin tin with parchment baking cups and fill with batter. Bake for 20 minutes at 400°. If needed, you can broil for last 30 seconds or so to brown the tops. [We've never needed to broil them.]

Clif Bar Invests In Local Grains

I first heard about The Bread Lab from reading a New York Times article three years ago describing it as a "project to reinvent the most important food in history." It depicted Dr. Stephen Jones, the lab's founder, as looking like "a lovably geeky high school teacher," albeit one bent on nothing less than a revolution in how we think about bread.

From the article:

"What most people picture when they think of flour—that anonymous chalk-white powder from the supermarket—is anathema to Jones. Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish­ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health. The Bread Lab’s mission is to make regional grain farming viable once more, by creating entirely new kinds of wheat that unite the taste and wholesomeness of their ancestors with the robustness of their modern counterparts."

This is a guy.
The Bread Lab's
Dr. Stephen Jones.

In the intervening years since that article was written, Jones's project, part of Washington State University's College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, has achieved national and international recognition for breeding, testing and rejuvenating forgotten varieties of wheat, barley, buckwheat and rye. It's also helped improve the prospects of farmers in Washington's Skagit Valley, where Jones built his lab in order to be closer to the fields and the farmers who test the grains.

"We’ve seen the addition of seven new businesses and about 200 new jobs because of the Bread Lab," said Patsy Martin, director of the Port of Skagit. "Farmers are making a profit off their crops and value is being added to the crops by new businesses. It’s our goal to have the number of businesses continue to grow and add more good jobs. A resilient agricultural economy will keep the Skagit Valley unique, special and viable into the future."

Dave Hedlin of Hedlin Farms, a Bread Lab partner.

Today Clif Bar and Company, in association with King Arthur Flour, announced the funding of a $1.5 million endowment to enable the Bread Lab to continue its research breeding grains adapted to organic farming practices in perpetuity.

Matthew Dillon, Clif Bar's senior director of agricultural policy and programs (profiled recently here), said, "Public sector land grant universities like Washington State have seen their funding for organic agricultural research cut year after year at the state and federal levels. With the endowment, [Clif Bar and Company] is putting a stake in the ground for organic’s future because we believe the Bread Lab can improve the good that organic brings to farmers, consumers and the planet."

Video and photos from Clif Bar.