On snowy mornings when I was a kid, my mom would get up extra early to turn on the oven.
Our recipe for applesauce muffins came from my aunt, and it made a huge batch. Mom baked them for us until we grew older and figured out that we could make the batter on a Sunday night, keep it in the fridge and eat freshly baked muffins all week while we watched the “Today” show and got ready for school.
This was the 1990s. Chelsea and I were precocious elementary- and middle-schoolers, capable of putting the muffin liners in the tin and baking them ourselves while everybody in the house prepared for the day, and we happily shared a lot, including a love of these particular muffins.
They were heavily spiced, far more than the brownies and cookies and other kid-friendly sweets we also baked, and I remember intentionally underbaking them so the insides would still be gooey. (I also forgot to add the baking soda once, creating one of my first memories of a baking failure.)
Fast-forward two decades and my sister and I are both mothers now, baking muffins and brownies and cookies for our own kids. Although we remain close with our mom, we all live in different states, so it’s a rare treat for us to get together in the same kitchen and make anything.
This spring, my sister and I both traveled to Missouri to visit my dad, who has been ailing with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Usually always on the go, Dad hasn’t been able to get around as much, so we knew we’d be spending a lot of time at the house, hanging out in our close-knit nuclear family unit.
We’ve been so lucky to have my parents’ model of unconditional love, which continues to guide us as we raise our own families many hundreds of miles away. When we can all get together, the support is palpable. That’s just what my mom needed this year. She continues to work as a guidance counselor for middle-school-age children, but she’s also taken on the role of caregiver in the past year.
Last Mother’s Day, my grandmother fell and broke her hip, and my dad was starting to have mysterious pains in his hip and lower back. My mom spent the next four months accompanying both of them to doctor’s offices and emergency rooms. By August, my grandmother had moved into a nursing home, and my dad had received the cancer diagnosis. In September, my mom lost her mother, but the doctor visits for Dad continued.
We’re in a new year now, and everyone in the family is adjusting to the new normal. My sister and I are trying to visit as often as we can. We’re developing a new way to talk with our parents and our children about the uncertainties ahead.
We are watching and learning from this woman who lost one parent when she was my age and had two young children, and then lost another parent nearly 30 years later, when those children were old enough to be part of the process. And we’re still learning how to be better parents by watching her be a grandparent who is always eager to say yes when one of the kids suggests a project.
Both my sister and mother said yes when I suggested we bake our favorite muffins last month. Chelsea had commented a few years ago that she couldn’t get her applesauce muffins to taste like the ones from our childhood, so we did a little baking experiment to incorporate a few changes from a Mark Bittman recipe.
Making two batches of muffins — one with white sugar, one with brown — we shared our memories of making them when we were younger and listened as my mom told stories about the kitchen tools we were using that used to belong to our grandmother.
Both batches turned out well, especially with the addition of an oat streusel topping, but we decided that the key to them tasting like “our” muffins is the spice mixture. Few muffin recipes call for cinnamon and allspice and cloves, but that’s what makes them so cozy in my memory and in my kitchen today.
Because the warm months of summer are coming, I’ll probably see my sister again before I make these muffins again. But it’s comforting to know that I can re-create a taste of those warm childhood memories whenever I like, even if I’m away from the family that made them so special.
For the streusel:
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup oats
5 tablespoons butter, cubed
For the muffins:
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup brown sugar
1 stick butter, melted
1 cup applesauce
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Line a muffin tin with paper or cooking spray. Heat oven to 400 degrees. To make the streusel, mix together the sugar, flour, cinnamon and oats. Rub the butter into the dry mixture. Reserve.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice and cloves. In a separate bowl, combine the egg and brown sugar. Add the melted butter, then stir in the applesauce and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Fill muffin cups halfway with batter. Top with streusel, reserving any extra in a zip-top plastic bag in the freezer. Bake muffins for 20 to 25 minutes. Makes about a dozen muffins.
— Addie Broyles