zucchini cocoa nib muffins

I’ve told this story before, but here I am again with the story in my head and my eyes on the oven, so here we go.

Ten years ago now, I worked at a little cafe in Santa Fe. As far as I know, it’s still there, and it’s still wonderful. Each morning in the time when the sun would just begin to send its sparks across the sky, I’d leave the yurt that Joey and I rented near Madrid, New Mexico. We had landed in the yurt for the summer not out of any idealistic or hippy leanings, but really just because a beautiful woman named Nina needed someone to take care of her brave, orange tabby, Dakota. We loved the cat, and it seemed like 16 square feet of rounded space was just the right amount for us. And so I’d get up early, and hop down off the loft bed onto the floor made of bricks that were placed directly onto the ground. I’d thank Dakota for the tiny kidney or intestine he had left me, I’d move it so that Joey wouldn’t land on it as he jumped out of bed, and then I’d leave the yurt, driving past the Lone Star convenience store where we bought weekly scratch tickets in the hopes of financing our wedding. I’d drive past the San Marcos Cafe with all the peacocks wandering in the yard. And then I’d start my way down Cerillos Road, with the new and the old interspersed, until I came to the turn that brought me to Counter Culture Cafe.

There’s nothing like a dark and cool kitchen early in the morning. Starting the coffee, preheating the oven, slowly bringing life into the space–I swear in one of these incarnations of my life I’m going to start a bakery, just so I can live there in that early morning kitchen. In the time between dawn and when I served the first customers, I made muffins and bundt cakes and thick, substantial brownies. At some point, the Italian jeweler who rented the space adjacent to the cafe would show up and peek his head in. He was making my engagement ring, and little band of silver that held a pearl he had ordered from Italy. Every day, he’d give me an update.

I’m realizing just now, as I write this, that it might have been exactly ten years ago today that I found out I was pregnant with Sadie. Maybe yesterday or maybe tomorrow, but it was sometime this week–that day when Joey and I sat at Planned Parenthood in shock while they told me about prenatal vitamins and early pregnancy self-care. We took a walk, and when we decided to go through with it, we got in the car and drove to the mall where we called our parents in the parking lot. Then we went inside to the arcade, and for two hours, we shot aliens on the screen with focused determination. Ten years ago, right now.

I only go there to that day because in my mind that whole summer led up to that point and from it, and the activities of the rest of the time revolved around the singular act of creating perfect muffins. Up until that revelatory moment, the muffins kept me grounded in the midst of planning the wide, wide future. The muffins held their place in the day, and the slight variations I’d make to the perfect recipe posted on the fridge marked the weeks and the subtle progression of the summer. Blueberries or raspberries. Sliced almonds or crunchy sugar on top. Just enough change to make those people who ate the muffins every single day when they came in to have a bowl of coffee and contemplate the newspaper or their first novel feel like they were getting something new–but not unfamiliar.

But that week, that is–this week ten years ago, my breasts grew to such a size as to be disorienting when I looked down. After work, I’d go to the library at the school from which I’d just graduated, and I’d curl up at a desk with a book and fall fast asleep. And I lost all interest in muffins, or cakes, or really any food except watermelon, which Joey bought in halves from the health food store. I’d take a spoon to one of those massive halves and polish it off entirely right there in the parking lot. So when it came time to leave at the end of the summer, and Elaine, the kind and saucy woman who managed the baked goods while her husband took care of the food, told me I was welcome to take the recipes with me as long as I never sold them to anyone, what did I do? I nodded and said I’d copy them down before I left, but in my mind, I knew that I would never bake another muffin again. How could I ever want to eat a muffin? And so I left, and I left the muffins too.

These are not those muffins. They are not even trying to be, and they’re far more healthfood-y than anything I made in that quiet kitchen. But those muffins expanded out of their tins in a way that I have tried to reproduce, and here, I have succeeded fairly well. And those New Mexico muffins (that yes, I still search for), have kept me thinking about what makes a perfect muffin for me. I think it’s a taste for each person to decide, but over the years, as I search and experiment and bake and eat, I have isolated a few key factors that I want in my muffin, some present in that elusive Counterculture muffin and some not–but all inspired by that perfect muffin-ness that those pastries possessed. These are, in no particular order:

1. The muffin must have a top, a BIG TOP. This comes about both by appropriate amounts of leavening agents, as well as having enough batter so that each muffin tin can be filled to the top (as opposed to the often-requested three quarters).

2. The muffin must involve melted butter, not softened butter. How many times have I walked into the kitchen, hungry on a Sunday morning, with the passionate drive to make muffins now, only to be dissuaded by the inclusion of softened butter? Many. (And yes, I know that there are ways to soften butter a little quicker, but when I want to get a batter into the oven in 10 minutes because every moment is filled with hungry girls, I need to move fast!)

3. They must be delicious enough to feel like a treat, but not dessert. Muffins that are cake are good for snacks with afternoon coffee, but I think not so good for breakfast. So I look for less sweetness and maybe, even, a bit of whole grain. I favor spelt flour for muffins, as it’s light and adds really great flavor.

These three criteria have led me to this–the zucchini cocoa nib muffin. I’ve been working on a blueberry muffin, too (right now–the blueberries! Oh the blueberries!), and I’ll share that when it’s ready and my family stops arguing about which ones are best. I love these muffins–they are sweet but not too sweet, substantial but definitely a treat, and they use zucchini, which is a plus right now. I’m likely to bring together zucchini and chocolate whenever I can, and the cocoa nibs do that in a different way, adding a bit of crunch as a nut would.  I know that cocoa nibs are a bit of a hoity toity ingredient, but they’re good here, really good. You can find them in the health food store–they are chocolate in a more raw form. There is maple sugar on the top of these, too, as I’ve decided that I like sweetness more on the outside on the muffin than the inside. Most maple syrup providers make a maple sugar as well (mine comes from my favorite and local Justamere Tree Farm), and it’s great to have on hand for sprinkling over muffins and cookies.

It goes without saying that I did, in fact, turn out to be someone who would make more muffins. And maybe it’s good that I didn’t take that recipe ten years ago–maybe I need something to inspire this hungry monomania. And maybe it’s even better in my mind, maybe that summer, ten years ago, with the yurt and the dawn and the pregnancy and the video games and the pearl and the scary future and the watermelon, maybe it’s all interwoven with those muffins for me. In fact, I know it must be. But I guess I’ve have to go back to Santa Fe to find out.

So this is my muffin of the week, my triumphant pause in the muffin search. But I have to ask, what do you think? What do you look for in a muffin? And do you (oh DO YOU PLEASE!) have a recipe to share? I’d be grateful, and I’m sure I’m not alone.




  1. Michael Schneider says

    I very much envy your memory of the details of years ago, as that’s so not the way my mind works. And, yes, Counter Culture is still there, so feel free to drop by Santa Fe to see if the muffins rekindle even more memories. If it helps, I’ll even buy muffins for the whole Chernila family.

  2. noreen says

    What a lovely memory! And, the muffins look lovely as well. Sadly, I don’t bake with eggs here (my two oldest boys are allergic), and I have never had any luck with recipes that call for replacing more than 2 eggs. *sigh*

  3. Ali says

    Wonderful, wonderful recount…. love, love, love! Esp the line, “and for two hours, we shot aliens on the screen with focused determination” – made me cackle! Thanks! oh, and I have an awesome zucchini muffin recipe that I got from someone when I was in high school:
    Beat together:
    3 eggs
    1 cup sugar
    1 cup oil
    2 cups grated zucchini
    2 teaspoons vanilla essence
    2 cups flour
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 cup sultanas
    1 cup walnut pieces
    Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake at 350 deg F (180 deg C) until done, about 15 minutes.

  4. Kat D says

    Thank you for instantly transporting me back to Madrid, NM! When I was there, I found myself preggers, too. Must be the water. :-) It’s been 7 years, but it’s still one of my favorite places. On this rainy, dreary Wisconsin morning full of kids with too much energy it was nice to get away for a few minutes. Now I will go bake to feed my soul and my family with a little smile in my heart. Thanks!

  5. says

    Great story! I think it is so odd that I commented on your last post about how I grew up near where you live and next I read a story about how you were in Santa Fe in your early twenties– so was I for 1 year when I was 22. It is fun to hear about the lives of others and how similar and yet how different they can be.

  6. says

    I totally agree with your three keys points to make a good muffin!!
    Here’s the recipe I just used for blueberry muffins, which is, in my mind, pretty good!

    1 1/2 c flour
    1/2 c sugar
    1/2 tea salt
    1 pkg baking powder (around2 teas)
    125g melted butter
    3/4 c warm milk
    2 eggs
    1 cup blueberries

    Don’t over mix! Bake for 20min at 200°C. Makes 12

  7. Dawnelle says

    These look really good! I’ve been trying to find a good zucchini muffin recipe, and I have cocoa nibs in the cupboard, score;) It’s been a little while since I’ve been on your blog, and I’ve missed it. I don’t remember how I stumbled across it in the first place, but super glad I did. It led me to your book, which I finally got yesterday, yay! Actually, somehow nobody knew the delivery was sitting on the porch, and I just got a chance to look through it a little bit ago. I LOVE it by the way. It feels like home, and I feel all the love you put into it. It’s totally beautiful, and my absolute favorite cookbook! Can’t wait to make stuff later today (after I get some sleep;) My daughter (she’s almost 7) and I will have some fun:) We just made our first mini donuts last night, and that was great! Anyway, keep all the awesomeness coming, and wish you the best:)

  8. Dawnelle says

    For some reason my comment says it was posted at 7:28 am, but it was actually 3:38 am…. I can’t seem to sleep though, and your book is making me hungry. I gotta eat something and go to bed before the sun comes up lol:)

  9. says

    I just made these, with a few modifications due to the absence of certain ingredients, they turned out nicely!
    I gave one to my man to try and this was he’s response:
    -scrunched up face- “what’s the herb you put in here?”- I mumble “zuchini” -he gives he a disgusted look -“why on earth did you do that?! You ruined a perfectly good muffin!!”
    I guess you can’t please everybody, sigh.
    I’m happy at least!!!
    Thanks for the inspiration!
    Oh, and I shreaded and froze all my leftover zucchinis because I’m fed up with trying to make something with them…this year we’ve got way toomany cukes!!

  10. Kristen says

    Vaughn (age 8) made up a muffin recipe the other day – peach, ginger and cornmeal… it was actually pretty good for a first try at making his own recipe, though I have adjusted his amount of baking powder because he went a little heavy with it.

    I wish I could reproduce it in his writing…

    1 cup flour
    1 cup cornmeal
    1/2 tsp salt
    1 tsp baking powder
    1 tsp ground ginger
    1 cup of almond milk
    1/4 cup of melted butter
    1/2 cup brown sugar
    chopped peeled peaches (we used three small ones)

  11. Kimberly says

    Fantastic! These taste delicious! I love them. I had no nibs so I chopped up some semi-sweet chocolate chips, just about a 1/3 cup. So yummy. Next time I’ll find some cocoa nibs to try.

    Thank you for bringing such baking joy to our home :-)

  12. says

    Love this post, although I don’t like muffins much. We were in Santa Fe last year and fell in love with the French Pastry Shop. Next time, we’ll have to try Counter Culture. Beautiful recounting of discovering you were pregnant with Sadie. Thank you!

  13. says

    LOVE this recipe…I can’t wait to try it! And, I am completely addicted to your awesome cookbook – I just made the roasted nuts yesterday, oh are they heavenly! I am aiming for one recipe from your book per week ~ yum!

    Just one question…what could I use instead of buttermilk in this muffin recipe?

    Thank you!!

    • alana says

      Hi Kim- I’m so glad you’re enjoying the book! Yogurt should sub in fine for the buttermilk- do you have that available? Just make sure it’s fairly thin- even if you have to water it down a touch. I hope you enjoy!

  14. Krista says

    GREAT recipe!! Such a subtle cocoa flavor and sweet without being too sweet. I’ve made them a few times and last week we got a few too many sweet potatoes in our CSA, so I subbed them in for the zucchini- they were still wonderful! Thanks!

  15. Terri says

    I know this is an old post, but I have a zucchini the size of a small toddler hanging out in the fridge and want to make some bread. As always, I ponder your site or book for inspiration.
    So, first–thanks for the recipe. I’ll try it this week.

    Second, even though I live in St. Louis, I get to spend a fair amount of time in Santa Fe and YES! Counter culture is still there, still makes those insanely rich, huge baked goods and assorted other Loved Up Food. I’m headed there after Labor Day to do some hiking and writing and am counting the days.

    Thanks for the recipes and the good vibes!

    • alana says

      Oh hooray on both counts! This is a great recipe for those big honking zucchinis, and I’m so happy to hear you love counter culture too. I haven’t been there in ages, but it makes me happy just to think of it. Thank you, Terri!

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