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Raspberry Muffins: fresh-picked pleasure

There was a buzz around town. I could sense the excitement in the air. Raspberries in local gardens were rosy red and plump. Those who appreciate the bright flavor of fresh-picked raspberries were eager to get picking.

Since these days raspberries seem to be available in the produce departments of most grocery stores year 'round, many of us have come to think of them as a common baking ingredient, like chocolate chips or dried cranberries. In the middle of winter, a few fresh raspberries sprinkled over a brownie with vanilla ice cream is a splendid treat. But what we call fresh from the store in the middle of winter cannot compare to the luscious flavor of just-picked raspberries in the middle of summer.

The first container of locally grown raspberries I bring home is for pure pleasure. Popping raspberries into my mouth, one after the other, their red juice staining my finger tips, and their sweet-tart concentrated flavor bursting on my tongue becomes a rhythm, and I don't want it to end.

The second basket of raspberries is stirred into muffins. The first time I made Raspberry Muffins with Chocolate and Brown Sugar Topping was on a Saturday morning in July several years ago. Some friends were spending the weekend with us and had gifted us with fresh raspberries they had purchased at a roadside stand. I decided to mix up a basic buttermilk muffin batter and add the slightly soft, chubby raspberries. A topping of brown sugar and chocolate would bake to form a crunchy cap on each muffin. Four of us greedily ate them until, before we knew it, we had polished off the whole dozen.

The batter for these muffins is thicker than what you will expect. It almost feels like a scone batter. That's the way it's supposed to be. Be careful not to overmix it. Stir just until the dry ingredients are all part of the batter, then very gently stir in the raspberries.

The perfume of the baking muffins will send the fragrance of warm chocolate and raspberries and butter billowing through your house. You'll want to eat them as soon as they come out of the oven. But be patient. They will be easiest to remove from the pan and will hold their shape if you let them cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Then nudge them out with a table knife.

I like to bake the muffins without a paper liner. Just be sure to prepare the pan with shortening or a coating of non-stick spray. I use my homemade mixture of equal parts shortening, vegetable oil and flour that I always keep in a jar in my pantry. It never fails me.

These muffins are best when they are still slightly warm. And I accidentally discovered that the batter can be mixed ahead of time, spooned into the muffin tin and then refrigerated for several hours. When my first batch of muffins was in the oven for about two minutes, the power went off. Not knowing what else to do, I took the pan out of the oven and set it in the refrigerator. An hour went by without power and I had to leave home for a while. I returned home several hours later and preheated the oven. I transferred the muffin tin right from the refrigerator into the hot oven. The muffins turned out just fine. This means you can get them all ready the night before and just pop them into the oven about half an hour before serving, making it very easy to have warm fresh muffins in the morning.

There are just two things to remember when you make these muffins. Don't overmix the batter and don't overbake the muffins.

Eat one warm Raspberry Muffin with Chocolate and Brown Sugar Topping and then another. Be careful. It becomes a rhythm.

Raspberry Muffins with Chocolate and Brown Sugar Topping

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup semisweet mini morsels

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare muffin tin by coating with shortening or non-stick cooking spray, or lining with paper muffin cups.

Melt butter in a small bowl in the microwave or in a small saucepan over low heat. Set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, combine brown sugar and chocolate mini morsels. Set aside.

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a mixing bowl. In another medium bowl, blend the egg, buttermilk and melted butter. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour the liquid ingredients into the well. With a soft touch, use a rubber spatula to stir the ingredients together until just combined. Do not overmix. Gently fold in the raspberries.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Sprinkle some of the brown sugar mixture over each unbaked muffin, using the entire amount. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 15 to 18 minutes, until the muffins are golden and spring back when touched lightly with the tip of your finger. Place the pan on a rack to cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Use a table knife to nudge the muffins out of the tin. Allow to cool for a few more minutes. Serve warm. Makes 12 muffins.

Tips from the cook

--The cups in muffin tins seem to come in a variety of sizes. The one I used holds 1/3 cup of water in each well.

--Muffins will keep well for a day or two in a tightly sealed container. Heat them up a bit in the microwave or in the oven before serving. They can also be stored in the freezer for up to a month. Thaw, heat and serve.