What's For Breakfast?

In which I answer the age-old question: "what's the difference between a cupcake and a muffin?" and a recipe for Apple Tahini Muffins

Sometimes when I bake cupcakes, Kin will call them "muffins" just to annoy me. "They're cupcakes," I insist. "Are they?" he'll tease.

Are they, indeed. What exactly is a muffin, and how is it different than a cupcake? *Or is it*?

And when it comes to breakfast, does it even matter?

It's easy to joke about confusing the two. Both are baked in muffin tins — muffin tins often lined with cupcake papers. And the etymology doesn't help clarify things — a cake baked in a cup seems obvious. But the word "muffin" is possibly derived from the Low German "muffen," plural of "muffe" or "small cake." Possibly. What we know now as the small cake-like muffin is different from the small yeasted bread known as the crumpet or English muffin. It is confusing.

There are, of course, ways we distinguish the two: cupcakes can be frosted, for example; muffins are less likely to be, although they can be glazed. (Frosting vs glaze is, perhaps, another breakfast controversy to explore at a later date.) Muffins purport to be healthy; you can get away with eating one for breakfast in front of The Nutrition Police, while it is generally frowned upon to eat a cupcake for the first meal of the day. I say "purport to be healthy," because muffins are still quite sweet and even with "healthy" additions like flax seed and oats and dried fruit, they can contain about as much sugar and fat as a cupcake. There are, for what it's worth, about 440 calories in the Starbucks Chocolate Chunk Muffin.

But so what. Just eat breakfast. Eat cake for breakfast. It's fine. (You'll be hungry soon after without protein, for sure, but it’ll be okay.)

I have no interest in breakfast-shaming if and when you opt for something convenient, full of carbs and chocolate — glazed or frosted. Indeed, today's muffin recipe, while chocolate-free, is delightfully rich and decadent. It's also gluten-free. (And, as luck will have it, there is an option for making a chocolate version too!)

If I were to make a rigid distinction between a muffin and a cupcake — and I'm serious when I say "no shade!" if you have either for breakfast — the difference lies not in the ingredients or the calories or the topping or the time of day they're consumed. Rather, the difference is in how the batter is assembled. Cupcakes are, as the name suggests, typically made the same way that cakes are: by creaming the butter and sugar, then adding the eggs and beating until light and fluffy. The dry ingredients — flour, salt, and baking powder, for example — are then added alternately with milk. Muffins are more akin to a quick-bread insofar as the dry ingredients (including the sugar) are mixed together; the wet ingredients are mixed together separately; and then the two are combined quickly, without too much stirring — that would develop gluten and make the muffins chewy. Lumps are bad in your cake batter; lumps are fine in your muffin batter.

(This distinction works well right up until you consider all the "just add water" varieties of "instant" (read: microwavable) cake mixes. Then, I guess, it's quick-bread all the way down.)

Yes, I will get better at food photography. But also screw all the perfect food styling that makes you feel like nothing you make in the kitchen “looks right.” I dripped batter on the muffin tin because I am human...

Apple Tahini Muffins

Yield: 12 muffins


  • 3⁄4 cup (210g) unsalted creamy tahini
  • 1⁄4 cup (57g) olive oil
  • 1⁄4 cup (87g) maple syrup
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tsp (10g) vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (108g) walnuts, finely chopped
  • 1⁄4 cup (38g) hemp seeds (optional)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1⁄2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1⁄2 cups finely chopped granny smith apples (about 1 large or 2 medium)


Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a standard muffin tin with paper liners.

You can mix this by hand, but I use the food processor. Add the walnuts to the food processor and blitz until they’re in small pieces. Add the rest of the dry ingredients — hemp seeds, salt, baking powder. Then add the tahini, olive oil, maple syrup, eggs, and vanilla and blend until totally smooth. Stir in the apples.

Scoop the batter into the muffin cups, filling them just below the brim. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until no longer doughy. Do not overbake!

Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool for at least 10 minutes.

(Chocolate Tahini Muffins: I have also made this recipe using Soom's chocolate tahini and 3/4 cup applesauce in lieu of the apple chunks. This makes for an incredibly decadent muffin. And hell yeah, start your day with a nice piece of seed-fatty fudge cake. You deserve it.)