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Pumpkin-Pear Muffins
  Making muffins rise is no tall order
But mistakes do happen!

Cooking and baking are really two different things - one is primarily craft and the other requires a hefty dose of science. When you're baking, veering from the recipe even even slightly can carry unfortunate consequences. And then sometimes you can follow the recipe to the letter - measuring oh, so precisely - and muffins still fall flat.
So just what goes wrong behind the scenes in baking that determines whether you rise or fall? After Alicia's usually delicious Pumpkin Pear Muffins (click here for the recipe!) landed with a thud the other day, she was truly perplexed. Alicia learned to bake as a preschooler under the careful watch of her grandmother, and she has been a true pastry queen ever since.
It was time to play Baking's Crucial Questions. Sometimes our newspaper column readers contact us with baking questions, too, and it can be a bit tricky to diagnose the situation site unseen. But here are the first questions we tend to ask:

  1. Is your oven's temperature correct, that is calibrated so that the actual heat matches the degree marks on the knobs? A mere 25 degrees can mean the difference between a dry muffin and one that does rise to full height.
  2. Are you using the correct type of flour called for in the recipe? Sometimes there can be a big difference between cake flour; soft, Southern flour; and the harder winter wheat from up North.
  3. Did you sift the ingredients properly? The order of the sifting is crucial - "1 cup sifted flour" is different from "1 cup flour, sifted." (Sifted flour is first sifted and then measured.) Sifting can make as much as a quarter-cup difference when measuring 2 to 3 cups of flour, and too much flour gives a too-dry or too-heavy product.
  4. Were the dry ingredients measured properly - that is, did you use dry cup measures (with level sides, as opposed to glass or plastic cups with a spout).  Then the dry ingredients must be leveled off evenly across the top of the measure with a knife. (Flour must be spooned into the cups. Don't scoop or you'll pack too much in.)
  5. Finally, (!!), here's where Alicia went wrong with her Pumpkin Pear Muffins: Has your baking powder or your baking soda expired? No, they don't last forever. Check our baking powder blog at Kitchen Scoop.com (click here) for more information on these magical leavening agents.

We're probably forgetting some other magic tricks, and if you have baking tips to share, please visit our blog and add your ideas and comments to the discussion! And while it does sometimes seem that a myriad of potential pitfalls await in baking, don't let our list frighten you. So long as you follow the recipe and the few simple guidelines above - you'll end up with amazing muffins (like the ones in Alicia's photo). Even a short little muffin tastes better than no muffin at all!

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Beverly and Alicia
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