The muffin-man with his bell, selling his wares in the street at a halfpenny a time, is a part of English folklore. But what exactly did he have in his tray? He seems to have disappeared from the scene by the 1930s, and the evidence for what his wares were is contradictory. Elizabeth David, in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), surveys the sources from the mid-eighteenth century to the 1950s and finds almost as many variations as recipes. A large part of the problem is that the muffin has a Siamese twin in the crumpet, and the two terms have often been confused (there is a regional dimension, too, the north of England once using muffin for what in the south tended to be called crumpets). It does seem to be the case that muffins in former times were often made from a leavened batter of flour and milk similar to that used for crumpets, the difference being that the finished muffin did not have such large airholes as the crumpet. The end result was a round flattish spongy cake eaten warm for breakfast or tea, usually buttered. These muffins do not appear to have borne much resemblance to the revived muffins on sale in British supermarkets and bakeries since the 1970s. These are what Americans call English muffins. They are the same shape as earlier muffins, but are made of a soft bread-like dough. As a further contribution to terminological confusion, to American speakers the term muffin, tout court, denotes a sort of cup-shaped bun or cake made from a flour, milk, and egg batter.
English probably got the word muffin from muffen, the plural of Low German muffe, ‘cake’.
Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.