Muffins by mom

Muffins are like a baker's delicious shorthand. Mixed in minutes, baked in about the time it takes to make a pot of coffee, the rows of little cakes can come out of the oven and straight to the breakfast table. If only they were as good for you as they are good to eat, they'd be pretty nearly the perfect food.

Leave it to a mother who's a former pastry chef to figure that one out. Kim Boyce used to run the pastry kitchen at Campanile, the venerable Los Angeles restaurant; now she's a stay-at-home mom running her own kitchen while she raises her two young daughters. And lately she's become a little obsessed with baking muffins. Not just any muffins, but cakes healthful enough to give to her little girls every day, yet so sophisticated they suit her professional palate too.

"I have a really hard time differentiating between the mom in my head and the pastry chef in my head," Boyce says.

And kids are the perfect taste testers. They love anything shaped like a cupcake, yet they'll tell you in a second if something doesn't taste right. Anyone who has ever tried urging kids to eat something because it's good for them knows where that leads.

With open canisters of whole-grain flours, jars of spices and a Wolf stove laden with gleaming pots, you can tell Boyce spends a lot of time in the kitchen (so does her husband, Spago chef de cuisine Thomas Boyce ). And so do their kids, 3-year-old Lola and 1-year-old Sofia . They tumble in, trailing a tiny stroller filled with toys, hungry after a morning walk with their sitter.

Boyce hands them each a freshly baked muffin, golden cakes made with whole grains and laced with roasted yams and rich Medjool dates. The grains give them a nutty taste; the yams and dates provide sweetness and a fantastic texture. The kids gobble them up and take off again.

Whole grains give Boyce's muffins a depth that balances out the other elements. She'll add dates and velvety roasted yams to a whole-wheat batter, or mix sauteed apples, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg into a batter built with cooked oatmeal, oat and graham flour. The flavors intersect and balance, striking just the right notes.

Boyce says whole-grain flours add structure to a muffin and provide the perfect background for the flavors of fruits and nuts, even herbs and vegetables and cheeses. But you don't want to go overboard. Too high a proportion of heavier flours and your muffins won't get the loft and crumb you want. So pair the heavier flours with lighter all-purpose flour for the best balance.

To a savory muffin made from kamut flour and wheat germ, Boyce adds sauteed red chard and Cotswold cheese, an aged cheddar flecked with chives.

The muffins are deeply, intoxicatingly aromatic, and the flavors are fantastic, rich but well-balanced. It's hard to stop eating them; then you think about what they're made from, and you realize that you don't have to. At least not right away.

As the girls gather again in the kitchen with neighborhood friends, Boyce loads a plate with more muffins. Warm from the oven, golden-domed and flecked with grains and pockets of fruit, they fit perfectly into the kids' hands. Amid chatter and giggles and slurps of milk, the contents of the plate vanish quickly.

Scrambling from the table in pursuit of a new game, the kids are sated and smiling. And, as they nibble on muffins of their own, the children's mothers are smiling too.

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