A not-so-tall order

RECIPES: Small-batch baking is having a delicious moment

Small-Batch Buttermilk Biscuits (The New York Times/Julia Gartland)
Small-Batch Buttermilk Biscuits (The New York Times/Julia Gartland)

When Mike Johnson made tiny batches of baked goods in early 2020, he did so to minimize the use of yeast and flour, which was hard to find in the early stages of the pandemic.

"It was a way for me to ration," said Johnson, 28, the author of "Even Better Brownies: 50 Standout Bar Recipes for Every Occasion" (Page Street, 2020) and the writer of the blog Mike Bakes NYC.

"I kept it up because for a lot of people, myself included, small-batch baking just makes sense," he said.

Johnson further simplified some of his recipes by eliminating equipment that might be necessary for the original recipe. His cinnamon roll recipe, for example, which makes just four, is done entirely by hand.

All said, 2020 may have been the year that got more people baking, but it was also the beginning of a mini trend: small-batch baking. Spurred on by necessity, then by requests from readers and Instagram followers, cookbook authors started creating scaled-down versions of recipes like biscuits, cake and cookies, perfect for those who want a baking project but don't want a big batch.

Michelle Lopez, 33, the author of "Weeknight Baking: Recipes to Fit Your Schedule" (Simon & Schuster, 2019) and the writer of the blog Hummingbird High, first found herself trimming recipes to suit her two-person household.

"I started sharing the recipes on my Instagram and blog," Lopez said. "They blew up."

Her small-batch blueberry muffin recipe, inspired by the oversize muffins at Levain Bakery in New York, makes four. Her baked ube mochi doughnut recipe yields six, and her loaf-pan Funfetti cake serves two to four depending on how you slice it (and how much you like cake).

I love to bake, but I live with just my husband. Last year, small-batch baking became a creative outlet to make things I wanted without being bogged down by leftovers. I have a few small-batch recipes that I've been baking for years, but the most-baked recipe in our house is for buttermilk biscuits, which makes just four (though admittedly huge) ones, which I usually slather in butter or drown in gravy.

Before you head to the kitchen to scale down Great-Aunt Emma's chocolate cake recipe, keep in mind that small-batch baking can sometimes mean more than cutting a recipe's ingredients in half. It can include finding solutions to tricky questions like how to halve an egg (use one egg yolk), how to adjust rising and cooking times (check early and frequently) and what size pan to use (check dimensions and experiment). And sometimes, it requires reformulating a recipe entirely. If this isn't your kind of project, don't worry! Recipe developers and cookbook authors have done a lot of the work for you; there are so many tried-and-true small-batch recipes online.

Small-batch baking may have emerged as a trend in 2020, but beyond the pandemic, it may make a lot of sense for a lot of people. And there's really nothing cuter than a tiny cake.

Small-Batch Buttermilk Biscuits

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into ½-inch cubes, plus room-temperature butter for greasing the pan
  • ¾ cup cold buttermilk, plus more as needed
  • 1 egg

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt to combine. Add the cold cubed butter, and toss until each cube is well-coated with flour. Using your hands or a pastry cutter, mix the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.

Make a well in the center of the bowl, and pour in the buttermilk. Use your hands or a silicone spatula to mix the ingredients until they form a homogenous dough. (It will look quite shaggy.) If the dough is not coming together, add more buttermilk by the tablespoon.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Toward the end of chilling, heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch square baking pan, a 9-inch round cake pan, an oven-safe skillet or a baking sheet.

On a lightly floured surface and using floured hands, pat the dough into a rectangle ½-inch thick. Fold the dough in quarters. Using floured hands, pat the dough out again to a square about 1¼ inches thick.

Cut the square of biscuit dough into four even pieces. Transfer the biscuits to the prepared pan in a cluster, with about ½ inch of space between each biscuit.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg with 1 tablespoon water. Brush the egg wash over the surface of the biscuits, and bake until deeply golden brown on top, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool at least 10 minutes before carefully separating and serving.

Makes 4 large biscuits.

Small-Batch Blueberry Muffins (The New York Times/Julia Gartland)
Small-Batch Blueberry Muffins (The New York Times/Julia Gartland)

To keep these muffins from sticking to the pan, be sure to coat the muffin pan and its edges generously with nonstick cooking spray. When the muffins come out of the oven, immediately use a small offset spatula to gently release their edges from the pan, then let them cool completely before removing them. You can use frozen blueberries instead of fresh, but be sure to thaw and drain them, then let them come to room temperature before adding them to the batter.

Small-Batch Blueberry Muffins

  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup PLUS 4 teaspoons sugar, divided use
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1¼ cups fresh blueberries, at room temperature
  • Nonstick cooking spray

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and ½ cup sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg and vanilla, then mix on low speed until fully incorporated, about 1 minute.

With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the milk. Mix until just combined, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then mix for 30 seconds more. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Using clean hands, mash ¾ cup blueberries while adding them to the batter. Beat on low speed until they are just incorporated. Add the remaining whole berries, mixing until incorporated.

At this point, the muffin batter can be covered and allowed to rest at room temperature for up to 1 hour. If not resting the batter, heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Generously coat the corner 4 cavities of a muffin pan (preferably nonstick) with nonstick cooking spray. (Make sure to spray around the top edges of those cavities, too, since the tops spread.) Evenly divide the batter among the prepared cavities. (They will appear very full.) Sprinkle each muffin with 1 teaspoon sugar.

Bake the muffins until the tops are domed and golden brown at the edges and a skewer inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, 22 to 24 minutes.

When the muffins come out of the oven, immediately run a small offset spatula very gently under the edges of the muffin top, being careful not to separate it from the bottom. Allow the muffins to cool completely, about 1 hour, before unmolding the muffins by placing a wire rack or platter on top of the muffins, holding the muffin tin and rack together, and flipping it over. Store the muffins in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Makes 4 muffins.