The heat of the sun hits my skin like an oven as I reach into the mesquite branches to pull off two pods. The branches are lined with long, thin thorns so I have to be very careful not to make fast movements or I will scratch my hands. I take a bite of one pod to see if it is sweet, and it is. I can continue harvesting, as the sweeter the pod the better. As I drop the pods into my bag I have a vision of being in another time and place, with a baby asleep on my back and toddler picking up fallen bean pods from the ground, I think of the generations of women who foraged for mesquite pods to make flour to feed their families and I feel connected to this place and this moment in a way that only nature can give you. I’ll need to fill a 5 gallon bucket if I want one pound of mesquite flour. As I continue to pluck pods I imagine the native women gathered together singing songs to pass the time,comforting scrapped knees of the children running around and taking a break under the shade of the mesquite’s sweeping canopy. I’m pulled back to the present moment by the cry of my toddler asking to go in, it’s too hot in this late June sun even at eight in the morning. I pull off a few more pods and look into the bag, I have pulled maybe quarter of a bucket. I’ll need to come out again and again if I’m ever going to make it 5 gallons! But for now we retreat inside to make some muffins for breakfast.
Every year the mesquite trees of the Sonoran Desert bloom with flowers that look much like golden pipe cleaners. There are three types of mesquite trees in Arizona alone, each producing pods with a slightly different shape, color and flavor. Their flowers turn into long beige bean pods, sometimes speckled with fuschia dots. If you pluck them early when they are tender and green you can steam them and eat them like green beans, but when they are dry, somewhere around the beginning of July, they fall to the ground and are collected by all numbers of foraging animals, humans included.
The native people of the Sonoran Desert have collected these mesquite pods for hundreds and hundreds of years. The
Tohono call the mesquite “hui” while the Hia c-ed O’odham call them Hu’upa . Once enough pods were collected they would be washed to remove dust and bugs and spread out to dry again under the sun. Using a mano y matate, spanish for a mortar and pestle, native people would grind a handful of pods at time. Placing the beans on the stone plate, they would use a wooden pestle to crush and grind until they arrived at a fine flour. The flour was used to make porridge, thick dried cakes used to thicken stews, or even fermented into alcohol (1).
The inspiration for these muffins sprang from the idea of the hundred mile diet and thinking about the native people and their effort to eat off the land. I wanted to create a baked good that could connect the plants around me to my food. I chose mesquite flour and blackberries as they are two forageable items that can be found in the deserts of Arizona. The mesquite pods can easily be collected off the surrounding trees while wild blackberries can be found in the higher deserts bordering the pine forests of the Mogollon Rim. Had the native people thought to create a cake using mesquite flour and berries they could have made this. Mesquite flour has a very distinctive taste: it is slightly sweet yet smoky or nutty. There are three varieties of mesquite trees here in the Sonoran desert and each one has a varying level of sweetness. The taste will make you feel the warmth of the desert sun. It should also be noted that mesquite is a legume so the flour doesn’t have any gluten. This affects the way the flour reacts in recipes. I have only included a ¼ of a cup due to the fact that it has no rising power and it has the distinctive taste I mentioned earlier. Feel free to experiment with ratio of flour if you want, just know the muffins might not rise too well.
- 1 2/4 cup (125 grams) of whole wheat pastry flour
- ¼ cup (31 grams) of mesquite flour
- 1/2 cup (62.5 grams) of sucanat or evaporated cane juice
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder (aluminum free)
- ¼ teaspoon of sea salt
- 2 eggs
- ¾ (180 ml) cup of milk
- 3 tablespoons of melted butter or oil
- optional dash of pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup of blackberries, fresh or frozen
Start by having all your ingredients at room temperature and heating your oven to 400 degrees. Then lightly butter a muffin tin. Measure out the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt combining them all in a large bowl, then whisk well until no lumps remain, or if you have a sifter feel free to use it.
Crack the two eggs into a medium size bowl and whisk until the yolks and white are fully combined, about 30 seconds; then add the milk and the melted and slightly cooled butter to the whisked eggs. Whisk again to combine all the liquids.
Now pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients and fold them in using a silicone spatula or wooden spoon. You’ll want to fold in the liquids gently and as quickly as possible with as few strokes as you can. About 6-7 turns will do. It is okay to have a few lumps here and there.
Before folding in the berries, toss them with a bit of flour just to coat; that will help them to stay evenly distributed throughout the muffin and not sink to the bottom. Now fold in the berries with two or three strokes. Mixing the ingredients just until combined makes for light and fluffy muffins with a perfectly domed top. If you over-mix they will puff up like Mt. Everest and that does not make for a very pretty muffin. Using a spatula or ¼ cup measure fill each muffin cup ⅔ of the way full. This allows for growth of the muffin without spilling over the top.
Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean. Allow the muffins to cool in the pan for five minutes before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely. Store the muffins in a cloth bread bag once cooled. They will keep at room temperature for about three days. They are really lovely served with homemade blackberry jam and butter. This recipe makes 12 medium sized muffins.
Note about substitutions:
For this recipe feel free to use the following substitutions if you are under dietary restrictions: for the sugar you can use honey or agave nectar, nutmilk for the milk, coconut or sunflower oil instead of butter, 1/4 cup of applesauce for the egg.
**I wrote this article for a wonderful project that sadly did not come to fruition. So I thought I would share it here.