Dial M for Muffin

I'll see you in Court-yard!

Art by Seda Coskun.

May 16th, 2019. I flicked my collar up to shield against the pelting rain: umbrella in hand, bag clutched to my chest. I hurried down Science Road, desperately seeking refuge from the deluge. It was then that I saw it: Courtyard Cafe. The warm glow of the Holme Building beckoned me in and the sound of chatter and clinks thrust me over the threshold. Walking up to the register, I spied a muffin in the pastry cabinet.

“Why not?” I thought to myself, because after all, why … not.

I pointed to the muffin behind the glass screen and spoke those fatal words — the words that would define my life at this hallowed university.

“Can you heat that up for me?”

And against all odds, they couldn’t.

Diving muff-in

Courtyard Cafe, also known as ‘Courty’ or ‘The Yard,’ is a cafe/restaurant located in the Holme Building. Known for their garlic and cheese pizza, this university wateringhole has long enjoyed an era of little to no scrutiny or oversight. That era ends today.

Prior to this investigation, very few facts were known for certain about Courtyard’s heating abilities. When a customer asks to have their item warmed up, the staff give one of two replies.

“We can’t do that” or “We don’t have a microwave.”

But can that be believed? Can Courtyard staff, who for all we know might simply be agents of this anti-warm-muffin agenda, really be trusted?

No, it wasn’t enough for me and it shouldn’t be enough for the student body. I knew that if I wanted answers, I had to go all the way to the top. I had to go to the University of Sydney Union (USU).

Jess Reed, the Director of Commercial Operations at the USU, replied to Honi’s email inquiry to Courtyard Cafe at 18:08 on the 16th of April, 2021. Where her muffin loyalties lie is unknown to me, but she was my best chance of getting answers.

“Courtyard does not have any microwaves at all,” her email read.

“As one of our busiest and most complex restaurants, it has no physical space in its front of house or kitchen space to hold a microwave.”

I sat down with architecture student Kimmi Tonkin to investigate this claim.

Marlow Hurst: So, in your opinion do you think Courtyard Cafe has enough space for a microwave in its front of house?

Kimmi Tonkin: Almost certainly. A pair of microwaves can actually take up less than 2sqm including standing space, and just from personal observation Courtyard has more than enough room. They have the space, and that’s not even considering the perceived space that their premises could have in abundance.

MH: Could you expand on this idea of perceived space?

KT: Sure. Say if Courtyard was to hang some mirrors, or paint their walls white, while the physical space of Courtyard would remain the same, the perceived space would be greatly increased.

MH: And you’re saying Courtyard could put their microwave in that additional perceived space?

KT: Yes, yes I am.

So with the USU already spinning a web of lies to shield its flagship cafe from the penetrating gaze of journalistic scrutiny, what else could they be hiding?

The Director of Commercial Operations went on to make a number of other claims regarding Courtyard’s practices.

“When capacity allows in the morning, customers are welcome to have their muffin warmed through our pizza oven.”

A crack team of undercover Honi investigators sought to verify this claim only two weeks ago. At exactly 10:03 am on April 21st, special agents Alice and Shania were dispatched to Courtyard Cafe with one aim in mind: get a muffin, and get it warm.

The line was empty. The time was morning. Yet still, Courtyard refused their request. Maybe we were unlucky. Maybe we missed our window of opportunity. There’s a lot of maybes with this case. All I know for sure is that something smells fishy (and it isn’t their tuna pasta).

One final claim that the USU made in their response to my questioning wasn’t about Courtyard, but about the other USU outlets on campus.

“During our busier periods, customers can purchase and warm up muffins at many USU outlets, including Footbridge, Laneway, Carslaw Kitchen, and Fisher.”

Honi sought to verify these claims as well. Of the outlets listed, all except Carslaw Kitchen had a microwave. After inquiring with staff, we were informed that Carslaw did not have a microwave and were not in a position to warm muffins up. While Fisher Coffee Cart did have a microwave, they declined to warm up a muffin purchased at Courtyard.

At this point, you may be wondering why this is all so important. “It’s just a muffin,” my friends have told me.

But they’re wrong. It’s not just a muffin. A muffin is more than just fuel for the body, it’s a cultural touchstone. Everyone can relate to the muffin, and as such, everyone can relate to the disappointment of a cold, hard, tacky muffin.

But sometimes, feeling isn’t enough. To take this investigation to new heights of credibility, I needed to talk to someone who could conceive of these glutenous, sweet treats as more than just a pastry. I needed to get … scientific.

The science of muffins

To better understand muffins, not just as a cultural artifact, but as a scientific construct, I sat down with Associate Professor Thomas Roberts, an academic of food chemistry and biotechnology in the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

According to A/Prof. Roberts, muffins are ideal for the microwave.

“A muffin is a good example of a baked good that can be improved by microwaving briefly after it’s been sitting around for a couple of hours or more.”

Professor Roberts said this is true for two main reasons: 1) muffins are largely homogenous and 2) they have enough water content to remain moist.

“It’s not the same for pies,” he warned, explaining that the “liquid filling and solid (dry) crust make for a suboptimal microwave experience (scorching filling and luke-warm crust): a problem that muffins do not fall victim to.”

This begs the question then: why not just have muffins fresh out of the oven?

Professor Roberts addresses this as well. While the term ‘retrogradation’ may be unfamiliar to many, it’s something of a rockstar in the world of starch-based food science.

“The best quality of the baked good is not immediately after you take it out of the (conventional) oven,” A/Prof. Roberts explained. This is because the gelatinised starches need to realign themselves during cooling — the flavour of the product can change with heating — another phenomenon that makes food chemistry compelling.

So if muffins aren’t best right out of the oven, and Courtyard doesn’t have the means nor the inclination to warm them up for their loyal customers:  what exactly is happening here?

Connecting the choc chips

The simplest explanation for all this is the one I’ve been provided with time and time again: they just don’t have a microwave. But that’s too easy. You know what they say: there’s no such thing as a free lunch and that’s doubly true for Courtyard. But if there is some grand conspiracy festering beneath the surface, what is it? Why do they hate warm muffins so very much?

I’ve considered ancient aliens, modern aliens, the reserve bank, the actual banks, the moon landing, the Loch Ness monster, Princess Diana, JFK, Harold Holt, and about fifty other fun yet not horribly racist conspiracy theories, yet none of them seem to fit.

So, dear readers, I need your help! Remain vigilant, remain alert. Investigate, snoop, and pry. And when you’re done, send your theories to editors@honisoit.com.

But that’s not the only way you can contribute to this ongoing investigation. Follow this link to sign the petition. Every signature gets us a step closer to muffin warmth.

Some final words fellow truth seekers. Trust no one. Believe no one. The only thing you can ever truly be sure of in life is a warm muffin, and the world is short on those these days.

May your blueberries be plentiful and your choc chips be gooey.