Annabelle Comisar’s English muffin operation
by Dean McCord
photography by Geoff Wood
English muffin might make you think of a dry, mass-produced bread product with “nooks and crannies.” It is rarely the star of the show, subordinated to a second-tier role sopped in the runny yolks of an eggs Benedict, or as a quick butter-carrying vehicle to grab for satiation. In fact, English muffins weren’t even invented in England – they were first called “toaster crumpets” by Samuel Bath Thomas, a British expat living in New York City.
Freshly baked English muffins, on the other hand, bear little resemblance to the aforementioned, particularly when they are baked by Annabelle Comisar, owner of newly opened Michael’s English Muffins in North Raleigh. Comisar’s muffins are thick and fluffy, redolent of yeast and butter and tender care. That last ingredient is an ethos instilled in Comisar by her late restaurateur father, Michael. She’s continuing his legacy, one muffin at a time.
Paving the way
Michael Comisar was a legend in the restaurant world. His family’s Cincinnati establishment, The Maisonette, was a classic old-school luxurious French restaurant with formal service and tableside cooking. It still holds the record for receiving a five-star Mobil Travel Guide (now the Forbes Travel Guide) rating for 41 consecutive years. Mobil referred to The Maisonette as “one of the few flawless dining experiences in the country.” Alas, the economy and changes in dining habits caused The Maisonette to close in 2005.
Annabelle’s given name is the same as her father’s, Michael, but unlike him, she never planned on a career in the food industry. She went to Parsons School of Design, graduating with a degree in design management and business. While working in fashion with Hugo Boss in New York, Comisar realized that she may have had more of her father in her than she thought: She started to manage a restaurant part-time, which convinced her she wanted to be in the industry full-time. She moved back to Cincinnati and eventually started working at one of the family’s establishments. It didn’t quite suit Comisar, and so she began to consider other options – with her father’s blessing. “I asked Dad if he’d still be proud of me if I didn’t stay in the restaurant,” she says.
He supported her wholeheartedly.
Comisar moved on to a Cincinnati bakery that made not only wood-fired bread, but also fresh English muffins. She enjoyed the time there, but life as a baker still didn’t take. What did was her understanding of what a made-from-scratch, freshly baked English muffin could be.
In 2014, Comisar moved to North Carolina to work with a wine distributor. Selling wine was fine, but it was even more fun when Comisar brought snacks, particularly homemade English muffins. “I’d bring my English muffins to wine tastings,” Comisar says “I would bake them on a portable griddle on the balcony of my apartment.”
Folks in the local food scene began to hear about these muffins, and a cult following ensued. Comisar decided to go into business for herself, selling her muffins. In December 2015, on the first anniversary of her father’s death, she started her wholesale baked good business: Michael’s English Muffins. She rented out a certified kitchen, working from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m., mixing and baking English muffins when not selling wine.
Hometown connections helped her find her first restaurant customer, the Counting House in Durham’s 21c hotel. Josh Munchel, the opening chef at Counting House, is from Cincinnati and an acquaintance of Comisar’s. “I was invoice number one,” Munchel says. “I knew biscuits were a thing here in the South, but not English muffins, and I wanted to do something different.” And Comisar’s version is top-notch, Munchel says, and the right amount of indulgent. “The taste, it’s almost like a donut – donut-esque. But you feel like you’re eating healthy when you’re eating an English muffin.”
These English muffins should probably not be considered health food, but they are made of the good stuff. Made of a simple dough of flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, and water, the muffins are slowly baked on a flat top with clarified butter, or ghee, and locally sourced cornmeal. The final product is soft and moist, yet full of the fluffy air bubbles needed for all sorts of toppings, or for a breakfast sandwich, which Munchel routinely served at Counting House (he has now moved on to other projects). They’re fine on their own, too, says Munchel. “I just put a muffin in a dry, cast iron skillet, uncut, because the amount of butter in it does the work for you. The amount of fun-ness is already there.”
Jeff Seizer, chef and co-owner of Raleigh’s Royale restaurant, takes the sandwich concept one step further. “They’re the best things ever. As soon as I tasted one, I said, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re doing for our burger.’” Thus, the Royale Burger was born, juicy beef and gruyere cheese served in-between Comisar’s slightly sweet, yeasty muffin.
Despite her success with the wholesale operations, Comisar still felt like she hadn’t fully committed to the business. She harkened back to her bakery experience and considered opening a brick-and-mortar outpost. After months of planning and research, Comisar opened her flagship store in January, tucked in a small strip mall behind a hotel just off of Capital Boulevard in North Raleigh. The location may be off the beaten path, but it’s worth finding the place.
Bags of muffins are available to take home, but this is also a restaurant. English muffins, including a sweet potato and cinnamon version along with the original plain flavor, can be served warm, fresh off the griddle, and topped with a variety of options, including local honey butter, Nutella, jam, or Annabelle’s childhood favorite, peanut butter and cinnamon sugar.
Her father regularly made these for her using commercial English muffins, and he called them “Scoozies”; a drawing of a Scoozie is prominently displayed on the shop’s chalkboard menu (pictured above). Savory toppings, such as pimento cheese, are also available. And of course, Michael’s understands the muffins’ worth in sandwiches, whether with bacon, sausage, cheese, or egg for breakfast, or turkey, bacon, avocado, and tomato for lunch.
It’s a bold claim, but one taste of these warm, rich muffins might just make you rethink everything you’ve ever known about English muffins. Here, they’re the star of the show.