Baking WITHOUT Booze: Corn Muffins Are Delicious

You can make corn muffins from scratch, and it's pretty freaking awesome. But since I don't usually have that kind of time, I do what everyone since my Granny DePratter has done.

Jan 16, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

I feel like I need to prove to y'all that I can make things that do not involve alcohol. And that's why we have this very special edition of Baking WITHOUT Booze. The other reason is that I found this amazing heartlette pan at Target, and I had a gift card, and so it became mine.

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And my husband is getting tired of tiny cakes.

The only logical thing to do was, of course, make corn muffins.

Cornbread is a quick bread, made with corn meal (which seems obvious but I gave up on "obvious" a long time ago) and baking powder. Native Americans were the first to make cornbread -- and it has become kind of an emblematic food of the Southeastern United States. It's ubiquitous soul food.

Traditional Southern foods are usually poor foods. So, expect this to be filling and reasonably delicious; do not expect it to be pretty. I've been realizing, as I think about recipes to share with y'all, that none of my favorite foods are photogenic.

Corn muffins really only differ from cornbread in form factor -- they are muffins, y'all. Or small hearts. Or whatever shape you bake them in. It's a little way to take something plain and old-fashioned and put it on our fancy dinner plates now.

Side note: We have a local food truck that specializes in local ingredients. They make amazingly good food, but a lot of it is poor food that has been turned into gourmet food. Cheese grits are cheese grits even if you're using fancy organic cheeses. So it cracks me up more than I can say to see people lining up for these things as though they are a new invention.

My greatgrandmother, Granny DePratter, used to make something called corn pone. "Used to make" because she's dead -- and no one else in the family makes it. I've tried a few times, haven't managed to get it quite right. My salt content just seems off, or maybe it's because I don't have the cast iron skillet she used to make it in.

Corn pone is utility food of my favorite sort -- it has very few ingredients: corn meal, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and a little bit of buttermilk. You can also, if you're feeling like my granny, make it with lard.

I feel like there is so much explaining that has to be done when talking about this sort of cooking. Lard is rendered pork fat. There are different kinds, based on where on the pig the fat comes from. You can also use shortening, which is also rendered fat.

Rendered fat is kind of awesome. And, from what I've read, it's making a big of a comeback in gourmet cooking in general. It took a hit because it isn't made of diets and zero calories, but fat is a conveyor of flavor. So.

So, corn pone is this thick almost doughy mix of dry ingredients with a little wet. There's no eggs. It's easy to make from long-term stored staples. Then you either use a corn pone pan -- which is a cast iron pan that looks kind of like a bunch of triangles in a circle -- or you just hand-form the pones. You fry them a little bit, and then you can finish them off by baking them in the oven.

Corn pone does not sit well. You have to eat it hot because it's very dense and dries into kind of a rock. But it's amazing when you use it to soak up the liquid from collard greens. Annnnnnnd, now I'm drooling.

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My suspicion is that corn pone is one of those tastes you have to acquire in childhood.

This is why, when I make corn anything, I make corn muffins instead. You can make corn muffins from scratch, and it's pretty freaking awesome. But since I don't usually have that kind of time, I do what everyone since my Granny DePratter has done -- I doctor a box of Jiffy. (It, uh, surprisingly pains me that Jiffy comes from Michigan, which I only found out when I looked up the URL for this article. Michigan seems lovely; it's just that there are corn meal mills far more locally!)

You can make this stuff directly as it says on the box, if you want. It'll be... adequate. It'll also be crumbly as hell. Corn meal is not fine-grained, so it tends to give you breads that break apart into bits and pieces. But there is a way around this.

Creamed corn.

Okay, so, imagine an ear of corn. All those little corn kernels are full of starch. It's kind of milky white and watery. It's basically sugars. To make creamed corn, you take either a corn cutter (scroll down) or a big old knife, and cut the kernels off the cob. The goal is to get the kernels, sure, but also the corn juice, for lack of a better term. Then you cook it all in a pot on the stove until it's a soupy mass seasoned with salt and pepper and maybe a little sugar if that particular corn crop wasn't very sweet.

You obviously don't need to go through all of that in order to make awesome corn bread. Though if you know someone who grows corn, it's so worth the time and effort. Again, I'm making myself hungry here. Ahem.

For corn bread, just grab a can of creamed corn at the grocery store, OK? You're cooking with it, it doesn't need to be an exploration of Southern food history unless you really want it to be.

When you make your Jiffy mix, replace the milk in the ingredients list with creamed corn. If you're determined to stick with the listed ingredients because you think creamed corn sounds terrifying and awful, at least use buttermilk. The higher fat content will pay off, I swear.

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The mix calls for, like, one egg and a third a cup of milk. Throw in the egg, and then add more like a little less than half a cup of creamed corn. I know that isn't precise -- a half a cup seems to be too much and a third of a cup seems to be just a little too little. Sometimes cooking is not an exact science. Which is part of the fun. This is corn muffin alchemy.

Jiffy tends to be kind of a sweet mix -- if you want, you can add a pinch or two of sugar, but I don't find it necessary. Still, the beauty of corn bread is that it provides a contrast to the savory flavors it gets served with, particularly the sharp taste of collards or other Southern greens. It also nicely complements the sweet smoky taste of pork.

Sometimes people also add whole kernel corn to the mix at this point. I do not support this practice, though I support your right to make that decision.

You can also add in finely chopped jalapenos to make, like, spicy corn bread if that floats your boat. It sinks my boat, like a sinking thing. But again -- it is your mouth! Find a flavor profile that works for you! And don't overcook -- the box says 15 to 20 minutes but if you're making muffins, especially on the smaller side, pull them out after 15 minutes. There is no cornbread worse than dry cornbread.

The other secret to successful corn muffins, I think, is the liberal application of butter when you put one on your plate. To this end, I put my corn muffins in a bowl wrapped in a towel so they stay warm enough to melt room-temperature butter.

Apparenly half the fun of cooking is, for me, about the history of what I'm making. Corn bread is summers with my grandparents and greatgrands, coming inside after jumping on the trampoline, covered in fine Florida sandy dirt. And, you know, it's a delicious addition to your dinner as well. Best of both worlds.