baking holidays sweets

For the Fourth

3 July 2009

Yesterday afternoon I was working from home — in this case, my parents’ house — when my mom knocked on the door.

Hot corn muffins, right out of the oven! she called.

Luckily I had reached a decent stopping point and could take a wee break because when someone, especially your mother, tells you she’s just made corn muffins you do exactly what I did which was to jump up and bolt straight for the table, the lavender honey, and that pile of golden bread.

Corn is a little bit of America to me every time I eat it — at least, it seems like something you’d want to eat on the day to celebrate that country’s liberation from England so long ago (and I am not saying anything but today Andy Roddick, a Yank, beat Andy Murray, a Scot, to advance to the Wimbledon final on the day most Americans have off to commemorate the holiday — I mean, surely it’s just a coincidence, right?). Dried and pounded into flour it invokes the days of the early Americans who ate it both out of necessity and economy.

These days corn distilled into syrup is slipped into so much of our processed foods (as per Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” which is long but really will blow your mind a bit and is worth the read) and there’s unfortunately much to criticize.

But corn in its natural state is a thing of beauty and, I’d argue, something to be celebrated. It grows tall and straight and hardy and if you were lucky enough to grow up as I did you might be sent out back into the garden to gather ears for dinner. Fresh ears of corn still mean summer to me, and when it appears in the farmers’ markets I know no matter how persistent the San Francisco fog my favorite season has arrived at last. When the heirlooms come in I make great bowls of fresh corn and tomato salad, seasoned just with salt and a little balsamic vinegar (and, if I’m feeling really decadent — or hungry — an avocado). I’ll eat it straight off the cob dripping in salted butter or I’ll toss kernels into frying pans along with green beans and garlic.

It’s all delicious — and this is not even getting into things like polenta, or upside-down apricot cakes baked with cornmeal instead of flour, or or or.

Today, the day before the day to celebrate American independence, it’s sort of reasonable to be thinking about this most American of crops. Native to the Americas, corn has been around since even before the days of the great Revolution (as a kid when I read all those biographies of Paul Revere and his ilk — of course noticing and remembering the food — it seemed they were always dining on corn porridge, corn pudding, corn cake, etc.). People throw around the saying “American as apple pie” but couldn’t it be instead “American as corn bread”?

Either way, whatever your plans are tomorrow I’d entreat you to consider making a batch of corn bread or muffins. This is a recipe I’ve been using for awhile and calls for buttermilk, which saves the bread from being too dry as it can tend to be. In the winter I made it a lot along with pots of lentil and spinach soup, and it was the perfect complement. But I bet a plate of grilled vegetables or even a veggie dog or two would go along just fine.

I can’t promise I’ll get up at 7a tomorrow morning to watch two Americans (and sisters at that) fight it out at the women’s Wimbledon final, but if there’s a corn muffin and a cup of tea (of course; I need to have both that American and British influence to properly celebrate the fourth) when the alarm goes off I’ll be much more likely to do so.

Maybe you will, too.

Cornbread
Alas I can’t remember from where exactly I adapted this, but most likely it was epicurious.com or williams-sonoma.com. If you can manage the buttermilk, do — it really makes it. But regular milk will also work if necessary.

1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk

1 large egg
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter 12 regular (1/3-cup) muffin cups. Sift cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk and egg in another medium bowl; whisk in melted butter. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients; stir just until incorporated (do not overmix). Divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups. Bake muffins until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 15 minutes (muffins will be pale). Cool on rack 10 minutes.

  • Molly 4 July 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Miss N – I was all stressed out about what to bring to the potluck birthday celebration for my favorite restaurant (I wanted to make my rhubarb-vanilla cupcakes, but it got too late) and I knew I’d find something here. I wound up making these as mini muffins, with half a cherry baked into the top (one of the restaurant’s signature dishes is pork confit with polenta and cherries, so it’s sort of a reference). No stress, and they’re delicious! So thank you! ;) xo.m.

  • Whitney 3 July 2009 at 7:55 pm

    I can’t wait for corn to hit our markets. I have this corn pancake recipe that is to DIE for.

    Happy 4th!