Tuesday, February 17, 2015

perfect corn muffins

perfect corn muffins

We escaped the Frozen North this week to someplace warm and tropical and it almost feels like cheating. Shouldn’t we be shivering? Shouldn’t we be eating rib-sticking comfort food and not slurping fresh passion fruit from a spoon? How can we have the audacity to shuffle-smack around in sandy flip-flops while our arctic puffers collect dust in the closet?

goodbye, winter!my favorite viewmy second favorite view

It turns out it’s not so difficult at all. But I’m not here to gloat, promise; I, too, was bone-chilled, quietly resentful of people anywhere that their face didn’t freeze within half a block of their apartment and questioning all of the life choices that had led me to take up residence in such a place just a few days ago. Instead, I’d like to offer small packages of what passes for sunshine until real warmth returns: the best corn muffins I’ve ever made.

dry ingredients

cooked cornmeal mush
dry into wet

I have been on the hunt for a great corn muffin recipe, well, as long as I can remember. My mother made them when I was growing up and I had assumed she got her recipe from Joy of Cooking or Silver Palate, two of our cookbook bibles back then, but no, she tells me they were from the back of the Jiffy box, sending me back to the drawing board if I wanted to make them from scratch. I made Dorie Greenspan’s Corniest Corn Muffins many years ago, and while they’re lovely, the corn muffins I wax nostalgic about didn’t have fresh corn in them. I heard great things about the corn muffins from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook, but found them almost too buttery and flat. I should have known after a decade-long perfect blueberry muffin hunt ended with Cook’s Illustrated that this would too.

scooped to bake

Cook’s Illustrated understands the value of a great, craggy and bronzed muffin dome. They understand that while a more dense batter may make for pretty muffins, you’re going to want a thick, creamy ingredient inside to keep the final muffin from tasting dry and floury. Often, we use applesauce or mashed bananas to soften the final crumb, but I don’t need any of that in my corn muffins. In this month’s magazine, they did something I’d never considered: cooking some of the cornmeal with milk until porridge-thick to give the muffins a tenderness that seems otherwise impossible from this volume of dry ingredients. Split and warmed with a pat of salted butter (or salted brown honey butter, I’m just saying), if cold weather could have a consolation prize, this would be it.

craggy perfect corn muffins
towering, crackly corn muffins

Thank you: For all of your good cheer and kind words about last week’s kind of crazy news. As a second kid, I always thought we were old news, but you guys have made this feel like anything but and have reminded me, once again, how much fun it is to have this little corner of the web as our own.

One year ago: Stuck-Pot Rice with Lentils and Yogurt
Two years ago: Blood Orange Margaritas
Three years ago: Double Coconut Muffins
Four years ago: Green Bean Salad with Pickled Red Onions and Fried Almonds
Five years ago: Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Black Pepper)
Six years ago: Devil’s Chicken Thighs and Braised Leeks
Seven years ago: Pasta Puttanesca and Broken Artichoke Hearts Salad
Eight years ago: Dill Bread + Lots of Breadmaking Tips

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Smoky Eggplant Dip
1.5 Years Ago: Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes
2.5 Years Ago: My Favorite Brownies
3.5 Years Ago: Hazelnut Plum Crumb Tart

Perfect Corn Muffins
From Cook’s Illustrated, January/February 2015

Maybe you didn’t grow up eating corn muffins and you’re wondering how they’re different from cornbread. I suppose from a distance they might seem similar — cornmeal, fat, leavener, baked into something of a quick bread — but true Southern cornbread would never have sugar in it and are decidedly less cakey. Given that I just learned that corn muffins the official state muffins of Massachusetts, I think we can safely presume that they’re what happens when you let Yankees near Southern staples. (I’m joking. Mostly.)

Most corn muffins are made with an equal or even greater amount of flour than cornmeal; these are 2/3 cornmeal, and seem like it wouldn’t be terribly hard to replace that last 1/3 with a gluten-free flour mix if needed. CI had set out to make a savory corn muffin, using only 3 tablespoons sugar, but I liked these with 1/4 to 1/3 cup for the light sweetness I remember growing up, but at a level that’s still anything but cloying. Finally, CI recommends Arrowhead Mills Organic Yellow Cornmeal, and says that you should not use coarse-ground or white cornmeal, but I used a mixture of fine yellow unfancy Indian Head cornmeal and medium-grind Bob’s Red Mill (I used this portion for the pre-cooking step, to soften it) and had no complaints about the final texture.

2 cups (280 grams) yellow cornmeal, to be divided
1 cup (130 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea or table salt
1 1/4 cups (300 ml) milk, whole is best here
1 cup (240 grams) sour cream (full-fat plain yogurt should work here too)
8 tablespoons (115 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
3 to 5 tablespoons (35 to 60 grams) sugar (see Note up top about sweetness)
2 large eggs

Heat oven to 425°F (220°C). Either grease or line a 12-cup standard muffin tin with disposable liners.

Whisk 1 1/2 cups cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a medium bowl. In a large bowl (if you have a microwave) or a medium saucepan (if you do not), combine milk and remaining 1/2 cup cornmeal. In a microwave, cook cornmeal–milk mixture for 1 1/2 minutes, then whisk thoroughly, and continue to microwave in 30-second increments, mixing between them, until it’s thickened to a batter-like consistency, i.e. the whisk will leave a clear line across the bottom of the bowl that slowly fills in. This will take 1 to 3 minutes longer. On the stove, cook cornmeal mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens as described above, then transfer to a large bowl.

Whisk butter, then sugar, then sour cream into cooked cornmeal until combined. At this point, the wet mixture should be cool enough that adding the eggs will not scramble them, but if it still seems too hot, let it cool for 5 minutes longer. Whisk in eggs until combined. Fold in flour mixture until thoroughly combined and the batter is very thick. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups; it will mound slightly above the rim.

Bake until tops are golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 13 to 17 minutes, rotating muffin tin halfway through baking to ensure even cooking. Let muffins cool in muffin tin on wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove muffins from tin and let cool 5 minutes longer. Serve warm.

P.S. You can make your own makeshift muffin liners from 5 to 6-inch squares of parchment but please, maybe test it first to see if it can reach the heat the package promises, as these, despite advertising a heat limit of 450°F, set off my smoke detector multiple times and were definitely not worth the trouble.


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