I love muffins. I'm not talking about those dense cloddy things the size of two fists together with enough sugar and fat to kill a horse, either. They sell those heart attacks on a plate at Costco, grocery stores, and many bakery shops. No, not those. They are simply cupcakes in masquerade. I'm talking about real muffins!

It was my mother who turned me on to muffins. They were a staple in my house as I grew up. They weren't anything special – she made them from Jiffy(tm) muffin mix, either the cornbread or the regular – but they were hot, toasty, and smelled divine. Even before the call for "dinner!" was made, the rich scent of carmelized cinnamon sugar permeating the dining room told you we were having muffins that night, and then (just to confirm it) you would see the electric muffin-warmer on the table. The warmer had a well-used brown patterned fabric cover that flipped up on both sides so that you could get at the goodness within... and we were always dragging it across the table to get at it.

Mom frequently used blueberries in her muffins. We adored blueberries. Living in Maine, I guess that was almost obligatory, but the point was that the blueberries were fresh, enormous (except for the wild ones, which were tiny but bursting with even more flavor), and quite delicious. Years later, though, it turned out that my husband despises blueberries. This caused me to work at creating a recipe which had comfort value for me and yet would be something he'd like, too. In doing so, I turned to cornbread.

Cornbread has a long history in this country. Northern recipes tend to be more cake-like, while Southern ones are more crumbly in texture. Purists of the Northern and Southern varieties have extremely strong opinions about just what "real" cornbread might be. For the Southern purists here, this is not a "traditional" cornbread muffin recipe. It doesn't use bacon grease as we're going for sweet here rather than savory. It doesn't even use a cast iron muffin pan, though if I owned one, I'd try it out.

I really don't much care about how the North vs. South cornbread battle goes, though this recipe tends toward the crumbly side. Maize (a.k.a. corn) is a Native American food plant, and Native Americans were making cornbread long before European settlers arrived. My husband just happens to be Native American, and he can't get enough of these muffins. That's good enough for me. They are easy and fun to make, not to mention delicious. I hope you like them!

Equipment list

• muffin pan (no muffin papers needed)
• mixing bowl, plus three small bowls (cereal bowls should do)
• a hand pastry blender (recommended but not required; if you don't have one, use a sturdy dinner fork or your fingers)
• mixing spoon
• zesting tool – ideally, a Microplane
• cooling rack

Ingredients

Batter

All ingredients should be at room temperature.

• 1 cup (250 ml) medium-grind stone ground cornmeal
• 1 cup (250 ml) sifted cake flour. (Sift it first, then measure it.)
• 1/4 cup (60 ml) Demerara or raw sugar. (Standard cane sugar also works, but the other sugars mentioned have more flavor and the difference in price is negligible.)
• 1 tablespoon (15 ml) baking powder
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt, preferably sea salt
• a teeny, tiny speck of freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 cup (60 ml) vegetable shortening, preferably trans-fat free
• 1 cup (250 ml) fat-free buttermilk, or (if you are out) 1 cup (250 ml) milk plus 1 teaspoon (5 ml) white vinegar. Apple vinegar might also work, though I have not tried it.
• 1 large chicken egg, beaten; or the equivalent egg substitute
• 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) pure vanilla extract
• 1/2 cup (125 ml) chopped pecans, about pencil-eraser sized pieces
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) freshly grated orange zest

Topping

• 1/4 cup (60 ml) unsalted butter, melted
• another 1 teaspoon (5 ml) fresh orange zest
• another 1/4 cup (60 ml) Demerara or raw sugar

First things first!

If you have not used your cornmeal, cake flour, or baking powder in the last four months, throw it out and buy more. Seriously. Cornmeal, especially stone ground cornmeal, goes rancid after a while due to the oil content in the germ, though storing it in your freezer can greatly extend the shelf life. Cake flour can get icky, too, especially if you only use it once a year or so, and baking powder loses its "pow" after a while. The first time I tried this recipe, it failed miserably because I failed to notice that my baking powder had expired.

The method

Wash your hands!

Preheat your oven to 425º Fahrenheit (220º Celsius, or approximately Gas mark 6.5). Use an oven thermometer, or allow at least 15 minutes for this.

Lightly grease a muffin pan with butter. If you are using stick butter for the butter called for in the recipe, the wrapper from your butter stick is a very handy tool for this.

Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and pepper in a bowl.

Cut in the shortening. If you have a hand pastry blender, that's ideal (and it probably means you know what cutting in means.) If you don't have a pastry blender and/or don't know what cutting in means, do this:

  1. Add the shortening to the dry ingredients. (Don't worry about cubing the shortening into lumps first, because you listened to me when I said "room temperature" and it's already quite soft, right?)

  2. Using a dinner fork, gently mash the lump of shortening against the side or bottom of the bowl, letting the blades of the fork smush through the shortening into the dry ingredients. Scrape unblended material off the sides of the bowl and/or your fork as needed. Do this until the shortening starts to get mixed in with the dry ingredients.

  3. You are aiming for a mealy texture that is slightly finer, chunk-size, than green peas. Either continue with the fork, or flour your hands well and do the play dough thing until you achieve that basic texture. Don't worry about getting it finer than that, it's not necessary.

Mix in pecans and 1 teaspoon orange zest.

Mix egg, milk, and vanilla together in a separate small bowl. Add these to the dry ingredients in as few strokes of the spoon as possible. It's perfectly okay if there are some lumps of unblended material left; if you overbeat it, it'll get tough on you. Fill the muffin cups about two-thirds full with batter. Wipe away any stray droplets on the top surface of the muffin pan with the corner of a dampened paper towel. (If you don't, these stray bits may burn.)

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and smelling awesome.

While muffins are baking, make the topping: Mix 1 teaspoon of zest and 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Melt butter in another small bowl. (Cereal bowls works fine; the criteria here is that both bowls should be wide enough to accept a muffin.)

When the muffins come out of the oven, pop them out of the pan as soon as you are able to safely handle them. Dip each one's top into the melted butter, then into the orange-sugar mixture, blotting it gently so that some of the orange-sugar sticks to its top. Turn it right-side up, give it a tap over the bowl to shake off any excess, then transfer to a cooling rack.

Suggestions for consumption

Devour piping hot, with softened honey butter... heaven! Bacon or sausage and hot coffee are just a bonus.

Storage and best use of leftovers

Wrap well and store at room temperature. Cornbread tastes best when served warm, so to reheat these muffins, wrap them in foil and heat at 350º Fahrenheit (178º Celsius, or about Gas mark 3.5) for 10-15 minutes. Don't try microwaving them, they'll just get rubbery.

Toast crumbled stale muffins (not like you'll have any left over!) and use them for:

• dredging fish or seafood before frying or broiling
• a salad topping
• a topping for yogurt
• vegetable or poultry stuffing
• top sweet potatoes or winter squash

Enjoy, and Namaste.

References

I modified this recipe from a recipe variation found on the back of Indian Head brand Old Fashioned stone ground yellow corn meal.

Cook's Illustrated, January & February 2005, pages 10-11. "Rethinking Cornbread" -- best way to reheat; use buttermilk


Muffin, Scone, Biscuit, Roll and Bun Recipes
North American Recipes


Many thanks to Wiccanpiper and Anthropod for technical assistance!

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