One of my favourite childhood memories was visiting an old corn mill, called the “Olde Graue Mill”,
way down South in the “Land of Cotton” in a western suburb of Chicago.
We would watch the corn kernels being ground by the huge wooden, water-driven mill, over the Des Plaines River (pronounced, “Dess-plains”, with a nasal Chicago twang – none of that Frenchified pronunciation for people in the “Greater Metropolitan Chicagoland Area”, as it is still known). We purchased freshly ground cornmeal, packaged in cute burlap bags, sporting the image of the old mill. At home, we made cornbread from the mill’s recipe, in a special pan: the cast-iron cornstick pan.
Are you thinking, “What, pray tell, is a cornstick pan?” No? Are you thinking the answer is, “Something that makes cornsticks, obviously.” What? Are you a smart-aleck? But it is actually a vintage cast-iron pan, created long ago, probably somewhere deep in the US South. The pans typically feature seven corn-cob-shaped indentations:
More on cornsticks, the pan, and the recipe
(This is not an endorsement, as I use vintage pans, but they are available in new cast-iron, in five ear-, seven ear-, nine ear-, and even mini-versions, from Lodge https://secure.lodgemfg.com/storefront/product1_new.asp?menu=prologic&idProduct=3955).
Why cornsticks? Why, indeed! This post’s title might bring to mind 1960s Broadway musicals, many of which seemed to have exclamation marks:
(Just imagine the groovy psychedelic numbers, with dancing pastries….)
While not totally different from corn muffins, they are easier to eat with one’s fingers, have a larger surface-area (compared to a standard muffin-top*), and feature exceptional textural contrast, from the smooth top to the corn-cob pattern underneath.
For a post Xmas Sunday brunch, I whipped up a batch of cornsticks in my two vintage seven-ear pans. The following recipe makes exactly 14 cornsticks. It is my standard one, adapted from one in the fantastic The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook, but with my changes of buttermilk (instead of milk) and two kinds of corn meal (instead of just corn flour), for a tantalizing textural treat.
Adapted from John Phillip Carroll’s recipe, “Melt-in-your-mouth Cornbread”, in the fantastic resource, The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup medium- or coarse-ground yellow cornmeal (plain “polenta” will work)
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
butter or vegetable shortening for greasing pans
1. After greasing the cornstick pans with shortening or butter, position cornstick pans on a rack in the centre of the oven. Preheat to 375°F, while preparing the recipe.
2. Whisk flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl (or sift together, if you feel so compelled, for tradition’s sake).
3. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs just until broken up. Add melted butter, oil, and buttermilk and whisk again until blended. Adding flour mixture to the liquids, stir with a wooden spoon – for traditionalists – or a handy, wide, rubber silicon spatula, until moistened or just until blended. The batter will be slightly lumpy. Do not stir excessively.
4. Pour the batter into the hot cornstick pans with a spoon or 1/3 cup measure (about the right volume for one cornstick). Smooth the tops with an offset spatula, wooden spoon, or knife.
5. Bake until the top of the bread looks dry and slightly golden. The centre of a cornstick springs back, when pressed gently with your fingers, after about 15-20 minutes.
6. Transfer to a wire cooling rack and let stand for five minutes.
(The cornsticks are best the day they are made. Reheat leftovers, in a 350°F oven, until heated through, about 10 minutes. When I’m really lazy – which is most of the time – I just throw a couple into the toaster and toast on a low-medium setting. They do freeze well, too.)
* The cornstick is about 5″ long x 1.6″ wide (on average). This means 8″ of surface area. A muffin-top (no, I am not talking about the slangy, fleshy kind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muffin_top ) for a standard 3″ muffin (pi x R-squared = approximately 7″) For any math geeks who will question this, yes, a significantly-domed muffin could have more surface area than the figure I’m using, but, really, now, we’re just talkin’ baked goods here….