Thursday, August 23, 2007

Uncle Nate's Corn Cake

There is a recipe, below, for this easy-to-prepare corn cake. It isn’t a “cake” made with corn like a corn cake analogous to carrot cake would be. Nor is it like cornbread. It is a corn cake that is fashioned out of corn and eggs and a mere teaspoon of flour. It is delicious.

Before I describe it any further or give you the recipe, I can't resist…..well, perhaps more honestly, I don't want to resist……. but really, seriously - regardless of the specificity of the vernacular – I won’t resist talking, just a bit more, about the corn - those 45 pounds of Iowa corn that Nate carried over to Alaska in a black duffel bag. Just a tiny bit more, I promise. (Admittedly, I’m going to define”bit” and “tiny” in accordance with the Alaskan perspectives of one who lives amidst the vast, immense, seemingly infinite tundra. But you couldn’t expect me to do any less in my attempt to sufficiently describe a gift of corn that brought such a carnival of glee into our home, could you?)

I’d like to segue, just a bit mind you, into all our options with that corn. Quite frankly, once we had it, I didn’t know what we were going to do with it all. I think I was so caught up in the excitement that we could get so much corn, that I hadn’t actually sat down and thought out a plan for what we would do with it if we did. The three of us tossed around ideas. Actually, I think I probably tossed out ideas. Those two Iowa boys were already contemplating the buttery goodness of simple corn on the cob. I could see it their eyes. They were just entertaining me, tolerating my bombardment of time-consuming options with their typical good-naturedness. Undoubtedly to simplify things a bit, Nate suggested “putting it up” and promptly googled a straight-forward way for doing so. In the face of such a solid, achievable plan, I countered with chaos. Start a sweet corn soughdough starter? Can a case of chowchow? Peach-corn-buttermilk sherbet? Corn vinegar?……

I know. These are some unique ideas. But that's exactly why I loved them so! Please don't think, however, that my creativity created them. No. They are the ideas of Betty Fussell. I lifted every last one of them from her every-cook-should-have-a-copy cookbook titled Crazy for Corn. As soon as I saw the bounty of the duffel bag, I went straight for the bookshelves to pull it out. I don’t know Betty Fussell personally, of course, but I’d do quite a cartwheel of glee if I could. She's brilliant and she writes those lovely kind of cookbooks that keep. Seriously. They exist outside of fads and trends. They are, in fact, timeless mini-treatises on accessible subjects, emphasizing the culinary heritage of generally familiar ingredients, regions, traditions, etc.. Her emphasis is eloquent and engaging. And it would not be strange that one could think they will steal just a few minutes to simply glance through a few pages of one of her books, maybe a quote or two, only to find that an entire afternoon has passed, and the sun is setting, and the mug of milk tea has long grown cold, and the book is now covered with post-it notes and other indications of recipes that one must, simply must, make some day soon. I can confess to one or two narcissistic moments since I first discovered Betty Fussell’s cookbooks, when I was convinced that she writes them just for me! Just for me, she fills them with all sorts of lovely quotes. Just for me, she prints them on these lovely fibrous pages with wide margins that so eagerly accept all my own hand-written notations. Just for me….ok, just for us, she wrote Crazy for Corn - a simple, hearty cookbook that can – as you can see from the maelstrom of my brainstorm - instigate all sorts of culinary adventures.

Sadly, on that particular first night of Nate’s visit, we were too tired to really embark on any of Betty Fussell’s adventures. All three of us. J. and had just returned from his 22 hour journey from Seattle to home. I had just returned from my own 16 hour journey from Seattle to home. And Nate, poor Nate, had just finished his very, very long journey from Iowa to Alaska. Although it was such fun to glimpse through Betty Fussell’s research the world of opportunities that lay in that duffel bag filled with corn, we eventually settled (I say “settled” facestiously) for a simple dinner (I say “simple” facestiously too) of steaks and corn on the cob. J. prepared the steaks using the Brazilian churrasco method he learned from Sonya's new husband, Rodrigo, down in Seattle. Simply salt and a grill. Divine. And we pulled out 6 ears of corn from the bag and handed them to Nate, our resident corn expert. He shucked and boiled the corn. Sublime. Seriously. Sublime.

Nothing like putting your fiance and houseguest to work while you slap post-it notes on every other page of a Betty Fussell cookbook, aye?

My fingers numb from busily post-it-noting all those pages, my mind exhausted from the travel, and my belly full of some of summer’s finest luxuries, I finally had to concede that the sourdough starter, vinegar, chowchow and peach-corn-buttermilk ice cream would have to wait. I did manage to clear out a third of our refridgerator space before crawling to bed, and Nate kindly carried the bag of corn over to fill it. I suspect we had just enough energy to accomplish this simple act of corn preservation.

The next morning, J. and Nate got up and “put up” the 45 pounds of corn. I'm guessing from the photos on the camera, they made big pots of coffee and sat at the table to clean all the corn.

Then, they boiled, chilled, cobbed and bagged the corn. It looks like quite a production.

By the time I got home from work and took possession of the camera, they were putting the last of the corn into ziploc bags and were - I swear - giddy with all the success of it.

We ate corn that night too. Alas, I can’t remember exactly how we ate it. Isn’t it funny how, in wealth, we can so easily forget the details of our joy? Wealthy in corn, I can’t for the life of me remember how we ate it that night. A salad? Buttered? I just don’t remember. Fortunately, I do remember feeling a sense of wellbeing knowing that I was in Alaska eating straight-from-the-Iowa-cornfield corn with two Iowa-born guys and that there was a winter’s worth of similar goodness enriching our freezer.

The next morning, it was my turn to play with our cache of Iowa gold. I woke up early and used some of the unfrozen corn to make “the boys” Corn Cake for breakfast. The recipe came from the cookbook Savouring Desserts, a handy if not as hyperbole-inspiring kitchen resource. It is a little odd that after all the brainstorming two nights before, I didn’t use a recipe from Crazy for Corn. But I had marked this particular recipe for just this kind of occasion. In fact, I bought Savouring Desserts just to possess this recipe for just this kind of occasion. I felt a little compelled to try it. I’m sure Betty would understand.

And now, full circle, we come back to the description and recipe for Uncle Nate's Corn Cake.

If you find yourself with some fresh corn, definitely try this “cake.” It’s simple. Quick. Delicious. Quite perfect, actually. But please know that it’s not really a cake. It’s more of a corn clafouti, I suppose. And it’s not really a dessert. Oh, it could be dessert if you so wanted it to be. It did come, after all, from a book comprised solely of dessert recipes. But I think it makes a finer breakfast. It is sweet. Oh, goodness. There is no denying that. But it's just not a dessert kind of sweet. I find it maybe too rich and buttery, really, for a rustic dessert. Yet its particular sweetness seems too homey, too nostalgic, for a celebratory dessert. All in all, I’d say that its sweetness is one of familiarity and comfort that is more appropriate for starting, rather than ending, the day. There is also this: I personally find it too rich for a summer dessert. Admittedly, I could just be partial to desserting on fruits during this season of fresh corn. But one should also be aware of this fact of summer relevancy: it has to bake awhile. While we don’t have to worry too much up here about turning on the stove during the summer (only occassionally does it get that hot) old habits do die hard, and my own personal habit of avoiding hot stoves in the summer is one of those more persistant kind of death-defying habits. If you make it for breakfast, you get the advantage of the old summer tradition of doing all a day’s baking in the morning. And let’s be honest here, it is fun to do the summer baking in slippers whilst there is just enough chill in the air to lend a hearty appreciation for that day’s first coffee but not enough to require a cardigan.

A final reason to consider this as a breakfast option is that it is an ideal kind of breakfast to make for a weekday houseguest. You can do the prep-work in your pyjamas. While it bakes, you can shower and get ready for work and even set the table for your guest to wake-up to. But don’t forget to make your guest a pot of coffee too. That hot coffee – preferably a stoic black - with this cake, is a fine combination indeed. Indeed, I'd do cartwheels of glee to make it for a mid-morning coffee with Betty Fussell, should she ever pass through this little portion of vast, immense tundra and feel inclined to rest a bit at our kitchen table.....and, maybe, just maybe, assist me a bit in compiling a list of ways to make use of all that wild chamomile that pops up all over the dusty driveway out front.

Uncle Nate’s Corn Cake
(Slightly abbreviated version of the one in Savoring Desserts, p. 19)

Aside from minor substitutions to accommodate what I had handy (salted butter for unsalted, etc.) and doubling the baking time and switching from a fry-pan to my absolute favorite pie plate, I followed the recipe below verbatim. But that’s where my fairly faithful act of culinary obedience ends. I followed the recipe, but I am changing the name. In Savouring Desserts, it is called simply “Corn Cake” (in English) and "Pan de Elote" (in Spanish). In our home, however, it shall henceforth be called “Uncle Nate’s Corn Cake.” Not that we are expecting children at this moment, mind you. But if we do, someday, in the future, maybe, hopefully….well, I see no problem with celebrating today how lucky those little hooligans will be to have an uncle like Nate. In the meantime, there are two adoring canine hooligans that don’t mind claiming a familial connection to the Iowan whose departure they still mourn. So, yes. In our hovel on stilts, this lovely little cake-of-sorts shall be called “Uncle Nate’s Corn Cake” and will go on the shelf of favorites right next to Amelia’s Rhubarb Pie.

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature, plus 2 tbsp
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup fresh corn kernels
4 eggs
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp corn oil

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit.
  • With an electric mixer, beat together the 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup sugar until creamy.
  • Grind the corn kernels in a food processor, stopping while the corn still has some texture.
  • Add the ground corn to the butter miture and mix well. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt and beat until combined.
  • Put the 2 tablespoons of butter and the oil in a 9-inch ovenproof frying pan and heat in the oven until the butter is melted. Add the creamed corn mixture and bake until set. A tootpick inserted into the middle should come out clean, and there should be no liquid visible if you shake or tilt the pan. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.


First Postscript: To serve, I set the table with Bernie’s homemade cloudberry jam, my homemade apple butter, CarolAnn’s homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam and A.C. purchased maple syrup, just in case anyone wanted to doctor up their slice of Uncle Nate’s Corn Cake like a pancake or cornbread. I even put out some powdered sugar, just in case anyone wanted to doctor it up like a dutch baby or french toast. But the consensus seems to be that all such doctorings are unnecessary. This cake can stand – indeeds merits from such standing – on its own. But, then again, who would expect anything less from a recipe named after Nate?

Second Postscript: This postcript is for Pamela, who I’m guessing would be particularly interested in our hooligans’ initial reaction to the carnival smells of 45 pounds of Iowa corn. They may have smelled freshly flown-in corn before. I don’t know. They could have. But it wouldn’t have been like this. Not straight from an Iowa cornfield! Oh no. This was their first exposure to such treasure. They liked it! Admittedly, they were a little hesitant at first. But after that, it was all excitement.

So excited were they, that little Puck decided to test a nibble. We put a stop to that, of course, though I did wait to do so until after I had secured – for you - a picture of his adorable audacity.


Monkey Wrangler said...

Damn! That's alot of corn! And Nate should be sainted for bringing such a bounty, er uh, I mean duffel. This post is a very fitting tribute to the man who bestows such corny goodness (har-har, he-he)

I'll have to give the recipe a try sometime soon.

Enjoy them pickles!

Anonymous said...

Enjoying these posts about transporting corn, because I recently packed a dozen ears of good Maryland Eastern Shore corn in my bag when I flew to Maine for a long weekend with friends. We wrapped the corn with bacon and grilled it. Fantastic!


sugarcreekfarm said...

Thanks for the recipe, and the cookbook recommendation. I've still got 2 years worth of frozen sweet corn to use up. I didn't let dh go anywhere near those well-meaning relatives' cornfields this year.

Kristi said...

No sure where you got your recipe but my sister-n-laws, who are Brazilian, make one very similiar but add grated coconut. Simply delicious!