Corn Muffins

This past weekend was marked by the first roaring, crackling fire of the season. The temperature outside finally dipped down low enough where a fire was needed to take the chill out of the air in the house. The house I grew up had neither a wood burning nor gas fireplace. Although at Christmas we did have one of those large faux red brick corrugated cardboard fireplaces to hang our stockings from. Not quite the same experience as having a ‘real’ fireplace. The only time in my life I wished I had a gas instead of a wood burning fireplace was when the power went out during a three day east coast blizzard and I became a fireplace slave. At some point during the second day, of what felt like a return to the Little House on the Prairie life, I wondered if the early settlers and pioneers were sleep deprived or if they just adjusted to various states of frozenness. Because keeping a fire going morning, noon, and night was exhausting (and I didn’t even have to cut the wood!). The kind of exhaustion you might temporarily feel after an hour of sculpt yoga, any long run over 13.1 miles, or a several hour high elevation hike. Fortunately I live in a house with one working wood burning fireplace (the repairs needed for the second one have yet to be done). Rather than generating warmth needed for physical survival, this fireplace now has the primary function of creating ambiance to warm and soothe the souls of everyone sitting near it.

Admit it. A corn muffin with golden brown, slightly domed tops is something we find incredibly appealing. They may, in fact, borderline on being lust worthy. Conversely, corn muffins pale in color with flat or caved in tops are ones we might wrinkle our noses at, or eat only if desperately hungry. And when we come across a domed top, golden brown muffin, rich with buttery corn flavor and perfectly moist, we know we have finally arrived in Corn Muffin heaven. After thanking the powers that be for creating such a gift, we pledge to never ever eat any other corn muffin not living up to this gold(en) standard. Even if we are starving. Thanks in large part to Cook’s Illustrated, we no longer have to search far and wide for the seemingly illusive, most delectable corn muffin on the planet. We can now make them ourselves whenever we want. For breakfast, for lunch with a warm bowl of soup, for dinner with a hot bowl of chili, or just because you crave them.

In the past several weeks I made these Corn Muffins twice. The first time because I have long wanted to find a recipe for sweet, buttery, moist Corn Muffins. The second time was because I had a craving for sweet, buttery, moist Corn Muffins. These might fall into the category of rather addicting comfort food.

There ingredients in this recipe are pretty similar to those found in other corn muffin recipes. However, the technique for making them is decidedly different from most others out there.

To keep the cornmeal flavor at the forefront of these muffins while ensuring they had great texture and moistness, Cook’s Illustrated discovered the secret was cooking some of the cornmeal with milk to a polenta like, porridge consistency. The result of using a combination of slightly cooked and dry cornmeal in the batter is a feast for the eyes, tender crumb, buttery rich flavor corn muffin.

The sugar, slightly cooled melted butter and sour cream help to bring down the temperature of the milk/cornmeal mixture to ensure the eggs aren’t ‘cooked’ when added in to the batter. If your batter is a little too warm to the touch, allow it to sit for a couple of minutes before whisking in the eggs. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to stir in the dry ingredients as once everything comes together, the batter will become very thick.

When making cupcakes or some muffins, the recommendation is usually to fill the cups 2/3’s full. However, the batter will be slightly mounded up over the top of the cupcake papers for these corn muffins.

They are baked for 14-17 minutes in a preheated 425 degree oven or until the tops are golden brown and spring back when lightly pressed. Or alternately insert a toothpick in the center of the muffin. If it comes out clean, the muffin is done. Before removing the muffins from the tin, allow to cool for at five minutes.

Serve these muffins warm, at room temperature, or reheated with honey and/or butter.

These Corn Muffins are moist on the inside, yet have an almost slightly caramelized, crunchy exterior surface. They are pure perfection.

Some of you might be wondering if corn muffins and cornbread are interchangeable terms for the same thing. And actually they aren’t. The most significant difference between the two is no sugar and sugar. Most traditional cornbreads do not use sugar as an ingredient, while sugar plays an important role in the corn muffin.

Speaking of sugar, I made two changes made to Cook’s Illustrated recipe. The first was increasing the amount of sugar in the batter from 3 Tablespoons of 1/3 of a cup. The second was sprinkling the tops with sanding sugar. When making these corn muffins, increase the amount of sugar in the batter to at least 1/4 cup (equivalent of 4 Tablespoons) but no more than 1/3 cup. The sanding sugar on the top is optional and matter of personal preference. Kind of like preferring a wood burning fireplace to a gas fireplace. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s all about what makes you the happiest.

Corn Muffins (slight adaptation of the Savory Corn Muffin recipe in the new Cook’s Illustrated cookbook, Cook’s Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of our Favorite Ingredients)
Makes one dozen muffins

2 cups yellow (fine, medium, or a combination of fine and medium grind) cornmeal, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt or fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 cup sour cream
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/4 – 1/3 cup granulated sugar (See Notes)
2 large eggs, room temperature
Optional: Sanding sugar

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees (F). Line a 12 cup muffin pan with cupcake papers or squares of parchment paper.
2. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
3. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup of cornmeal with the milk. Over medium-high heat, cook mixture until it has a thick batter or polenta-like porridge consistency (approximately 4-6 minutes of cooking time). Note: Stir continuously. Transfer to a large bowl.
4. Add the butter and sugar into the milk/cornmeal mixture.  
5. Add the sour cream, stirring until no streaks appear.
6. If mixture is cooled enough, whisk in eggs until combined. Note: If mixture is too hot, wait 5 minutes before adding eggs.
7. Fold in flour mixture until the batter is smooth and thick.
8. Using an ice cream scoop, divide the batter evenly amongst the prepared muffin cups. 
9. Bake until tops are golden brown and the top of the muffin bounces back when lightly pressed. Approximately 14-18 minutes. Allow to cool in pan for at least 5 minutes before removing and transferring to a wire rack to cool for an additional 5 minutes.
10. Serve warm with room temperature butter and/or honey.
11. Store muffins in a tightly sealed container or ziplock storage bag. 

Notes: (1) Cook’s Illustrated recommended using 3 Tablespoons of sugar. I used 1/4 cup of sugar in the first batch of the corn muffins and 1/3 cup of sugar on the second batch. The 1/3 cup of sugar yielded the kind of sweetness I love in a corn muffin. (2) Do not use white cornmeal or coarse grain cornmeal. I used Bob’s Red Mill Yellow medium-grind cornmeal. (3) My baking time was almost 16 minutes. (4) I sprinkled mine with sanding sugar for an added bit of crunch and sweetness, but if you are serving them with a savory dish (e.g., soup or chili) omit the sanding sugar.

Cows grazing on a misty morning along the Sakonnet River in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

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