It's hard to believe now, in these days of pricey polenta and trendy tamales, but cornmeal was once reviled by early European immigrants to North America.
Raised on wheat flour, colonists couldn't stomach the sandlike meal made from corn. Wheat flour made such soft, pretty cakes and bread. Corn products were leaden in comparison. No yeast could make the stuff rise, and cooked in primitive ovens or on skillets -- sometimes even hoes -- set in the ashes of a fireplace, these biscuits were more like hardtack than the pillowy, chewy bread 17th-century Europeans were used to.
Even pioneers, who should have been used to the hard life, found living on cornmeal almost unbearable. It was, according to Betty Fussell's book "The Story of Corn" (North Point Press, 1992, $18), the grain of last resort.
"As our money was growing scarce, [my husband] bought a bushel of ground Indian corn, which is only one-third the price of wheaten flour," Fussell quotes from a letter written by pioneer woman Rebecca Burlend. "Its taste is not pleasant to persons unaccustomed to it."
To such delicate palates, bread made with cornmeal was a step down on the culinary ladder. But because it was cheap and plentiful, it was a staple in these new Americans' larder.
Pone, ashcakes, hoecakes, journeycakes, johnnycakes, slapjacks, spoonbreads, dodgers were all humble and descriptive names for the hearty, if underappreciated, variations on what we now call corn bread.
Yet even before it was being dismissed by displaced housewives as just one more of the indignities of frontier living, cornmeal had become an emblem of American independence from Europe.
"These Anglicizations of hoe-cake and johnny-cake took hold early and hung on like symbols, like Yankee Doodle, of rebel identity," writes Fussell.
She goes on to say that Benjamin Franklin, that most erudite, and somewhat gluttonous, of patriots, defended corn just after the Stamp Act of 1766. When a British blowhard said American colonists couldn't give up tea because of the indigestibility of the dry Indian corn they were forced to eat, Franklin countered:
"Pray let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world. Samp, hominy, succotash and noke-hock made of it are so many pleasing varieties; and that johnny or hoe cake hot from the fire is better than a Yorkshire muffin."
Of course Franklin's poetry is nothing compared with the American Indian valuation of corn. According to John F. Mariani in "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink" (Hearst Books, 1994, $19.95), corn was brought to the territory that is now the United States from Mexico more than two millenniums ago. It is integral to the rituals, religion and tables of many indigenous people. Zunis dusted their doorways with it in a vain attempt to keep away the conquistadors, and Hopis cultivated at least 20 varieties, each with a different symbolic meaning.
Corn bread was even served at the first Thanksgiving. Corn pone -- from the Algonquin Indian word apan, meaning baked -- made with cornmeal, salt and water, is the earliest known version of corn bread.
To say simply that cornmeal is woven into the tapestry of Americana is to understate its importance. It can be argued that it's the paste that has kept the inhabitants of this continent from going hungry.
Pretty high praise for a crop that is, according to Fussell, botanically a grass, with kernels that are in fact a strange fruit that converts sugars into starch, in direct opposition to most fruits, which convert starch into sugar.
Still, cornmeal, which today is most often made by grinding the hard kernels in huge steel rollers to remove the husk, is often perceived as a rather ordinary ingredient. Used incorrectly, it does have some rather unpleasant qualities. But used correctly, it's the difference between clay that's been rough-hewn into simple but serviceable dishes, and fine porcelain that surpasses its lowly components to become a timeless work of art.
Cornmeal can be the basis for something more than that easy quick bread you learned to make from a just-add-water-and-eggs mix. Given the right attention, it can produce breads that are as unique and wonderful as corn itself.
The thing to remember about corn is that unlike wheat flour, it imparts a definite flavor. For instance, when the nutty sweetness of cornmeal is mixed with rye and wheat flour, it produces something called "thirded bread" by 19th-century cookery writer Lydia Child. As quoted in Fussell's book, she says, "Some think the nicest bread of all is one third Indian [cornmeal], one third rye and one third flour."
While the following recipe for rye corn bread in Patricia Wells' recent cookbook, "Patricia Wells at Home in Provence" (Scribner, 1996, $40), isn't quite so evenly divided, yellow cornmeal does stand out even in its minority role. Flecks of the golden grains add tremendously to the texture and even taste of the dense yeast bread. Dark rye, caraway and fennel, all with their faintly licoricelike flavors, can't hide the mellow whimsy of the cornmeal.
It's the grit that's most interesting when corn bread is turned into a sweet bread. The addition of buttermilk and baking soda serves to give the sturdy grain a little loft, and additional sugar complements the corn's natural sweetness, making this a wonderful base for a late-summer fruit shortcake. But where cornmeal shines in its sunny essence is when aromatic herbes de Provence are added, along with a touch of briny feta cheese. The result is a savory muffin that should please even the most jaded of tastes. Maybe after a sample of these, even poor Rebecca Burlend would reverse her sad opinion of the lowly cornmeals with which they are made.
Rye Corn Bread
Makes 1 (16-inch) loaf
SPONGE: (see note)
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup lukewarm water (about 105 degrees)
1 1/2 cups rye flour (see note)
2 cups water
1 tablespoon fine salt (sea salt preferred)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal, plus additional for baking paddle
1 cup rye flour
about 4 or more cups unbleached bread flour
4 tablespoons caraway seeds, 2 tablespoons fennel seeds, mixed together, divided use
1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, sel de mer preferred
One day before baking bread, prepare sponge: In small glass bowl, combine yeast, sugar and water; stir lightly to blend. Let stand until foamy, about 5-10 minutes. Put rye flour in bowl of heavy-duty mixer fitted with flat paddle; add liquid yeast mixture and mix at lowest speed until flour is thoroughly incorporated. Scrape paddle. Leave sponge in bowl. Cover securely and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.
On second day (after sponge has rested), make sure you have a warm room in which to let the bread rise. Heat oven to 500 degrees 45 minutes before you plan on baking. If you are using a baking stone, put it in the oven to preheat.
Remove sponge from refrigerator. Return bowl with sponge to mixer and, a little at a time, at lowest speed, add 2 cups of water, fine salt, cornmeal and 1 cup of rye flour, until cornmeal and rye flour have been absorbed. Slowly add bread flour and 5 tablespoons of mixed seeds, continuing to mix on low until dough begins to form ball. Continue to mix until soft, but firm, 4-5 minutes, adding additional flour to keep dough from sticking. Scrape paddle.
Shape dough into large round loaf. Place dough on floured cloth in large loaf pan or rectangular basket. Loosely fold cloth over the dough. Let rise in warm, but not hot, shady part of room until double in bulk, 3-4 hours.
Sprinkle a little cornmeal on baking paddle or rimless baking sheet, and turn dough onto cornmeal. Slash top of dough several times with razor blade or sharp knife. Glaze with egg and water mixture, then sprinkle bread with remaining seeds and coarse salt.
If using baking stone, transfer bread to oven on paddle or baking sheet with a quick jerk of wrists. If using baking sheet, put it and bread in oven. Using clean water mister, spray sides and bottom of oven 3 times over first 6 minutes of baking.
After 10 minutes, lower oven temperature to 400 degrees and rotate loaf a half turn. Bake 30 minutes more (40 minutes total), or until crust is dark golden-brown and loaf sounds hollow when tapped on bottom.
Transfer to cooling rack, and allow to rest 1 hour before cutting.
Note: This recipe takes time. It starts with a gluten "sponge" the day before.
Rye flour can be found at most specialty-grocery stores and health-food stores.
Per 2-inch slice: 400 calories; 12 grams protein; 82.3 grams carbohydrates; 2.7 grams fat; 6 percent calories from fat; 27 milligrams cholesterol; 1,078 milligrams sodium
-- From "Patricia Wells at Home in Provence" (Scribner, 1996, $40)
Corn Bread Muffins de Provence
Makes 36 (1 1/4 -inch) mini-muffins
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme, stemmed and chopped
1/2 tablespoon fresh marjoram, stemmed and chopped
1 tablespoon dry herbes de Provence (see note)
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. With nonstick spray, spray enough muffin tins to make 36 mini- (1 1/4 -inch) muffins.
In large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and both fresh and dry herbs. Stir until well-mixed.
Add milk, butter and eggs, stir until dry ingredients are moistened.
Add cheese, and lightly blend by hand until incorporated into batter.
Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins, filling them 3/4 full. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes.
Let cool 5 minutes in pans, and remove from pans to cool completely. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: Herbes de Provence is a savory blend of herbs commonly used in the south of France. It can include basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme. It's available in most grocery stores.
Per mini-muffin: 77 calories; 1.9 grams protein; 9.3 grams carbohydrates; 3.6 grams fat; 42 percent calories from fat; 22 milligrams cholesterol; 126 milligrams sodium
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup vegetable shortening, melted and cooled
seasonal fruit, such as berries or sliced peaches, for serving
sweetened whipped cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease, or spray with nonstick coating, 8-inch square baking pan and set aside.
In large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt; stir until well- mixed.
Add buttermilk, eggs and shortening. Mix until smooth, about 1 minute.
Pour batter in prepared pan and bake until lightly browned, about 30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool on rack, cut into squares and serve at room temperature with seasonal fruit and whipped cream.
Per serving: 368 calories; 8.5 grams protein; 61.2 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams fat; 25 percent calories from fat; 63 milligrams cholesterol; 454 milligrams sodium
-- From "The Ultimate Ice Cream Book," Bruce Weinstein (William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1999, $15)