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A Mexican Treat Is Taking Root in a California Cornfield

October 01, 1987|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

Recently, I tasted Torta de Elote for the first time in years. And right here in Los Angeles. Usually, it takes a trip to Veracruz, on Mexico's Gulf coast, to find this appealing corn cake.

All the women there know how to make it. It's their version of corn bread but is as sweet as a dessert. To make a little extra money, they cut the torta into squares, pack these neatly in a blue enamel bucket, cover the bucket with a towel and trudge off in search of customers. Sometimes they send their children with the bucket, for who could resist purchasing a treat from a charming, barefooted tyke?

Once I tried to make the torta at home and wound up with mush that I had to bolster with flour and baking powder. The result resembled a torta in the same way that murky chocolate pudding resembles a brownie.

There was no sense repeating the attempt, because the crucial ingredient was unavailable. The torta is a flourless cake. What gives it substance is the starchy corn that grows in Mexico. American sweet corn can't be substituted. Its tenderness, an advantage at the table, guarantees failure in a torta.

So how could anyone make Torta de Elote in Los Angeles? The answer is the same as before: with Mexican corn. The difference is, the corn is now being grown in California. It's a project of Cornnuts Inc., the company that makes the crunchy corn snack.

According to Deborah Holloway, new products supervisor for Cornnuts, 40 acres at Gilroy are planted to the crop. The acreage sounds small, but the yield is estimated at 16,000 ears per acre. The corn will be available well into October, Holloway said. Most of it is going to supermarket chains and small Latino markets in California, but some is being shipped to Texas. This is the second year the corn has been on the market. However, the 1986 crop was very small, coming from only 12 acres planted at Greenfield, south of Salinas.

The large-kerneled white corn is a hybrid bred from Peruvian and American corn. This same soft starch corn is used for the Cornnuts snack but is harvested when it has come to full maturity and dried to a grain. About 2,500 acres in California and Ohio are planted to the snack corn, according to Holloway.

The primary market for the fresh corn is Latinos, who are accustomed to its firm texture. Although chewy, soft starch corn is not the same as tough field corn, which is a hard starch corn, Holloway said.

In Mexico, the fresh white corn is boiled, grilled, used in tamales, soups, stews and other dishes. A popular snack is elote (corn) coated with butter, salt and chili powder or with crema or mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese. I remember seeing cooks at the market in San Miguel de Allende dipping the ears in saltwater before placing them on the grill.

Here is the torta recipe. For the best flavor, serve it fresh and warm. Reheat any leftovers.

TORTA DE ELOTE

(Mexican Corn Cake)

4 cups kernels cut from soft starch white corn

2 1/2 tablespoons milk

3 eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

Place 2 cups corn kernels in blender container with milk and blend until partially ground. Add remaining 2 cups corn and blend until all corn is finely ground.

Beat eggs in mixing bowl. Beat in sugar, butter, cinnamon and salt. Add corn and beat until well blended. Turn mixture into buttered 8-inch square baking dish. Bake at 325 degrees 50 to 60 minutes, until lightly browned. Cut into squares to serve. Makes 9 servings.

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