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Recharge Your Batter

October 22, 1992|LESLIE LAND

The superior taste of corn bread made with fresh, stone-ground corn meal and tender biscuits perfumed with genuine butter would be reason enough to bake such things regularly, even if they weren't done so quickly. But there's something very satisfying about making quick breads that goes beyond the difference between homemade and store-bought, beyond the thrill of (comparatively) instant gratification.

Part of it is the amateur-chemist aspect. All you have to do is mix acid with alkaline ingredients, add liquid and presto! An explosion of carbon dioxide strong enough to lift dough into bread.

This is actually somewhere between corn bread and corn pudding. When first made, its crisp crust surrounds a filling so tender you have to eat it with a fork. By the second day, however, when conventional corn bread would be inedibly dry, this one is just right for slicing and toasting. The hot peppers provide an extra punch of flavor.

VELVET FIRECRACKER CORN BREAD

1 1/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (reduce to dash, if using supersweet corn)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk

3 tablespoons butter or bacon fat

Kernels and milk from 2 large ears of corn, about 1 1/2 cups

2 large jalapeno chiles, including some of seeds, cut in 1/4-inch dice

Place 9-inch cast-iron skillet in oven and heat to 450 degrees. Combine cornmeal, sugar, salt, soda and baking powder in bowl and mix well. Beat eggs until light, then beat in buttermilk and set aside.

When oven and skillet are hot, remove skillet--with heavy oven mitts--and add butter. Swirl around so entire inside of pan is well greased by melting butter, then stir excess into egg mixture.

Pour egg mixture into cornmeal mixture and stir until about half mixed. Add corn and jalapenos and stir just enough to incorporate. Then finish blending dry and wet ingredients. Do not overmix. Some small spots of dry meal won't pose problem.

Turn batter into hot pan, smooth surface and bake until crust pulls away from sides of pan and wood pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Benne seeds are sesame seeds, brought to this country by the Africans. They were of great interest to Thomas Jefferson. It wasn't just that he liked the taste; he just preferred that American cooks not be dependent on imported oil--olive oil, that is.

Though sour milk and soda should be leavening enough, most modern buttermilk biscuit recipes include baking powder. This reflects the milder, less acidy quality of modern buttermilk. Old-fashioned recipes often specified "sour buttermilk" to make sure the biscuits would rise. As further insurance, buttermilk biscuits are traditionally small, baked in a very hot oven so they pop up fast before the leavening gas has time to escape. They come out very crisp in the crust, with a shelf life of about half an hour. No problem, they never last any longer anyway.

BUTTERMILK BISCUITS WITH BENNE SEEDS

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon double-acting baking powder

1/4 cup butter, cut into small pieces

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sesame seeds, about

Thoroughly combine flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder, then cut in butter until size of small peas. Stir in buttermilk and knead briefly, just until soft, slightly sticky dough is formed. Over-kneading makes rubbery biscuits.

Coat work surface with sesame seeds and gently pat dough out on it 1/2-inch thick. Turn dough over, making sure there are still seeds underneath, and pat out 1/4-inch thick.

Using knife with long, thin, sharp blade, cut straight down at 1 1/2-inch intervals, first lengthwise, then crosswise, to make small square biscuits. Transfer to ungreased baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees until biscuits rise and are brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. Serve at once. Makes about 30 small biscuits.

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