You could call it cheating, but I prefer to think of it as winging it in style. As I noted in a response to a reader's comment, with 11 months of tackling challenging recipes under my belt, my cooking confidence is high, my urge to experiment is keen, and my desire to make foods that my friends actually want to eat overrides any concerns of inauthenticity. (It's remarkable what an otherwise innocuous bowl of bran jelly -- liquid cardboard, as it should be known -- and a heaping mound of inexplicable and nearly inedible potato pudding can do for your enthusiasm for following certain recipes to the letter.)
Which is to say that I don't feel a bit guilty for my latest improvisation, though this ranks among the most outrageous departures from the source recipe.
The only things that I took from Amelia Simmons' 1796 recipe for Johny/Hoe Cakes was inspiration and cornmeal (or "indian meal" as it was known at the time). Other than that, the muffins I made bare as much resemblance to the early cornbread recipe as a fresh berry-and-cream trifle does to a Pop Tart.
I had no interest in making ordinary corn bread. My friend the suburban gardener gave me a handful of fresh-picked sweet basil, I had some Pecorino cheese in the fridge, and I loved the way a smattering corn kernels spruced up thick pancakes: all these ingredients would play their part in my take on Johny cakes.
I noodled around Epicurious and found a recipe for Corn Muffins with Green Onions and Sour Cream, which became the foundation for my muffins. I replaced sour cream with cottage cheese because I love the stuff and would rather have it leftover than sour cream, and I skipped sugar because I didn't want anything masking the flavor of the herb. I roasted the corn, which dried the kernels out a bit. It might have been better to boil them, but then I wouldn't have gotten that lovely roasted flavor. My solution was to add 1/4 cup of olive oil.
The result was moist and overflowing with the flavors of a summer garden. I packed them away to take on a road trip to Cape Cod, following in the footsteps of their Johny cake forefathers, which were so named because travelers brought them on journeys.
A final note on cheating: attentive readers may be wondering just when I'm going to end this cooking project. The description at left says the grand finale was to happen on July 4, 2008, yet I have three more recipes to go: Thomas Jefferson's recipe for ice cream, Potted Lobster, and Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup. Well, I made an extremely loose interpretation of the lobster recipe on the Cape, but I still have the ice cream and soup to go. Think of this as extra helpings!
Corn and Basil Muffins
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup cottage cheese (I used the low-fat, whipped variety)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup of cooked corn kernels (from 2 cobs of corn, boiled or roasted, or 1 cup frozen kernels, thawed and drained), finely chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped basil, packed
1/2 cup Pecorino cheese, grated (or 1 cup, if you'd like to make a full batch of cheesy muffins), plus 2 (or 4) tablespoons for the topping
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Line twelve 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper liners or grease a silicone muffin pan. Combine first 7 ingredients in large bowl. Whisk sour cream, eggs, melted butter, and olive oil in another bowl.
- Add cottage cheese mixture to dry ingredients and stir just until moistened (do not overmix). Fold in corn kernels and basil. Divide the batter in half (or don't) and fold in 1/2 (or 1) cup cheese to one of the portions.
- Divide batter equally among muffin cups. Sprinkle the cheesy muffins with the remaining cheese. Bake until golden and tester inserted into center of muffins comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool on rack.