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updated: 3/22/2011 4:10 PM

Corn bread recipe shows flexibility

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  • Annie Overboe for Baking Secrets column.

    Annie Overboe for Baking Secrets column.


Occasionally my son likes to play the "mom's a chef" card to his advantage.

For example, he recently needed help moving and was looking for a way to entice (bribe, if you will) friends into helping. He pitched his friends an offer they couldn't refuse: a free meal of chili and mom's corn muffins.

Then he called the chef for reservations.

Baking was not on my agenda that weekend and my pantry supplies were still low after the holiday bake-a-thon. I pulled out my trusty cornbread recipe, the one featuring brown sugar, and started for the store. But before I got to the car a thought came to mind: Why not bake on the fly? Create corn muffins with only the ingredients on hand.

Luckily the cupboard still held key ingredients necessary for corn bread: cornmeal, all-purpose flour, baking soda and a selection of vinegars. All other players were up for substitution.

Before getting too vested in this challenge I verified the container held enough cornmeal to start the muffins. To achieve good corn flavor and texture the preferred ratio of corm meal to all-purpose flour is 1:1; I squeaked by with cup corn meal and made up the difference with a bit more flour without negatively affecting the flavor or texture.

Then I had to overcome my lack of buttermilk. Known as the baker's secret ingredient, buttermilk boosts moistness, tenderizes texture and imparts background tangy notes without distracting the taste buds from the recipe's dominate flavor theme -- all this and it's low in fat.

No buttermilk in the refrigerator meant I needed a substitute. Depending upon the recipe theme, a baker can choose from citrus juice such as lemon, fruit ciders or vinegars to culture the milk proteins. The secret to success lies in matching the acid flavor to the other recipe ingredients.

In sweet corn muffins, a bold acid, such as lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, would dominate the main corn flavors rather than create a unified taste presentation.

On the other hand, white vinegar, a common pantry item, thickens regular milk and creates a tangy alternative to buttermilk. Made from grain, white vinegar brings flavor neutrality and tenderizing properties to the recipe.

I added two tablespoons vinegar to a cup of milk (a higher ratio than usual) and set it aside to let the vinegar work its magic.

My original recipe called for cup light brown sugar to sweeten and flavor the corn muffins. I had just scant cup light brown sugar on hand. White sugar easily stands in for the missing brown and any combination containing at least cup light brown sugar will still impart the background molasses flavor and caramel color.

Right about now I felt confident all these ingredient switches wouldn't bake a corn muffin the family would suspect as an impostor. Right about then I realized the one stick of butter left in the refrigerator stopped my progress. The recipe called for cup butter, leaving none for the dinner table.

Not wanting to give up so close to the finish I pulled out any oil I had stashed in the cupboard. Vegetable oil makes a suitable substitute for butter when it comes to texture, but lacks any of the flavor components butter brings to the recipe. Olive oil imparts very distinct flavor trails that would give away my secret muffin substitution plan.

A 50-50 mixture of melted butter and vegetable oil created a fat ingredient that contained just enough butter flavor to pass the taste bud test. This left enough butter to serve with the hot corn muffins. As a bonus, the oil imparted a touch more moistness than the all-butter recipe.

Baking often demands attention to detail, but sometimes it's flexible enough to handle a few changes.

• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at