Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cornmeal Muffins with Three Lemony Herbs for #Baketogether

Lemon verbena, lemon thyme and lemon mint flavor these cornmeal muffins.
Sometimes, well, most of the time, I don’t like picking sides. That’s why these cornmeal muffins with three lemony herbs can walk the fine line between sweet and savory.

Abby posted her recipe for May’s #baketogether event, giving us two versions from which to choose. I tweaked the recipe just a little bit, kept a bit of sugar and used three fresh herbs — lemon verbena, lemon thyme and lemon  mint — that work well for any time of day.

For a sweet course, I’d serve these warm, sliced and topped with a strawberry sauce, a bit like shortcake, with some whipped cream on the side. For teatime: Warmed with a slather of butter, maybe a drizzle of honey.

In savory situations, put one of these muffins alongside a salad, perhaps making little crouton. I placed a small knob of goat cheese atop some of the muffins before they went into the oven. Goat cheese and lemony flavors are very compatible.

From left: Lemon verbena, lemon thyme and lemon mint.

My first tweak of Abby’s recipe juggles the ratio of flour to cornmeal. My family’s cornbread traditions have never involved wheat flour, only cornmeal, which means it’s a pretty sturdy bread. I kept the all purpose flour, just used a little less of it and a tad more cornmeal.

Though my family never uses sugar in its cornbread, that’s not to say sugar doesn’t have its place with cornmeal. I love those slightly sweet Italian polenta cakes. With that in mind, I kept some of the sugar, reducing it by half.

As for the flavors, I arrived about my variation after a much-admired blogger beat me to the Southwest in her #baketogether muffins.

So I put on my apron and went back to the kitchen. Well, to be more accurate, I went to the garden. There I contemplated while watering beans, potatoes and tomatoes during this late spring drought. (And unsuccessfully fighting off black flies, I might add.) The idea came while tending the pots of herbs I always have around.

Lemon verbena is one of my most favorite herbs and I’ve grown it for years. At one time, I had two plants that lived for several seasons, coming indoors for the long Michigan winters to bask in the south-facing window of my office. Lemon verbena soap and other toiletries are favorite souvenirs from travels to France.

Another herb that I cannot imagine being without is lemon thyme. It marries the two aromas so perfectly that I would rather use it than common thyme. Try it first as the solo flavoring for a simple salad of tomato, onion and cucumber dressed in oil and vinegar. You’ll wonder how you managed to live without it this long.

This season’s new acquisition is lemon mint. Its flavor is green and tangy, not especially minty. This one I bought not because of its flavor but because of its trailing habit and pretty rosette foliage. It’s just lovely to look at and I hope it will be something I can bring indoors come winter.

Together these three herbs lend an unmistakable lemon presence that citrus zest alone would not accomplish.

Sweet, savory, happy either way.

Lemon Herbed Cornmeal Buttermilk Muffins
adapted from Abby Dodge

2/3 cup cornmeal (I used a slightly coarse meal from Paul’s Grains in Iowa)
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/6 cup (or 2 and 2/3 tablespoons) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 large egg, at room temperature
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
freshly grated zest from one lemon
1 tablespoon (heaping) lemon verbena, golden thyme and lemon mint, finely chopped
Optional: about 1/4 cup soft goat cheese

Position an oven rack in the center of the oven. Heat oven to 350°F. Line 6 regular-sized muffin cups with paper or foil liners.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Whisk until well blended. Then add the lemon zest and chopped herbs. Measure the buttermilk into a 2 cup glass measure. Add the egg and oil and mix with a small whisk until well blended. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold (no stirring) until just blended.

Portion the batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups. If you are using the chèvre, place one tiny knob of cheese atop each muffin. Bake until the muffin tops are pale golden brown and a pick inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Move to a wire rack and let cool for 15 minutes. Carefully remove the muffins from the pan and set them on a wire rack. Serve immediately or cool completely and stow in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

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