I have been collecting corn-bread recipes for years, but each one I have tried has been a disappointment. The fine, soft texture I have been seeking invariably comes out coarse. I was beginning to think that great corn bread, particularly corn fingers (corn bread baked in molds shaped like miniature corn cobs), was a figment of my imagination.
Then, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989, I was invited to lunch at Campton Place restaurant in San Francisco. The corn fingers were perfect--tender, finely grained, slightly sweet, with little niblets of corn in each bite and occasional surprises of hot pepper flakes. These corn fingers dissolved in your mouth, yet had a full corn flavor.
Bolstered by my lunch companion's encouragement, I got up the nerve to ask the maitre d' for the recipe. And after lunch it appeared, perfectly typed on beautiful pale gray Campton Place stationary with the swan logo. I was in heaven. Protectively, I took it back to my hotel room on Nob Hill before rushing off to an appointment a few blocks away.
Which is where I was when the earthquake hit.
Anyone who has ever been in a natural disaster will tell you that the events immediately preceding and following are marked with indelible clarity, as in a picture frame. What I remember most is the absolute suddenness, the shocking, total lack of control and helplessness in the face of enormous unreasonable force.
And finally, when the worst was over, the immediate thought: "Where is that corn finger recipe?" and "If worse comes to worst, will they give it to me a second time?"
The next day, accompanied by my brother and a porter, I walked up the many flights of stairs of my disabled, vacated hotel. One of the walls in my room had a long, jagged crack, but the recipe was where I'd left it. I threw my things into my bags as quickly as I could, but this time carefully folded the recipe and put it in my purse, where it stayed until I reached home.
When I studied the recipe, the secret of its tender texture and rich flavor was immediately apparent--whipping cream and a little extra sugar.
Recently, my friend Joceleine Daguin, wife of two-star chef Andre Daguin, came from France to visit her daughter and I invited them for dinner. Since they come from the southwest of France, I thought it would be especially appropriate to make them something with an American Southwestern inspiration--the corn fingers.
After two bites, Joceleine looked at me with wide eyes and said, "We have a lot of corn in Gascony, and I have been looking for a recipe for good corn fingers for years. They are never so tender and delicious. Would you possibly give me the recipe for our restaurant?"
Now there are four places in the world where you will be able to find these corn fingers: Campton Place in San Francisco, my house in Hope, N.J., Hotel de France in Auch, France, and your own home, because here is the recipe.
Put it in a safe place.
CORN FINGERS (Adapted from Campton Place)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup milk
1 large egg, separated
1 cup cooked corn kernels, cut off cob
About 5 to 10 minutes before batter is ready, preheat at 425 degrees 2 cast-iron corn finger molds, sprayed with non-stick spray or lightly greased.
Stir together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and crushed hot pepper in medium bowl. Lightly whisk together butter, cream, milk, egg yolk and corn kernels in separate bowl.
Beat egg white in small bowl until soft peaks form when beater is lifted slowly. Stir egg yolk mixture into flour mixture just until moistened. Lumps should still remain. Fold in egg white just until incorporated.
Spoon or pipe batter into molds until almost full. Use small metal spatula or back of teaspoon to smooth, if necessary. Bake at 425 degrees 15 minutes or until tops are golden brown. Invert onto rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Corn fingers freeze well for several weeks. Wrap each airtight in plastic wrap and place in heavy-duty freezer bags. To reheat from frozen, bake at 400 degrees 7 minutes. Makes 12 to 13 corn fingers.