Friday, August 7, 2009

Cleo Coyle's Corn Muffin Tops a la Julia Child

I find it difficult to fathom that cooking in 1949 was far from glamorous. Sixty years ago, celebrity chefs were not whipping up 30-minute meals on TV. Men and women weren’t chucking their Wall Street careers to enroll in culinary school and legions of journalists weren't writing about the latest Chef Prodigy to descend from Mount Gastronome. Back then, working in a kitchen was considered a lowly, non-intellectual profession. It wasn't even an acceptable middle-class hobby. It was something the hired help did.

Well, Julia Child didn’t care. In 1949, at the age of 37, this brave lady walked in to Le Cordon Bleu “weak in the knees and snozzling from a cold,” according to her memoir, My Life in France.

“By now I knew that French food was it for me," Julia wrote after living in France for a year with her husband, Paul.  "I couldn’t get over how absolutely delicious it was. Yet my friends, both French and American, considered me some kind of a nut…They did not understand how I could possibly enjoy doing all the shopping and cooking and serving by myself. Well I did! And Paul encouraged me to ignore them and pursue my passion.”
All I can say is: Thank heaven for the "nuts" of this world!

Julia struggled through her courses at the male-dominated French cooking school, but she soon flourished and began teaching others what she’d learned via cooking classes, cookbooks (her Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume I is considered a seminal work in the culinary field), and a television show, The French Chef, which so many newbie cooks grew up watching.

: I wasn’t one of them. For one thing, I was too young and for another my mother and aunt, who were born in Italy, had already established a culinary tradition in our house of braciola, zucchini frittatas, homemade biscotti, wedding soup, and eggplant con everything (along with my Pop who made his own wine and grappa from the grapevine in our suburban backyard). Beyond them, my wider foodie education really didn’t begin until the 1980's with Jeff Smith’s PBS show, The Frugal Gourmet.
Until I purchased Julia Child’s The Way to Cook in the early 1990’s, my awareness of Child was (in all honesty) limited to Dan Aykroyd in drag.

Click here to go back down
SNL memory lane.

So now there’s a movie (opening today) celebrating the late Julia Child’s life: Julie & Julia, directed by the amazing Nora Ephron. Click here to see the trailer.

Ms. Ephron is truly one of my heroes. Her roman a clef, Heartburn, is a seminal work for me. (That's my battered old copy of her book in the picture.) Well, Julia Child happens to be one of Nora Ephron's heroes; and as I learned more about Child's life, I couldn’t help but admire the woman and be inspired by her, too.

With Ms. Ephron's film opening as a catalyst, I began searching through Julia Child’s massive The Way to Cook for a recipe to discuss: A feather-light soufflé, perhaps? Butterflied leg of lamb? How about duck pate baked in its own skin? Then I turned a page and saw…Buttermilk Corn Sticks. What?! I thought. Corn sticks? In The Way to Cook?! (I’d never noticed this before…)

Definitely dressier than cornbread baked in the traditional square pan,” Julia wrote, “for which I usually use the recipe on the Quaker cornmeal box, corn sticks are so shapely you can well serve them not only at breakfast but at lunch, at dinner, or at high tea.”

Yes, you read that right. Tucked into this 528-page culinary master work, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Julia Child admits to using a recipe on the Quaker cornmeal box! How can you not love this woman?!! But that was Julia, I have to say: After reading her memoir and viewing some of her old shows, I now understand that she was never about haute cuisine for haute sake. What drove Julia Child was a simple, down-to-earth desire to share her hard-earned knowledge and sincere passion for good food.

Click here to watch Julia teach you
how to make a simple, perfect
omelet. (She’s such fun, too!)

Back to the corn bread:

Julia is right, of course. The basic recipe on the Quaker cornmeal box is a good one. Still, Julia knew that small changes to a standard recipe could yield even tastier results. She chose to replace the “skim milk” with buttermilk, reduce the sugar to 2 tablespoons, and increase the cornmeal in the cornmeal to flour ratio.
While Julia's is a perfectly fine version, I decided to learn from her example and make my own changes…

(1) Flour Ratio: First of all, the increase of corn meal in the ratio of corn meal to flour troubled me. I personally like the taste and grainy texture of corn meal, but I’m in the minority. My own readers have told me that they prefer a more cakelike corn bread product--so I flipped the ratio, weighting the flour for a smoother textured muffin.

(2) Sugar: Julia stated outright that she simply did not care for sweet cornbread. But I do. So does my husband. When it comes to a breakfast bread or afternoon break with coffee, nothing comforts and satisfies like a sweet corn muffin (so my recipe is sweeter than Julia's).

(3) Liquid: Julia’s choice of replacing the milk with buttermilk was inspired but most people don’t have buttermilk on hand, and I knew milk alone would not provide that slight little “tang” on the tongue that gives the corn bread yet another layer of flavor.

My answer—sour cream. 1 cup of buttermilk in Julia’s recipe became ½ cup milk and ½ cup sour cream in mine.

And finally I had an issue with the stick part of the corn stick molds. You see, no matter how much I buttered or oiled or sprayed the cast iron molds; no matter how much I pre-heated them and re-greased them, some of my corn sticks would stick. And (honestly) how many people even have cast iron corn stick molds in their cupboards?

What to do? Well, Julia herself gave me the solution (providing the "a la Julia Child" part of this recipe). If you don’t want to use corn stick molds, she advises you to:
“…form 2-inch rounds on the
baking sheets with a spoon.”

Muffin tops!

Okay, so Julia didn’t call them “muffin tops,” but that’s what they are in my adaptation of her recipe. As you’ll see in my photos, a 2-inch round with my recipe will spread and rise (with the help of a dash more baking powder) into the exact dimensions of a really good muffin top. You don’t need a muffin top pan, either, just a greased baking sheet, a hot oven, and you’re good to go!

Click here or on the picture above to get
my recipe for Corn Muffin Tops.

(The recipe will appear in PDF format,
which you can save or print.)

In closing, I’d like to leave you with Julia’s own parting words at the end of her memoir, in which she recalls the first meal she enjoyed in France—a dinner that changed her life:

“In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite…”

At the end of my own recipes, I always say: “Eat with Joy!” But today, in tribute to one great lady, it seems only right to add:

Toujours Bon Appetit!

~Cleo Coyle, author of The Coffeehouse Mysteries

To get more of my recipes or find out about the books in my culinary mystery series, visit my Web site -


  1. Great post, Cleo! (I remember those SNL skits, too.) :) This sounds like a great recipe and I love that Julia helped you out with it. Do you remember that "Seinfeld" episode about muffin tops? Elaine decided to just make the tops and throw out the "stumps." Too funny!


  2. Cleo-

    I love the way you tweaked the great one's recipe. I, too, like my cornbread sweet and grainy. I love that Julia didn't even find her passion until late in her thirties -- you're never
    too old to follow a dream. LOVE IT!


  3. (Laughing) - YES! I loved the Seinfeld show and (it's true) I cannot think of muffin tops without thinking of that episode.


  4. Thanks, Jenn! I agree - never to late to find and follow a passion...


  5. Cleo,

    I love the tops of corn muffins. I still bite around the edges first. My cat loved muffin tops too. Many years ago I left corn muffins on the table to cool, when I went back to the kitchen, my Sammy had bitten the tops of every muffin in the tin.

  6. LOL, Vannie! Okay, Sammy - the muffin top eating cat - is now officially foodie legend. BTW I love your latest recipe: "Hot and Spicy Soba Noodles with Vegetables" (Love the crab cakes recipe, too!)

    Anyone who is the least bit into hot and spicy cuisine MUST check out Vannie's blog! Great recipes there. Just click the link in the left column that says "Bella Online" - V is their hot and spicy editor.


  7. I like to serve cornbread or muffins with Mexican food. The sweetness is great against the heat of chiles. Try it sometime. They complement each other perfectly!

  8. While it's currently too hot to contemplate the oven, cornbread/muffins are favorite goodies at our house. There is the 'standard' recipe, but they have been known to join up with sharp cheddar and fresh jalapenos for chili, or with a bit of crumbled bacon for a morning treat. So glad I stumbled in here. I already LOVE two of the authors. Can't wait to get to know the rest of you.

  9. Aw, Julia! She can just do no wrong as far as I'm concerned... My copy of The Way to Cook is battered and food stained, which I always take as the mark of a good cookbook. From everything to boiling eggs to making a full leg of lamb, this is the book!

  10. Janet - Good suggestion on pairing these with Mexican food, especially with the addition of the sour cream in this recipe. (Sour cream has to be the mayo of Mexican cuisine!)

    sautelatte - Loved your "too hot" to contemplate the oven comment. LoL. (With the exception of next week's post - a perfect sweet pie crust..) I'm already working on posts for the end of August - when the heat in NYC is almost always unbearable. No oven will be involved! I promise.

    Jessica! - Gourmet Girl in in the house! Everyone, this is the author of the wonderful Gourmet Girl cozy mystery series. If you haven't read her books yet, you MUST check them out! And come back Sunday when Jessica will be guest blogging for us. (...and I'm with you, J, on food-stained cookbooks. Just one of the things that make a house a home.)


  11. I think I need to pick up a couple of those Gourmet Girl books..sound great! I also definitely prefer traditional cornbread. Yum!
    Can't wait til the heat leaves FL so I can do more baking! *sigh*

  12. Hi Kim!

    Just wanted to say I LOVE the name of your blog. (Yes, being the snoopy writer that I am, I clicked on your name to check out your profile and saw the name of your blog, which is right up my java-centered alley: "Caffeine is Life" lol!). Really nice photography. Especially love the "Scrapbook Your Day" idea! (And the pics of Scout made me smile.) Thanks for dropping in today!


  13. I'm originally from NY so, by law, I can't cook with cornmeal.

    I love cooking shows and, pre FoodTV, waited for PBS Sunday mornings when they would have 3 hours of cooking shows. FoodTV (now Food Network) only deepened my addiction.

    I think Julia was great! She took control of her life and left a great legacy. I haven't read her book, yet. Does she talk about the wonderful relationship she had with her husband? I read a short biography of her years ago and admired her dedication to her husband after he was far into Altzheimers.

  14. Greetings ThatBrunette - Kim, I clicked on your name and read your blog (snoopy me). My favorite line: "I learned an important lesson: Romance does not equal crap." LOL!

    Yes, the cooking shows ARE wonderfu! I'm always so happy to find a fellow fascinated viewer. Of course, they make me want to cook. And eat. If only watching ESPN would make me want to run a marathon. (Okay, I actually did run a marahton in 1989 - NYC - without corn bread.)

    Finally, yes, there's much in Julia Child's "My Life in France" about her relationship with her husband Paul, which was extremely important to her. (I can relate, my husband and I are as close.) The later years are kind of summarized (Paul had a heart attack and then strokes and deteriorated to the point she had to close up forever their second home in France...) But the book is upbeat throughout and buoyed with her energetic voice. The prose if smooth and superbly detailed - lovingly descriptive when it comes to food.

    Thx for dropping by TB - come on back now, y'hear?


  15. These look delicious. Love the blog!


  16. Thanks for the welcome, Cleo! You ladies are running a wonderful blog and I'm so thrilled to be a guest!

  17. Great post! I like sweet cornbread too. In fact, I like just about anything sweet!

    I thought the Dan Aykroyd skit was so funny. And Julia's show was great.

  18. Erin - Thanks for dropping by - come on back!

    Jessica - We are thrilled to have you as a guest blogger!

    LadyPI - Aykroyd's the greatest, isn't he? Uh-oh, wait a second...I have Jack Shepard whispering in my ear. Okay, he wants me to tell you: "Sweets for the sweet" (I think the ghost is trying to hit on you again. I do apologize.)


  19. Much to hot to bake where I live, too. But, we do love cornbread, especially with chili in the winter. This recipe sounds great.
    As far as Julia, not only am I old enough to remember SNL's spoofs, but I actually watched Julia Child when she first started cooking on t.v.! I even saw the episode where she put the [frittata?] back together on national television. LOL
    I just saw Julie/Julia, for the second time, today. And will probably see it again - before I buy the DVD. Love it. What a story! And the actors!
    Bon Appetite!

  20. Thanks for sending me the link to this post, it's awesome!! I totally remember that skit! You know, it's funny I never see Julia mentioned in lists of great feminists, but wasn't she? I mean, the woman did and said exactly what she pleased, and somehow remained charming.