A Baker's Well-Kept Secret: Corn Flour


Regina Charboneau

To try Regina's cake recipe using this characteristic Southern flour, click here.

Every week I have the task to come up with some topic on Southern food to write about for TheAtlantic.com. It typically is easy because my life is centered on food, and most often Southern food. Last weekend, as I was taking corn flour out of my baking cabinet to dust fresh shrimp for a quick Sunday lunch of fried shrimp and cole slaw, I knew immediately that I should write about this well kept Southern secret—corn flour.

Everyone knows about corn meal, white or yellow, used for breading catfish and making corn bread. Somehow I think we have done a good job of keeping this silky flavorful flour more of a secret. In many Southern kitchens, this is the key ingredient that makes a homemade cake, Chess Pie, or a breading for shellfish or fish just a bit more special. Corn flour is also used often in Italian cooking. No matter how proud we Southerners are of our cuisine, we do realize that Italian cooking was around long before Southern cooking. Yes, we know it all began in 1492 when Columbus's men discovered this new grain in Cuba. Native to the Americas, it was exported to Europe rather than being imported, as were other major grains.

It is difficult not to get into a long-winded article about corn and all the fabulous products that come from this heavenly grain. Don't worry—I will condense my information. Corn spread throughout France, Italy, and all of southeastern Europe and northern Africa. By 1575, it was making its way into western China, and it even had a presence in the Philippines and the East Indies. Nowadays, more than 40 percent of the world's corn is produced in the United States. As far as I can tell, Iowa is the leading corn-producing state, followed closely by Illinois. The most amusing thing I have read about corn this week is "Corn is a component of canned corn" ... quite comforting to know.

It still amazes me that there are still so many unanswered questions in my life. As I was writing this, I was haunted by the question, what the heck is a bushel and a peck? I am thinking that it takes about a bushel of corn to make a peck of corn flour, but who knows? Well let me share my new knowledge, or lack of knowledge.

A bushel of corn in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia is 56 pounds. A peck is one quarter of a bushel. Now if you are a math genius you might want to know this formula:

Corn is measured by the following rule: A heaped bushel contains 2,748 cubic inches. To find the number of bushels of corn in a crib it is therefore necessary merely to multiply together the length, width and height in inches and divide the product by 2,748. The number of bushels of shelled corn will be two-thirds of the quotient. If the sides of the crib are slanting, it will be necessary to multiply together one-half the sum of the top and bottom widths with the height and length.

This is way out of my league—intriguing information few of us will ever use. I am glad to know what constitutes a bushel and a peck.

Of all the fabulous products from corn, my favorite remains this powdery flour made of finely ground cornmeal. I prefer it to coarse ground cornmeal as a coating for my fish or shrimp: you get all the flavor of corn meal, but not the grit. Another common use of corn flour is in chess pie. A chess pie is a one-crust pie filled with custard made of sugar, butter, eggs, and corn flour or corn meal. Now, there are about 100 stories about where and how the name chess pie came to be. The one that rings the most true to me is that it was really a "chest pie," a pie baked with so much sugar it could be stored in a pie chest. The word "chest" pronounced with the beautiful Southern drawl became "chess."

I am not the biggest fan of chess pie, since it is a bit too sugary for my taste, and I prefer my buttermilk blackberry pie. I am, however, a huge fan of cakes made with corn flour, and I believe the ingredient is often overlooked in cake making. I would think that before the presence of boxed cake mixes there was much more of a use of corn flour in baking in the South. I think it is time for a comeback of corn flour in cakes. Here is a recipe that hopefully will help state my case.

Recipe: Pineapple and Pear Corn Flour Cake with Brown Sugar Sauce