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Thanksgiving, PA Dutch style: Dried corn. November 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As a native Tennessean, I had never heard of dried corn when our friend Ben and I first came to scenic Pennsylvania. Now, obviously, I’d seen ears of dried field corn, and many a kernel of dried popcorn. But around here, when you talk about dried corn, that’s not what you mean. For the Pennsylvania Dutch (that’s “Dutch” as in “Deitsch,” dialect for “Deutsch,” German, not “Dutch” as in Holland), dried corn is oven-dried sweet corn kernels that are then reconstituted during cooking into a variety of dishes that are considered Thanksgiving staples.

Corn, of course, is one of the “Three Sisters” of Native American cuisine, along with those other Thanksgiving classics, pumpkins and green beans. But by Thanksgiving, fresh corn on the cob would have been a distant memory before the days of worldwide transport that for decades annihilated the concept of seasonal cooking and had us all eating fresh corn, tomatoes and watermelon in January. Mercifully, regional and seasonal cooking is making a comeback. So is drying and canning summer’s bounty to enjoy the rest of the year. And that’s where dried corn comes into its own.

As far as I know, there’s exactly one brand of dried corn available for grocery-store purchase, and that’s John Cope’s. Cope’s—located in Lancaster County, the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country—has been making and selling dried sweet corn for more than a hundred years. If your grocery doesn’t happen to stock it, you can mail-order it from a number of sources, including Amazon.com, Farm Stand Foods (www.farmstandfoods.com), and Zingerman’s (www.zingermans.com). Our favorite site was Farm Stand Foods, which is apparently the official Cope’s site and also offers paraphernalia for the Cope’s corn fanatic, including Cope’s theme mugs, decorative tins, and tee shirts (“I Brake For Cope’s Corn”), as well as gift baskets, other regional specialty foods, and recipes.

The recipe page was almost mind-boggling. You can find recipes for Corn Souffle, Chicken and Corn Pie, Curried Corn N’ Tomatoes, Lancaster County Corn Pudding, John Cope’s Baked Corn, Baked Corn Supreme, Cornburgers, Corn Fritters, Baked Corn with Oysters, Stewed Corn, Corn Puffs, Corn & Beef Hash, Chicken Corn Soup, Corn Chowder, Ham & Corn Royal, and Creamed Corn. A quick search revealed that many of these recipes used Cope’s canned or frozen corn rather than dried. But one, the recipe for Creamed Corn, which also happens to be the traditional Thanksgiving dish, uses the dried corn. Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth:

           Creamed Corn

1 7.5-oz package Toasted Dried Sweet Corn

3 1/2 cups milk

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp salt

2 tbsp butter

Combine Toasted Dried Sweet Corn and milk and let soak in refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Add sugar, salt, and butter. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (They have a microwave version as well: Mix all the ingredients in a 2-quart casserole, cover with wax paper, and microwave on high for 10 minutes. Stir and let stand for 15 minutes. Microwave on high for 5 minutes, and let stand until the desired consistency is reached.)

If this doesn’t sound particularly fabulous, listen to what the Zingerman’s site (which is quite delightful) has to say about Cope’s dried sweet corn: “Makes the best creamed corn you’ll ever eat. John Cope’s corn couldn’t be more of a culinary secret to everyone outside of Rheems, Pennsylvania, if we’d made a national policy to hide it. Martin Cope made his first batch in 1900, and despite a conspicuous lack of notoreity the company is still doing it now as they were then. They buy corn only during the height of the season, when the sugars are at their highest. Quick to the drier—like olives for oil, one key is to get the corn into production right after picking, before its sugars start turning to starches. The drying caramelizes the natural sugars in the corn, lending a subtle, sweet flavor that’s so pleasing you’ll want to eat it right out of the tin. Anything you make with fresh corn is fair game for Cope’s dried sweet corn.” 

Intrigued? I was, too, especially after reading an article by Diane Stoneback in out local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, that focused on dried corn and had a bunch of recipes for it, including how to make your own from scratch (well, from your own-grown or store-bought fresh ears of sweet corn). Read the whole article, “Roots in the first Thanksgiving,” at www.themorningcall.com, for fascinating insights into the history of creamed dried corn, its occasional moments in the spotlight (think Emeril, Thomas Keller, and the White House), directions on making your own dried corn, and additional recipes.

Diane Stoneback tells those of us who weren’t raised with dried corn how to make it part of the Thanksgiving feast: “Just top a serving of plain mashed potatoes with a spoonful of creamed dried corn and you can skip the butter. Let the corn’s ‘gravy’ mix in with bread stuffing for a special treat.”

The descendants of the original Copes have their own special recipe that they love even more than the famous creamed corn:

           Cope’s Baked Corn Supreme

1 7.5-ounce bag John Cope’s toasted dried sweet corn, ground in a blender or food processor

5 cups cold milk

3 1/2 tbsps. butter

2 tsps. salt

3 tbsps. sugar

4 well-beaten eggs

Mix ingredients thoroughly. Bake in buttered 2-quart casserole for 60 minutes in preheated 375-degree oven. Serves 4 to 6.

A variation on this recipe made it into Gourmet magazine as corn pudding:

      Gourmet Magazine’s Toasted Sweet Corn Pudding

1 7.5-oz. pkg Cope’s toasted dried sweet corn

4 cups whole milk

1 cup well-shaken fresh buttermilk (not powdered)

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 Tbsps. sugar

2 Tbsps. all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsps. salt, 1 tsp. pepper

Preheat oven to 350 with rack in upper third. Butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish. Whisk together all ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer to baking dish. Bake until pudding is set, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Cool 10 minutes before serving. Note: Corn pudding can be made 3 hours ahead. Reheat, covered, in a 300-degree oven.

Corn pudding was one of the best things our friend Ben ever ate as a child. He had it rarely—perhaps on trips to the Shaker Village in Kentucky en route to his grandparents’ house—and it was always made with corn fresh-cut off the cob. But, hmmm. I know there’s a box of Cope’s dried corn in my pantry someplace. Maybe I’ll surprise OFB with a Cope’s corn pudding for Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, if dried corn is a Thanksgiving tradition in your home, and you have a favorite recipe I haven’t listed, please share it with us!

(Ahem. As an editor, it just kills me to list recipes in nonstandardized forms—tbs., tbsp., Tbsps., and etc.—in the same post. I don’t care how it’s listed, as long as all the recipes are listed the same way in the same post. But in this case, drawing from many sources, I simply listed them as they were published in each case rather than “fixing” them for consistency’s sake. But please don’t assume I was simply too clueless to notice! The one change I made was to omit “margarine” where a recipe said “butter or.” Margarine is a tool of the devil. Use butter, please! Not that I feel strongly about this or anything.)

          ‘Til next time,