Our family lives on a small acreage north of Vermillion and we do what we can to "eat local" and more specifically, eat food grown directly on our land. To that end, we have a large garden, raise pastured pork and even own our own dairy cow. But one thing that has eluded us has been locally grown flour for baking.
Our acreage came complete with a full quarter mile-long driveway. The first year we lived here we got lucky and had little snowfall. Last winter, however, we learned just what a long driveway means; i.e. lots and lots of snow removal. As we prepared for this coming winter, we decided to ask the farmer who has the 80 acre parcel that surrounds our farm to try a snow management technique learned while living in Wisconsin. This involved having the farmer leave three rows of corn running parallel to our driveway to act as a sort of "snow fence". He was happy to comply but asked us to hand harvest the ears on those rows to ensure that they don't become "volunteer corn" in his soybeans next year.
And so it was that on one of these lovely warm November days we have been so lucky to have, my four-year-old daughter and I could be found in the field snapping ears of field corn off their stalks. It didn't take long to get a wheelbarrow full, which we returned to the yard with the plan of giving it to the pigs. Until the four-year-old asked what, in retrospect, was a perfectly logical question:
"Mom, can we eat some of this?"
Most field corn grown in South Dakota is destined to become livestock feed or ethanol. In 2013, South Dakota farmers grew 813 million bushels of field corn-a figure likely to be surpassed by this year's bumper crop. Very little of that corn, if any, makes it way directly to a consumer's table. Most is sent off to be processed into a corn-derivative product, incorporated in a livestock ration or turned into a biofuel. Indeed, although I have been a part of the greater agricultural community for my entire life, I cannot ever recall directly consuming the corn grown in the field around me.
And so, following the lead of a four-year-old, I said "Why not?"
The only way to really eat field corn, also known as yellow dent corn, is to turn it into cornmeal. Thus, we shucked and shelled a couple of ears to prepare them for grinding. This act made me understand why you can find an old corn sheller at nearly every farm auction you attend-Shelling is both time consuming and hard on your fingers! Once we had a large bowl full of corn kernals, we moved on to grinding.
As it happened, I had picked up an old flour grinder at an antique shop in Beresford earlier this year and thought this would be the ideal opportunity to try it out. It weighs well over 75 pounds and so we only made it as far as the patio from our garage before I said "Good enough". It took a few tries of adjusting the tension via the large screw on one side before we found a grinding point that didn't jam up the burrs and still creating a fine enough grind for baking flour.
Next, we called on the services of my grandmother's old flour sifter to ensure we only used the finest of the grindings for our cornmeal. Few things delight a small child more than working the machinations of a grinding wheel or sifter handle!
Cornmeal prepared, we turned from old technology to new to find a recipe for our newly created ingredient. My daughter insisted we must make "cake", something I had never before considered making out of cornmeal. A quick Google search led us to a simple "Orange Cornmeal Cake" recipe (found below), for which we (thankfully) had all the other ingredients handy in the kitchen and a quick trip to the hen house added the needed eggs to the mix.
A little stirring, some baking and a bit of cooling time later and we were able to complete our "farm to table" journey by enjoying warm (and delicious) cake and milk. It's not often that a baking ingredient needs only a 100 foot journey to become a part of the end product. I have a feeling that a few more of those ears might find their way into the kitchen rather than the hog barn this fall.
Orange Cornmeal Cake Recipe (found originally here):
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for pan
2 large eggs
1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush bottom and sides of an 8-inch round cake pan with oil; line bottom with a round of wax or parchment paper, and brush paper with oil.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together oil, eggs, 1 cup sugar, and orange juice until smooth. Add flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and orange zest; whisk gently to combine.
3. Pour batter into prepared pan; sprinkle top evenly with remaining 1/3 cup sugar (topping will be thick). Bake until cake begins to pull away from sides of pan and a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes.
4. Cool in pan 20 minutes. Run a knife arond the edge of cake; invert gently onto a plate, and remove parchment paper. Reinvert cake onto a rack to cool completely.