I had a craving this week brought on by subliminal messaging. Wednesday morning I was reading the Times‘s Dining section and recall seeing more than one recipe involving cornmeal. I suppose it’s that time of year—for cornbread stuffing, creamy polenta, cornmeal cookies. By 4 pm I was at the greenmarket in Union Square with a serious hankering. I swung by the Cayuga Pure Organics stand and bought a bag of fine cornmeal (not its coarser cousin, polenta—no offense polenta).

My plan was to make jalapeño spoonbread using Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe from her Recipes for Health column. Spoonbread is an airy, soufflé-like cornbread that turns golden brown and rises during baking. I find it’s moister than cornbread, and the leftovers make for one mean breakfast the next morning.

In the end I couldn’t find a jalapeño or an ear of corn (or frozen corn for that matter) so I made some adjustments. I substituted cayenne for the jalapeño, and did away with the corn kernels all together.

By the time I got baking it was nearing 10 pm, and since I decided to beat the egg whites by hand, it was close to midnight when I finally pulled the puffy, fragrant cornmeal soufflé from the oven. No matter, still airy and warm I cut into the spoonbread and helped myself to a midnight snack.

The next morning, I reheated a slice in a skillet with a little butter and served it drizzled with maple syrup for a scrumptious breakfast.

The story doesn’t end there. I tried the recipe again yesterday with my friend Amy while on a lunch break (the perks of being a freelancer and working from home). But the two spoonbreads couldn’t have been more different. Whereas the first night the cornbread browned and puffed up just like it was supposed to, yesterday is remained yellow without browning and never quite reached soufflé heights, and I know why.

You know how when beating egg whites you’re supposed to make sure there’s nothing else in the bowl? No trace of anything that could prevent the whites from reaching their stiff peaks? I goofed and left about 1 tsp of milk in the bowl ergo the egg whites never full aerated. Nonetheless, yesterday’s batch was spoonable and yummy, just with less of the french-toast-like consistency of the first batch. More like regular cornbread, less dense though.

You can probably tell which photo of the finished product is from which experiment.

Jalapeño Spoonbread
Adapted from Martha Rose Shulman, The New York Times

1 c water
2 c milk (whole or 2%)
3/4 tsp salt
1 c (130 g) cornmeal
2 tbsp unsalted butter
3 eggs, whites and yolks separated
Kernels from 1 ear of corn of 3/4 c frozen corn (optional)
2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
1/2 c (2 oz) Gruyère cheese, grated (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter a 9- or 10-inch cast iron skillet or baking dish.

2. Combine the water, milk, and salt in a saucepan and slowly bring to a boil over medium heat. Slowly add the cornmeal in a stream while whisking constantly. Turn the heat to low and continue to whisk for 8 to 10 minutes, until the mixture is thick. Remove from heat and stir in the butter.

3. One at a time, stir in the egg yolks, then add the cheese and corn kernels, if using, and the jalapeños.

4. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Stir in 1/4 of the egg whites into the cornmeal mixture, then gently fold in the remaining 3/4. Transfer the mixture to the baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for thirty minutes until the spoonbread puffs and begins to brown. Serve at once.

Should you achieve soufflé greatness it is a satisfying but fleeting accomplishment. Dig into the spoonbread while still warm and puffy, because it will deflate before you can reach for seconds. Chill leftovers and serve the next day reheated in a skillet with a bit of butter (and maple syrup if you’re so inclined).