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Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:01 am

Crazy for cornbread

 

It’s more American than apple pie. The English brought apple pie to American shores. Native Americans taught the earliest European immigrants to parch, grind and mix corn with boiling water, and then bake it into thin cakes. They weren’t nearly as tasty as the cornbread into which they evolved, but made good staples for hunters and traders as they wended their way along Native American trails. Initially called “journey cakes” because of their association with those journeys, the name eventually morphed into “Johnny cakes.”

Corn and cornmeal is eaten throughout America. But Southerners have traditionally used white corn for cornmeal; in the North yellow corn is more traditional. Though the American South is especially associated with cornbread, I’m frequently disappointed with southern recipes. Many are cake-like, with a high proportion of flour to cornmeal; they’re often as sweet as cake, too.

I don’t care if cornmeal is white or yellow. But I do care that my cornmeal is stone-ground and hasn’t been degerminated. Stone grinding preserves cornmeal’s flavor and provides the best texture. Degerminating cornmeal gives it longer shelf life; it also removes corn’s most nutritious part.

This is the first cornbread I ever made; decades later, it’s still the best I’ve ever eaten. The recipe is adapted from Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, 1950 edition. There are several reasons: Using bacon fat provides taste and contributes to its texture; preheating the skillet creates a wonderfully crunchy crust; and the proportion of cornmeal to wheat flour showcases the cornmeal’s flavor and texture. Last but not least, it’s quick and easy to prepare. The batter is made in minutes, and baking takes only from 10 minutes (for corn sticks) to 25 minutes (for skillet cornbread). I like to use a medium-grind cornmeal for this recipe. Coarse-grind is too coarse (although it makes the best cornmeal mush, aka polenta) and fine-grind is too fine, without enough texture. Medium-grind is just right.


Cornbread

  • 1/4 c. melted bacon fat (preferred), or other cooking fat or oil, plus an additional    
  • 3 T. for greasing the skillet
  • 1 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 c. stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 1 T. baking powder, preferably Rumsford or other brand without aluminum salts
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 450 F. Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Put the 3 tablespoons of fat into a 10-inch skillet, preferably cast iron, and place it in the oven to heat while you are preparing the batter.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the bacon fat, buttermilk and egg until thoroughly combined.

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients until combined, with no lumps. Make a well in the center and quickly stir in the liquid mixture until the ingredients are just combined.

Remove the skillet from the oven and brush the sides with some of the melted bacon fat. Quickly add the batter, smooth the top, and return to the oven.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the cornbread’s middle comes out clean. Serve immediately.

Some possible additions include a cup of grated cheddar cheese, a few minced jalapeños, or 1/2 cup minced chives or scallions. Additions do not work well in the corn sticks.

To make corn sticks: use a corn stick baking mold – they may be made with some other material, but I’ve only ever seen cast iron molds that make 6 corn sticks.

Place a dab of fat (butter isn’t a good choice; it may burn) in each corn-shaped depression and place in the oven to preheat as above. Remove from the oven and quickly brush the depressions so that the fat completely coats it, then fill them until just almost full. If you only have one mold, you’ll need to bake 2 batches. Bake 10-15 minutes. Makes 12.

Cornbread is down-home and rustic – and all the better for it. Leave it to Martha Stewart to transform cornbread into something lusciously luxurious – a skillet recipe that’s part cornbread, part cornbread quiche, part corn spoon bread (a pudding-like casserole) and wholly scrumptious. Pair it with a salad for brunch, lunch or dinner.

Custard Cornbread

  • 3 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus additional for the skillet
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 c. stone ground cornmeal
  • 1tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 c. buttermilk
  • 1 c. fresh or thawed frozen corn kernels
  • 1 c. heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Generously butter a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, and place in the oven to preheat.

Mix together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk eggs and melted butter. Stir in the sugar, salt and buttermilk. Add the flour mixture, and stir almost smooth. Stir in corn kernels.

Transfer batter to heated pan. Pour cream into center of batter; do not stir.

Bake until pale golden brown and set, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack 15 minutes. Serve warm.

Variation: add 1/2 cup chopped ham to the cream.

Adapted from a recipe by Martha Stewart’s website.

I’m a stickler for my family’s traditional bread dressing to pair with the traditional turkey at Thanksgiving. But for the rest of the year, I’m wide open to making different variations – and not only as an accompaniment to turkey. Cornbread dressings are almost de rigueur in the American South. This is one I particularly like to accompany pork chops, both smoked and unsmoked, ham, pork steaks on the grill, and smoked turkey.
 

Cornbread, pecan and apple dressing

  • 1 recipe cornbread, above
  • 1/2 -3/4 c. pecans, toasted for 5 minutes in a 350 F. oven, broken in half if large
  • 1/2 c. dried apples, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 c. calvados or applejack brandy, or cider
  • 1/2 lb. (8 oz.) breakfast-type sausage
  • 2 T. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 c. chopped onions, not supersweet
  • 1/2 c. chopped celery
  • 2 T. fresh rosemary, minced
  • Hot stock (chicken, turkey, veal, vegetarian), water, or cider
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Crumble the cornbread and place on a cookie sheet or tray in an oven set on warm. Bake until the cornbread crumbs are completely dried – 2 hours to overnight. The crumbs should measure about 6 cups when fresh, about 4 cups dried.

Put the dried apple slices in a medium (microwavable) bowl and toss with the applejack or cider. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 1 minute. Let stand.

In a large skillet, sauté the sausage over medium-high heat until the sausage is browned and no pink remains, breaking up the meat as you go so that there are no large lumps. Remove the meat to a large bowl and add the cornmeal crumbs, apple mixture and pecans, tossing to combine.

Melt the butter in the skillet with the sausage drippings and add the onions and celery. Toss to coat the vegetables thoroughly, cover the skillet, and cook until the vegetables are softened and translucent, 5-10 minutes. Uncover the skillet, add the rosemary, and cook about 5 more minutes. Scrape the contents of the skillet into the bowl and toss to combine.

Stirring constantly, add enough hot stock or cider to the bowl to moisten the dressing. It should just be moist, not soggy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bake the dressing in a greased, oven-proof dish in a 350 F. oven for 30-45 minutes.

It can be baked by itself, used as stuffing for pork chops (I particularly like it with smoked pork chops) or used with pork chops baked on top of the dressing (adjust the baking time so that the pork chops are completely cooked). The recipe can be doubled to stuff a small turkey. It’s an excellent side dish for smoked turkey or ham. Makes about 6-7 cups.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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