A few days ago my Mom came home with a package of bacon from Safeway at fifty percent off and we proceeded to make our second round of BLTs for the summer. I fried the bacon and sliced up tomatoes. Before I was done I asked, “Do you want me to pour the grease into the grease can, or save it?”
She said, “Oh. I want the grease.”
I got out a clean glass jar and decanted as much of the bacon fat as I could into it.
Bacon grease is a dividing line in our household. Mom likes it in waffles. She likes to fry potatoes in it, too. But her favorite thing is to put it in cornbread. And I say, “Blecch.” I do not want to eat bacon grease at all. Bacon, yes. Bacon grease, no.
Just the thought makes me launch into opinions about cornbread. A few months ago Lisa Knighton, my pal from Georgia, who brought you shrimp and grits and caramel cake, mentioned that she had made cornbread for our mutual friend Ann, who follows a gluten-free diet. She mentioned using fresh corn and chipotle peppers in the cornbread.
I wrote back to say, “I don’t like things in my cornbread.”
What I mean is, I don’t want cornbread to contain fresh corn, or onions, or peppers. I don’t want it to contain cheese. I want it to be a plain, cornmeal-flavored food with a smooth texture. I like it kind of cakey and a little sweet — even a lot sweet: I’ve made it with maple syrup. I’ve made it with butternut squash puree to give it a deep golden color and a different kind of sweetness. But, just like I don’t want cookie crumbs in my ice cream I don’t want foreign textures in my cornbread.
Mom calls what I like “corn cake.” She likes sour cornbread. It can’t get too sour for her: she’ll load it up with buttermilk and bacon grease, lots of cornmeal, little flour. She puts in 1/4 teaspoon of sugar — I don’t know why she bothers. Her cornbread is flatter than mine, more dense. She taught me to heat the grease (or butter or butter and oil) in the pan in the oven before pouring in the cornmeal batter: this step gets you crisp crust on the bottom and Mom is a crisp crust person: she wants the pie crust to shatter against your teeth, the croissants to fall into shards of pastry, the cookies to be thin and crisp. I like all of that crispness. I will eat her sour cornbread, but I have to eat it with jam or honey on it and I prefer the lighter, sweeter version that I make, made with all butter or with butter and corn oil, with or without buttermilk, with sugar. I also like spoon bread, a cornmeal pudding made with eggs and milk, egg whites folded in at the end, almost a corn souffle. With sugar in it.
If you want to make cornbread my way, start with a ten-inch cast iron skillet. Preheat the oven to 450.
Melt 3 Tbsp butter or a mixture of butter and corn oil in the skillet on the stove. Turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl measure 1/2 cup flour, 1 Tbsp baking powder , 1 tsp soda, 2 Tbsp sugar and 1 tsp salt into a bowl and whisk them together. Add 1 cup cornmeal and whisk again.
Measure 1 cup buttermilk, plus 2 Tbsp, into a small bowl. Beat 1 egg into the buttermilk.
Put the butter/oil in the skillet in the oven to heat up.
Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and fold until just combined (no flour pockets). Then remove the hot skillet from the oven and carefully scrape the batter into the hot buttered skillet. This step produces a brown, crisp crust on the cornbread. Return skillet to hot oven and bake for about 20 minutes until the top has a few brown spots.
Cornbread is best eaten hot, but it can be nuked the next day for a few seconds in the microwave if there is any left — there probably won’t be.
Food notes: my cornbread recipe responds will to adaptations. You can use sour milk for the buttermilk. You can try using yogurt instead. You can eliminate the soda and make it with (regular) sweet milk. To make it cakier, try reducing the cornmeal by 1/4 cup and using unbleached flour instead: if you remove much more cornmeal than that it won’t be cornbread anymore. You could also add another egg to make it lighter, or an extra egg white if you have one hanging around. For a browner flavor, use brown sugar instead of white. You can use any kind of shortening or fat: I like the flavor of butter and corn oil amps the corn flavor slightly. In short, work with what you got.
And from Lisa: