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.”

Original painting shows cornbread variations and ingredients.

Cornbread. 8″ x 10″ Gouache and watercolor pencil on canvas board. Sharyn Dimmick.

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:

My grandmother Eunice once told me about baking cornbread atop the car engine. As newlyweds she and my grandfather Oscar traveled often to Clearwater, Florida where she worked for the Studebakers as a cook and he set up cabanas and prepared beach-side barbecues.
“Now, Lisa,” she said settling into a seat at her kitchen table, “when your Big Daddy and I got hungry, he would pull the car off the road and I’d take out the picnic basket. I’d mix up some water with cornmeal, make little pones in the palm of my hand, then set them in a small pan. Daddy would raise the hood of the car and put the pan on top of the hot engine. Shortly, we’d have cornbread.”
Water and cornmeal, that’s all she used for making her roadway fast-food.
Now, unlike my grandmother and Sharyn, I like to put little bits of extra goodies in my cornbread. There’s whole kernel corn and chopped chipotle chili pepper. Or sauteed onions and garlic. Or leftover pimentos from making pimento cheese. And even sugar or honey, although this is not traditionally acceptable in some Southern households.
In making cornbread, which my yankee-born husband Mark loves, I usually begin with a recipe of Margaret Lupo’s and taken from her famous restaurant: Mary Mac’s Tea Room.
Mary Mac’s, located for all these many years on Ponce de Leon Ave in Mid-town Atlanta, brings a basket of cornbread muffins and biscuits to the table as soon as you are given a menu. The restaurant is known to attract celebrities and dignitaries from the world-over. Even the Dalai Lama has eaten there. I can’t know for sure, but I bet he loved the cornbread.
I’ve taken Mary Mac’s basic recipe and tweaked it to make it gluten-free, too. Good cornbread to me is a bit rustic and crunchy, so I use at least one cup of medium grind cornmeal. If you prefer a smoother or softer bread, use fine ground cornmeal only.
The Spicy Mexican Cornbread recipe here is great with just about anything.
First thing, pre-heat your oven to 500 degrees.
Beat 3 eggs well, then place them in an extra-large mixing bowl and add 3 cups buttermilk.
To the milk and eggs, add 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, 4 tablespoons grapeseed oil or olive oil. Mix well.
Next, add 2 cups fine cornmeal, 1 cup medium grind cornmeal, 1/2 cup almond meal, 1/2 cup brown rice flour, 2 tablespoons baking powder, and 1 teaspoon baking soda.
For the goodies, what I call the real reason for making this cornbread, I like to add 1 1/2 cups whole kernel white corn and one medium-sized chipotle pepper cut into small bits.
If you are using canned corn, drain it first. My preference is to keep a large bag of corn in the freezer, using what I need. If you don’t have a whole pepper, use 1 heaping tablespoon of dried chipotle pepper.
Just mix all the ingredients with a light touch. You want to form a thick, soupy batter. Let the batter rest for ten minutes or so. Pour into two well-greased pans. Yes, this is enough batter to make 12 cornbread muffins and a 10 inch cast-iron skillet full, or 24 muffins, or two ten-inch skillets of bread.
Bake the muffins for 16- 18 minutes; bake the skillets for 20 -23 minutes.
When you pull the bread from the oven go ahead and eat it right then. What we don’t eat I freeze and Mark and I eat later on.
If you are interested in making other Southern dishes, buy your own copy of Margaret Lupo’s Southern Cooking from Mary Mac’s Tea Room: www.amazon.com/Southern-Cooking-Mary-Macs-Room/dp/0877972575
 
I recommend Bob’s Red Mill meals and flours, most likely found at your local grocery. If you want to dip into the Southern regions and get some meal from a few of our local mills, try a bag:
From Athens, Georgia there is Red Mule: www.redmulegrits.us/index.html
From Columbia, Alabama there is Hall’s Milling Company. Their telephone number is: (334) 696-2286
Lisa Knighton
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