Done right, there’s absolutely nothing complicated about a skillet full of fresh-baked cornbread.
Each batch is cooked and presented in an everyday cast iron frying pan, cut with a standard-issue butter knife, and as often as not eaten with the fingers. It’s the perfect complement to anything from soup beans to collard greens, game day chili or the last stews of before summer.
For many Southerners, cornbread’s flavors and textures conjure up memories of Sunday suppers and childhood meals. The toothy crunch of a deep-brown crust triggers memories of long-stewed pot liquor from a the bottom of the greens pot. The grainy, pale yellow crumb evokes stories from countless New Years’ Day parties, when a split wedge of butter-soaked goodness acted as foundation for pork-fortified black eyed peas.
Traditional skillet cornbread has become less and less of an everyday dish, despite the fact that it’s an insanely simple to execute, even for the busiest of home cooks. They don’t call it a quickbread for nothing.
Invest a few minutes of basic work – measuring, mixing, swirling and baking — and what you get in return is a flavorful Southern classic served hot from the oven.
Bake it a few times in a row, and you’ll find yourself leaving the written recipe behind and baking it all by heart.
Thought the basic recipe for cornbread is pretty simple — cornmeal mixed with milk or water, leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda – there seem to be countless variations on the theme, most of them jealously guarded as “the one true bread” by their adherents.
My family’s cornbread is a standard buttermilk variation — stone-ground cornmeal mixed with a little bit of flour for tenderness, a bit of sugar for flavor. Before baking in the oven, e heat a splash of vegetable oil to its smoking point, the better to preheat the pan for an all-important substantial crust. The final product has a great balance of gritty corn texture with just a hint of lightness.
Hard-core proponents of cornbread insist that any “real” recipe contains only cornmeal, as they learned at their mother’s kneed. After all, there’s a special name for a baked product that uses flour and sugar. And that name is cake.
When I mentioned cornbread to one of my co-workers — a cowgirl/copy editor raised on the wild prairies of Oklahoma – she asked me one of the standard zealot’s questions: “Do you put sugar in your batter?”
When I answered yes, she shook her head a bit, sighed hard, and rendered a reluctant verdict.
“I guess we can still be friends.”
Simple, Savory, Essential
When I started digging around in Kentucky cookbooks for cornbread recipes, I came across an endless parade of maize-based batter breads. (Kentucky Keepsakes, a compilation cookbook put out by Kuttawa’s MacLanahan Publishing house, lists 57 different variations.)
I found variations that ranged from skillet bread to batter cakes, yeast-leavened Sally Lunn to pan-baked versions studded with crispy pork cracklins. There were traditional johnnycakes, hoecakes, shallow-fried corn dodgers and deep-fried hushpuppies. Muffins, sticks, spoonbreads and pones.
That ought to keep me busy for awhile.
Today, we’ll present three different recipes that show the texture of standard cornbread — from the crumbly buttermilk recipe to the rich velvety spoonbread. We’ve resisted the temptation to delve into the world of the modern “chunk style” cornbreads made by adding cheeses, spices, chiles and meats to the mix. No doubt that they’d be tasty, but at a certain point, we’re dealing less with cornbread than a casserole.
If you’ve got a great recipe for one of these, send it on. And don’t worry. I guess we can still be friends…
Skillet Corn Bread (Hebert style)
The key to a well-developed cornbread crust is preheating the oil in a cast-iron skillet. This version of the buttermilk classic contains just a hint of flour for a refinec texture and sugar for sweetness. For a smaller batch suitable for a 5-inch skillet, half the ingredients. All other steps remain the same.
2 cups corn meal
4 tablespoons unbleached flour
2 tablespoon sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a heat proof mixing bowl, thoroughly blend dry ingredients with wire whisk or wooden spoon. Add egg and buttermilk, then stir until the mixture forms a medium-thick batter.
In a 9-inch cast iron skillet, heat vegetable oil until lightly smoking. Swirl the oil around to coat the inside of the skillet. Then pour the hot oil into the batter and MIX VIGOROUSLY until the oil thoroughly blended in.
Bake at 425° for about 25 minutes or until slightly brown on top.