Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cornbread with a Side of Controvery

Cornbread is a long-standing and genuine Southern staple.  Unlike pimento cheese or fried green tomatoes, which were never served in the South Carolina home of my boyhood, cornbread is something that we ate on a regular basis and thus is for me a nostalgic, homey comfort food.  It's also really, really good.

This recipe is my paternal grandmother's, which she wrote down and gave to my mother not long after she and my father got married, and my mother, in turn, wrote down for me at my request when I got really interested in cooking in my early 20s.

For the bread to turn out properly, you really have to cook it in a cast iron skillet.  I have an 8-inch one that's just the right size--a Lodge pan that I bought at Hiller's Hardware in downtown Columbia and seasoned myself back when I was in graduate school.  I suppose you could make this same recipe in a regular old baking pan, but you would miss out on the very best feature of cornbread: that crisp, firm quarter-inch of dark brown crust that's created from the heat of the iron pan.

Grandmother Moss's Cornbread (With a few Small Enhancements)

1 cup cornmeal
1/2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
3 T vegetable oil (to go in the batter)
1 T of butter (for greasing the skillet)

Optional enhancements:
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
about 12 pickled jalapeno rings, chopped

To begin, you have to preheat both the oven and the skillet.  I can't emphasize this step enough because if you start with the batter in a cold pan you won't get the same crust and it will stick to the pan instead of popping right out when it's finished (and leave you with an ugly, ripped up top to your cornbread).  So, turn the oven to 400 degrees and put the empty cast iron skillet inside so that it preheats along with the oven while you are mixing the ingredients.

Next, make the batter.  Not much to it: put all the dry ingredients (the first four) in a mixing bowl and stir them together.  Put the buttermilk,  the egg, and the vegetable oil in a separate container (I use my glass measuring cup) and mix them with a fork until the egg yolk is broken up and mixed in.  Then, pour all of the liquid into the mixing bowl with the dry ingredients and stir until it is all mixed in and of a smooth consistency, but don't over mix it.  Finally, add whatever optional enhancements that you like (such as the onions and pickled jalapenos that I usually add).

Once the oven is heated and the iron pan is good and smoking hot, remove it from the oven to the stovetop (you'll need a good thick oven-mitt or kitchen towel since that cast iron will be HOT).  Toss a pat of butter in the pan and stir it around with a spoon till it's totally melted and coating the pan--this will both flavor the cornbread crust and help it crisp up and not stick to the pan.  Pour the batter into the skillet, return it to the oven, and bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden brown.

Now, some folks find getting the finished cornbread out of the skillet to be tricky, but it shouldn't be.  The key is to not let it cool in the pan. Here's what I do: put a plain old dinner plate on the counter, remove the skillet from the oven (again using a thick oven-mitt), and invert it over the plate.  Most of the time the cornbread will drop right out onto the plate and you're done.  If you turn the skillet upside down and the cornbread doesn't move, simply put the pan down on the stove top, get a butter knife, and run it around the inside of the pan to loosen the crust from sides of the pan.  Then invert it over the pan again and it should pop right out.  Once it's on the dinner plate, let it cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

My two standard enhancements to my grandmother's recipe are the chopped onions and jalapeno.  You can leave them out if you like, but I think they add extra moistness and flavor to the bread, and lest you're worried about the heat factor, as long as you use the pickled variety from a jar and chop them finely, the jalapenos don't make things too spicy (using chopped fresh jalapenos is a different story).

A Side Dish of Controversy: Sugar and Flour in Cornbread

Note that while I'm pretty open minded about optional enhancements--you could toss in bacon, cracklins, herbs, hot sauce, whole kernels of corn, you name it--there are two ingredients that do not and will not appear in my cornbread.  They're the kind of things that I would consider not "optional enhancements" but "flat out adulterations".  Those ingredients are wheat flour and sugar.

There's been much silly debate over whether corn bread should or should not have sugar in it.  Silly, I say, because it is so plainly self evident that corn bread could not possibly have any sugar in it for as soon as you add any you immediately transform it into cornmeal cake.  The real deal is rich, hearty, and possibly even savory, but it certainly is NOT sweet.  

The same prohibition goes for wheat flour, which only heightens the cake-like quality of adulterated corn bread.  It's also completely at odds with cornbread's history, though that's a long enough subject for a whole separate post.

I am well aware that this is just an opinion and, to judge by a cursory Internet search, one that puts me in the cranky minority.  So, I threw together a little poll and put it up in the sidebar.  Weigh in and let me know what you think.


The Wife said...

You are clearly a crank. My granny is as country as corn and has always put sugar in her cornbread. That is why yours is cardbread not cornbread. Sugar is a must! But then, I happen to know that you like your tea unsweet as well. Heresy.

Your Wife.

Robert said...

Now, let me clear up one misleading statement here. I do drink a lot of unsweetened tea. But that's not because I don't like sweet tea. I LOVE sweet tea. However, if I drank it in the quantities that I typically drink my iced tea I would be even more overweight than I am today and all my teeth would rot out.

But thanks for the kind words about by post.

The Wife said...

Great. I'll be on the lookout for your next book: Southern Cooking for Diabetics.

NMissC said...

I agree about sugar. Sugar in cornbread is appalling (although It isn't particularly unsouthern-- apparently, it's is a practice indulged in by many confused southerners). However, I do put a small amount of flour in the cornbread I make.

On the subject of cast iron and heating the skillet: It isn't cornbread outside of cast iron. You basically want to fry the bread, and the heat and mass of the skillet are essential for that.

I have a cast iron muffin pan that produced perfectly round corn meal muffins that belonged to my grandmother's grandmother. My grandmother was born in 1903; I think this was bought in middle TN circa 1870ish. It works great, makes beautiful little corn muffins although I'm more likely to use a skillet. Part of it is efficiency-- 8 of those little 3 bite muffins don't go very far in my family.

I highly recommend considering this add to your recipe: 1 very finely chopped clove of garlic, a substantial pinch of red pepper, and some black pepper.

Robert said...

I agree 100% on the importance of the cast iron skillet to cornbread. Red and black pepper I've tried, and with good results, but I don't think I've ever put in garlic. I'll have to give it a shot.

Local Bumpkin said...

We have to side with Robert's brigade.

No sugar/flour in cornbread! (schoolteacher glare)

We also added the chopped onion and bacon bits.

This was the best cornbread we ever had!


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