This is a job for your grandmother’s cast-iron frying pan!
Talk to a southern cook about cornbread, and a New Englander like me may well end up in a verbal disagreement over two aspects: the addition of flour and the addition of sugar. The southern cook will probably tell you that neither has a place in “real” cornbread!
Usually, the sweet is in the South…
I have always found this interesting because in general, I’ve observed New Englanders do not like their foods nearly as sweet as Southerners! Our desserts use less sugar, our baked goods, puddings, even iced tea., are never as sweet as some of the dishes I had in the south, including desserts that made my teeth ache just looking at them. And yet, here is cornbread, where I’m told it is almost a felony to add a pinch of sugar.
To make matters even more interesting, when I lived down south, my landlady, Ms. Green, gave me her cornbread recipe and it had both flour and sugar, quite bit of sugar! Go figure. As with all dishes, regional or otherwise, it all depends on how your mother made the recipe, and mine, a Yankee, added both, but not a lot of each.
Early staple grain
Whether south or the north, corn was an important staple grain for our early settlers, given to us by the native population. When I say given I probably mean we stole it, but that is another story. In the North, wheat did not grow well, so we used more corn, rye, and buckwheat, all of which suited our climate.
Cornbread is quick and easy, but can be made with endless variations. My dear friend Crescent Dragonwagon wrote the definitive book on cornbread and all things quick made with cornmeal “The Cornbread Gospels,” Workman Publishing Company Inc, New York, NY, 2007. If there is anything to know about cornbread, you’ll find it in these pages!
One of my own variation on one of my mom’s recipes is to add corn kernels, usually left over grilled or roasted corn, but in the middle of winter, frozen works. Additionally, this time around I wanted some fall color in the cornbread so I added a poblano pepper, a bit of sweet red pepper, and some scallions. Yum!
Cooked in a pre-heated, cast-iron skillet, the only way Mom cooked it, cornbread develops a beautiful crust on the bottom and sides. I use my mom’s cast-iron skillet, which was also her mothers. I can only imagine the dishes that have come out of that pan, and I still use it all the time!
How about some Vermont Cheddar?
To make it even crustier, I sprinkled just a bit of Cheddar cheese on top of mine. It added a nice browned cheese note, which went beautifully with the browned butter I started it all off with, my other addition! My mom used bacon fat to grease her pans, she always had a coffee can of it sitting by the stove. I used a mix of butter and olive oil.
And, some Vermont cornmeal as well!
Look for stoneground cornmeal for the best flavor, it does make a difference. Most supermarket cornmeal is ground with steel rollers and more of the hull of the corn is lost in the process. Stoneground is exactly what it sounds like, meal that is ground between two stones, and more of the whole corn is retained. You will find fine, medium, and coarse, and I like the medium the best, a good balance of texture. If I’m lucky, I find the local meal produced by the Nitty Gritty Grain Company in northern Vermont. It is naturally sweet, so I do not have to use much sweetener, just two tablespoons of maple syrup.
Cornbread is always best the day it is made, but this one is nice and moist so it is great the next morning for breakfast as well!
Yankee Skillet Cornbread
- 1 stick butter, browned, plus 1 tbsp.
- 1 ¼ cups stone ground cornmeal, local if possible
- 1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp. baking powder
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 tbsp. maple syrup or native honey
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 1 poblano pepper, minced
- 1 mini sweet red pepper, minced
- ½ cup corn kernels
- 2 scallions, whites and greens
- 1 cup grated Cheddar cheese to top
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees and place your cast-iron frying pan on the middle rack to heat up.
Place the stick of butter in a stainless-steel sauté pan over medium heat and gently swirl until the butter begins to brown. The butter will foam, and will start to smell nutty. Immediately put in a bowl to cool to room temperature.
In the same pan, add a teaspoon of olive oil and the peppers. Sauté for a minute or so, just until starting to soften.
In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Mix well.
To the cooled butter, add the maple syrup, buttermilk, and eggs. Combine and gently mix into the cornmeal mixture along with the peppers, corn, and scallions.
Remove the frying pan from the oven and add a tablespoon of olive oil along with the last tablespoon of butter, brushing it around and up the sides.
Immediately add the batter and place back in the oven. It will instantly start to sizzle and set on the edges!
Bake for 15 minutes and sprinkle the top evenly with the cheese. Return to the oven and continue to bake for another 10 to15 minutes, or until the bread is set and the top nicely browned, but don’t overcook, the most common reason for a dry cornbread!
Let cool a few minutes before slicing!
Non-dairy: You can also make this non-dairy by substituting unsweetened soy milk soured with 2 tbsp. white vinegar, and using shredded vegan cheese or omitting it altogether.
One of my mothers many cornbread recipes:
Sylvia’s Corn Bread
- 3/4 cup flour
- 1 1/3 cup stone ground cornmeal
- 1 tbsp double-acting baking powder
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup melted butter
- ¼ cup bacon fat
- 1 cup milk
Heat iron frying pan or cornbread pan in 425 degree oven.
Combine flour, cornmeal, and baking powder. In a separate bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and whisk well. Add to the cornmeal mixture just until combined.
Remove pan from oven and brush with bacon grease. Return to oven and cook for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and firm to the touch. Do not let it overcook or it will be dry.
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