No, the spiders are not in the cake…
When my kids were little they loved hearing we were going to have “spider cake” for dinner. I know exactly what they were imagining.
This is an old New England technique, a cross between luscious, creamy corn pudding and traditional corn bread cooked in a cast-iron skillet with either cream or milk poured directly into the center just before baking. The cream sinks into the cake and makes a lovely custard-like layer just under the crisp top. The “spider” was a cast iron Dutch oven with little legs that could be placed directly in the coals for baking or long braising. I’ve even made this camping, and it works great if you have a nice bed of coals.
Let’s add some fresh corn!
My variation on this recipe is the fresh roasted corn! It adds a nice dimension to the dish. Also, my mother’s recipe called for souring two cups of milk with a couple of teaspoons of white vinegar. I found myself with only cider or balsamic vinegar in the house one day, and so I acidified the milk with a half cup of sour cream instead. It was even more delicious, so that is the way I make it now (unless, of course, I want to make it and I have no sour cream but plenty of white vinegar on hand…).
A sturdy cast-iron frying pan works best. I use “Dolora” my grandmother’s pan that was handed to my mother and then men.
This is not a diet food, so don’t even think about skim milk in this one! My mother made this with whole milk poured on top rather than cream, but the cream is definitely better! She also used bacon fat rather than the butter, it adds another dimension of flavor, so if you happen to have a coffee can filled with this fat like she did, go ahead and use it. I tried making it with a plant milk and while it was delicious, the layer did not form.
Use a local cornmeal if available in your area, it will be fresher and taste better! It is also good for your local economy, and the planet in general! (I use the Nitty Gritty Grain Co. organic cornmeals made right here in Vermont. http://nittygrittygrain.com
New England Spider Cake
- ¾ cup stoneground cornmeal, fine to medium ground, local if possible
- 1 cup unbleached white all purpose flour
- ½ tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup sour cream
- About 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 2 eggs plus one egg yolk
- 1/3 cup sugar
- ¼ cup melted butter, cooled a bit
- 1 cup fresh roasted corn kernels, or frozen corn
- 1 cup heavy cream or whole milk
Place a 10” cast-iron frying pan in a 450-degree oven. It needs to be smoking hot when you pour the batter in. Alternately, you can use any heavy skillet.
In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, soda, powder, salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a two-quart measuring cup, add a large blob of sour cream, about a half cup. Add enough whole milk to come to the two-cup mark. Mix with the eggs, sugar, and 3 tbsp. of the melted butter, blend well, and toss in the corn. Add the liquid all at once to the dry ingredients and gently combine, just until there are no large pockets of flour. Don’t over mix.
Remove the frying pan from the oven and add the last tablespoon of butter, brushing it around the pan. It should be bubbly and sizzling.
Quickly, add the batter. It will sizzle and start to set on the edges immediately.
Here’s the magic. Now, gently pour the cup of cream directly into the center of the batter. You’ll be tempted to pour it all around to make it even, but you want it all dead center. It will look totally wrong, but will come out deliciously right.
Return to the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or so, depending on your oven, but check at 30. The top will be browned, but not overly so, you don’t want it to go too far and dry out.
It doubles as dessert
Let cool for a few minutes, and cut into eight or ten pie-shaped pieces and enjoy! This needs no assistance from a topping except perhaps a drizzle of dark amber maple syrup if you choose to serve it up as dessert.
Variations: You can add sweet red pepper, diced and sautéed, along with the corn, just a 1/3 cup or so, no more. Or, if you like heat, add a bit of crushed red pepper, or some finely minced hot pepper. Freshly snipped chives are really good in this as well, and a cup of shredded Cheddar Cheese is never a mistake.
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