Monday, February 14, 2011

Cornbread to Get Excited About

I'm not kidding around with that title folks.  Last night Dave and I ate the best cornbread we've ever had--and we've both had plenty of it in our Southern bred lives. (Regrets to the mothers.)  I've even made it many, many times myself.  Apparently I was making it WRONG!  I  needed a new recipe.  I just didn't know it.

Actually, I did know it.  Most cornbread recipes are scaled for a 9-inch skillet. (Yes, a cast iron skillet is the best baking vehicle for cornbread.  That part I had right years ago.)  Unfortunately, the vintage skillet my granny gave me is ten inches in diameter, leaving me for all these years with flat, thin cornbread.  Somehow, I never quite got around to trying the few recipes I collected that were designed for a bigger pan.  With more time in my life to breathe (and isn't that often the key to solving a problem?), I finally had the presence of mind to go to my file vault and pull one out to try.  If I had only known what I was missing, what cornbread could be, I would have done this years ago.

(Ignore that sound. It's just me kicking myself. Again.)

You know all that talk about the wonderful crust on cornbread when it's cooked the traditional way with the oiled skillet preheating along with the oven?  This cornbread made me get it, finally.  The bottom crust, which became the top once I flipped it out, was gorgeous and grainy-crusty and thrilling.  Inside, it's appearance was almost lacy, while it's texture was light and fluffy and moist, without tasting like cornmeal cake, which I really love when I want cake.  So, yes, I'm one of those people who do not like sweet cornbread.  Because it's part of dinner, not dessert.  Duh!

The funny thing is that the only major difference between this God-gift of a recipe is more buttermilk and an extra egg stretching the same amount of corn meal and flour.  The one minor difference--less baking powder paired with baking soda, instead of all baking powder--could affect the flavor, since too much baking powder can add bitterness, but I'm going with the buttermilk as the magic bullet for crustiness and texture. God bless buttermilk!  I'm pretty sure he invented it primarily for baking magic, whether in cake (which this isn't, remember?) or cornbread.

I'll give the egg a little credit, too. Both add to the wet ingredients, which renders the mixture thinner, more like johnny cake or hoe cake batter.  That wonderful crust reminded me, now that I think about it, of the hoe cakes I sampled at the restaurant where I did my internship for culinary school and discovered the wonders of fried cornmeal.  Which is basically what you get with adding a thinner batter to a hot oiled skillet. My old thicker-battered recipe did not produce such glory.

And glory it was!  If all I had were a mess of greens and cornbread this good, I could live on them.  Pretty healthily, too, as a bonus.  Those old-time Appalachians were, by necessity, on to something.

I wish I could properly credit the source of this life-changing recipe, but alas, the magazine page that I tore out years ago and stuffed in a folder doesn't identify itself.  I'm pretty sure that it's Gourmet (RIP), Bon Appetit, or maybe Food & Wine, judging from the quality of the paper and the general look of it, but a web search of modest effort turned up no twin.  Well, I changed a couple of wee details anyway.  I'm calling it mine now and giving it away for the betterment of human kind.

I feel really sorry right about now for all those poor people whose Grannys didn't leave them a ten-inch cast iron skillet!  May they get one soon or overflow a nine-inch with cornbread love.  

Skillet Cornbread

Makes: one 10-inch round (Yay!)

4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour (or White Lily if you're really Sourthern)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Pour 2 tablespoons of the canola oil into a 10-inch skillet.  Tilt to coat the bottom and sides of the skillet and place in the oven.

Stir together in a medium bowl, the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Stir together in a small bowl the buttermilk, eggs, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola oil.  Add the buttermilk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, stirring just until the dry ingredients are no longer visible.  Do not stir more than necessary.

Remove the hot skillet from the oven.  Pour the batter into the skillet and bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden-brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Let it rest for 5-10 minutes before cutting. (So they say. Go ahead and try!)

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