Variations on the Southern staple of cornbread

aweigl@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

  • Make your cornbread better

    Cookbook authors Nathalie Dupree and James Villas shared a few ideas for additions to baked cornbread or cornbread muffins. Here are their ideas and some of our own:

    • 1/2 cup shredded cheese, such as Parmesan, sharp cheddar, pepper jack or monterey jack

    • 2 ounces crumbled goat cheese

    • 1/2 cup chopped cooked bacon

    • 1 cup cracklings

    • 1/4 cup diced fresh jalapeños, seeds and ribs removed

    • 1/2 cup corn

    • 1 (8-ounce) jar sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil, drained and chopped

    • 1/2 cup chopped onions or green onions (white and tender green parts only)

    • 3 tablespoons chopped herbs, such as chives or basil

Growing up, all I knew about cornbread was that it came in a box with “Jiffy” on the label.

Now that I live in the South, I’ve been introduced to the wider world of cornbread. Not only is there the iconic bread baked in a cast-iron skillet, there are corn fritters, pancakes, hoecakes, muffins and corn sticks baked in a special mold to resemble ears of corn. There’s a variety in Kentucky and Tennessee called corn light bread, which is baked in a pudding mold and comes out like angel food cake. And then, of course, hush puppies are a whole other clan in the cornbread family.

It’s no wonder Southerners have developed such a fondness for the bread that at its most basic is made with cornmeal, flour and water. “The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” notes that among the first things pioneer farmers in the South did was plant corn and raise pigs. After the Civil War, most Southern mills were better at milling ground corn, not wheat. And so cornbread, more than biscuits and yeast breads, came to grace tables throughout the South. Even after flour became more widely available, cornbread remained a staple.

“My mother made cornbread almost every single day,” said James Beard award-winning cookbook author James Villas, of his late mother, Martha Pearl, who lived in Charlotte. Mother and son wrote three cookbooks together, and Villas covers cornbread in its many forms in his new book, “Southern Fried: More than 150 Recipes for Crab Cakes, Fried Chicken, Hush Puppies and More.”

As with many foods, Southerners argue about how to best make cornbread. There are two points of contention: White cornmeal or yellow? Sugar or no sugar?

Former PBS cooking show host Nathalie Dupree, whose 720-page cookbook “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” won a James Beard Award this year, discovered while reporting a story in Alabama that the white cornmeal-yellow cornmeal debate varied from county to county.

“I just think it’s kind of what you grew up with. I use whatever is around,” said Dupree, who is, however, not ambivalent about the sugar debate.

“I do not approve of adding sugar,” she said. “To me, corn is sweet enough on its own.”

Villas is a bit more open-minded about sugar in his cornbread: “I do like a little bit – for better off or worse – of sugar in my corn sticks.”

No matter where you stand in the cornbread debates, the colder weather makes this the perfect time of year to discover that there’s more to cornbread than what comes in a box.

And, as a bonus, here's my video showing how to rehab an old cast iron skillet in eight easy steps, so that you'll have an appropriate vessel to make delicious cornbread.

Lacy Corn Fritters I have co-workers who call this “fried cornbread.” Dupree and Graubart call this “hoecakes,” as well as lacy corn fritters. You can buy cornmeal mix at the store or make your own by combining 3/4 cup cornmeal, 3 tablespoons flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. From “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, 2012.) 9 tablespoons cornmeal mix (see headnote on how to make your own) 4 1/2 tablespoons self-rising flour 1-1/2 cups water Shortening or vegetable oil for frying

WHISK together cornmeal mix and flour. Add water as needed to keep the batter thin, and whisk until smooth.

HEAT a thin layer of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Using a half-full 1/4-cup measure, drop the batter into the hot skillet. Cook each cake until brown and crisp on the bottom; turn with a spatula and then brown on the other side. Add more oil to the skillet if needed. Add more water to the batter as needed to keep the batter thin. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels.

Yield: 15 fritters Beer Cornbread Muffins These tasty little muffins are perfect for a brunch or lunch buffet. They can be made ahead and frozen or kept a day in a tightly covered container at room temperature. From “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, 2012.) 2 cups white or yellow cornmeal 1 cup self-rising flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, optional 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted 2 large eggs, beaten 8 ounces beer or nonalcoholic beer 1/2 cup buttermilk 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

HEAT oven to 400 degrees. Oil a 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.

SIFT together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix together butter, eggs, beer, buttermilk and cheese in a large bowl. Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir until just mixed.

DIVIDE batter among the 12 muffin cups, filling each about two-thirds full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are light golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted near the center comes out clean.

COOL in the tins on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Turn muffins out onto the wire rack to cool, or serve warm.

Yield: 12 muffins Cornbread Sticks This recipe uses two 7-well cast-iron corn stick pans. Pans come in 5, 7 and 9 wells. If you only have one pan, bake in batches and brush pan with oil in between each batch. From “Southern Living Around the Southern Table,” by Rebecca Lang (Oxmoor House, 2012). 1 cup stone-ground white cornmeal 1/2 cup all-purpose soft-wheat flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (optional) 1 cup buttermilk 2 large eggs 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted Vegetable oil

HEAT oven to 450 degrees. Heat two (7-well) cast-iron corn stick pans in oven for 5 minutes.

WHISK together cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder and red pepper, if using, in a large bowl. Whisk together buttermilk and eggs in a small bowl, and add to cornmeal mixture, whisking until blended. Stir in melted butter.

LIGHTLY brush corn stick pans with vegetable oil. Pour batter into hot pans. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Yield: 14 sticks Cheddar Skillet Cornbread Adapted from “Southern Fried,” by James Villas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). 1 1/2 cups cornmeal 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup milk 1 large egg 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted 1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese

COMBINE cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl and stir well until blended. In another bowl, whisk together milk, egg and half of the melted butter until well blended. Add cheese and stir again until well blended. Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until the batter is well blended.

HEAT remaining melted butter in a large cast-iron skillet over low heat. Once pan is coated, scrape the batter into the skillet, cover with a lid or seal with heavy aluminum foil tucked around edge of pan and fry slowly until the top is firm, about 20 minutes. You can also can bake this in a 425 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes. To serve, cut cornbread into wedges.

Yield: 6 servings

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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