Week Four: Savory Quick Breads
Cornbread is a decidedly American bread. And, like another Southern favorite, the biscuit, there are two major schools of thought concerning the end product. But while the biscuit is split (no pun intended) into factions that concern texture, i.e. flaky vs. fluffy; the differences in types of cornbread mostly concern flavor. Cornbread comes in two basic breeds: Northern and Southern. Northern cornbread is sweeter, tends to be a little more cake-like, and generally uses yellow cornmeal; whereas Southern cornbread is definitely savory and saltier, uses white cornmeal, and can even end up looking like a pancake. Picking one kind can be like picking children, but if you can get a table full of foodies arguing about what and who makes better cornbread, you’ll see that the difference is no trifle. (Yes, I am deliberately leaving out Tex-Mex style jalapeño cornbread, and any other sort that has little things added. We’re talking basics here, people.)
Despite having grown up in the South, I have finally come to terms with the fact that, yes, I prefer Northern Cornbread. I know, blasphemy. And it’s funny; usually I don’t like things with a whole lot of sugar in them. But to me, cornbread without sugar just tastes kind of… flat. Maybe it comes from growing up on Jiffy Cornbread Mix. Have you ever had it? It’s so good! And cheap! But being the discerning and health-minded cook that I am, I like to make things from scratch as much as possible. So there came a time to put away childish boxes of mix, and begin the search for a Good Cornbread Recipe.
I began mixing and baking, tasting, and freezing uneaten portions. This one was too dry, that one not sweet enough. That other one calls for sour cream? Gross. I turned out loaf after loaf of uninspired, dense, gooey, heavy, dull cornbreads. None matched up to the fluffy sweetness of the bygone Jiffy Mix. None was as gently crumbly. None were the proverbial “just right”. Until, that is, I picked up a copy of Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe (and if there was ever a more enticing name for a cookbook, I haven’t seen it). There, in the bread section, was not one, but two recipes for cornbread: one Northern, one Southern. I had made enough cornbread at this point to know I was going for the Northern style, and quickly gathered the ingredients.
The batter didn’t look all that different from any other cornbread batter, but it tasted intriguing – not too sweet, not too grainy, not too tangy. And when I pulled it out of the oven, its cheerfully cracked top smiling at me with a golden, toothy grin, I could tell I was on to something. Five minutes later, as I tasted my first crumbly slice, I knew I had found it. I had my cornbread recipe! The years of searching were over! And yes, I have modified it the tiniest bit, but only so slightly. The basics are all there, so feel free to add flavorings as you see fit. Jalapeños? Grated cheddar or Monterey Jack? Corn kernels? All of the above? Throw ’em in! Just be careful of added moisture, since it can throw your cornbread’s texture a little off.
So here I give you the Best Cornbread Recipe I Have Found Yet. Now, if you’ve got a cast iron pan, you’d better get it out and get it cranked up, because it’s really going to help you out here. I know the recipe says to use a square metal pan; but come on, it’s cornbread. Why else do you have that small cast iron pan? I know you aren’t frying chicken in it. (Also, I don’t even have a square metal pan.) Just don’t preheat it first, like you might for Southern-style cornbread; the extra heat will just overcook the outside and make the crust tough. As for serving, cornbread goes well with any number of foods, but I think there’s no better match in the world for cornbread than a pot of white beans. Either in the form of soup, white chili, or just plain over rice, cornbread and white beans are like basil and tomatoes, like blue cheese and port, like caramel and salt. One of my favorite winter dishes is to simmer white beans all day, with rosemary and thyme, serve over brown rice, with a warm and toasty wedge of this fluffy cornbread on the top. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Golden Northern Cornbread
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated The Best Recipe
Makes 9 servings
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for greasing pan
1. Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 425º F. Grease a 9-inch square metal pan.
2. Whisk cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt together in large bowl. Push dry ingredients up side of bowl to make a well.
3. Crack eggs into well and stir lightly with wooden spoon, then add buttermilk and milk. Stir wet and dry ingredients quickly until almost combined. Add melted butter; stir until ingredients are just combined.
4. Pour batter into greased pan. Bake until top is golden brown and lightly cracked and edges have pulled away from side of pan, about 25 minutes.
5. Transfer pan to wire rack to cool slightly, 5 to 10 minutes. Cut cornbread into squares and serve warm. (Pan can be wrapped in foil up to 1 day. Reheat cornbread in a 350º F oven for 10 to 15 minutes.)
1. If you don’t have a square metal pan, use a round metal cake pan, or a small, unheated cast iron pan. Glass will get too hot, and make the crust too tough and overdone.
2. No buttermilk? Warm 2/3 cup of milk in the microwave for 30 seconds, then add a splash of white vinegar. Let it sit for five minutes, then use as directed.
3. I have increased the amount of sugar in this recipe, to make it what I consider the perfect level of sweetness. The original recipe only called for 4 teaspoons, so if you prefer it a little less sweet, go right ahead.
4. Again, mix quickly! The more you stir it, the tougher it will get. And get that pan in the oven quickly, since the baking powder starts acting as soon as it touches liquid.