Saturday, October 1, 2011

Corn Bread Chronicles

Being corny
Isn't it an amazing feeling to open a door and have the wonderful aroma of corn bread greet you?  That sweet, rich almost textured scent....letting you know something special is waiting to be served. After a long, hard day there is one thing for certain....

Comfort comes with corn bread.

Done right, this baked good can be a very pleasing gastronomical experience....done wrong, a brick for yon garden wall. The question is, how can something so simple to produce go so horribly wrong?

But first, a moment to acknowledge the traditions of maize...of Corn Woman,  of the ancestors who first grew the maize, dried it and ground it to a flour to make food.  This grain is one without whom entire societies would not exist. Including our present one here in the United States.  Corn, its raising and preparations as taught by Native Americans made it possible for settlers to survive those first several mean seasons.

Corn Bread has gone through a lot of changes since those early times.  Once a simple thing made of coarse ground cornmeal, water and salt, it's gone through a series of make-overs to the point where there are as many variations as there are type of corn and stars in the sky.

There's Cheesy Corn Bread, Jalapeno Cheesy Corn Bread, Bacon Corn Bread, Bacon Cheese Corn Bread and of course Corn Kernel Corn Bread....Blueberry Corn Bread, Brown Sugar Corn Bread, Cranberry Orange Corn Bread, Banana Corn Bread....and so on.  See what I mean?   I've even heard of Chocolate Chip Corn Bread and Cherries with Corn Bread a la Mode. Honest!

We'll get to a few of those other recipes in other blog entries.

Suffice to say we humans must love the stuff; why else would we have it in so many varieties? 
Since we've been at it for so long, why is it we occasionally end up with something more akin to masonry than maize?  What gives?

Some say it's the addition of flour to the mix....the gluten wreaks havoc when it starts to react with the corn/egg/oven heat thing.  Purists don't allow flour anywhere near their cornbread! They shun the whole idea as if hearing blasphemy.  Go ahead!  I dare you to bring a flour sack to the mixing table in a proper Southern (or even Northern) traditionalist's home!  I'll sit over here until the storm blows over.

I've tried it both ways.  In fact, the first way I tried it was with cornmeal, flour, sugar, eggs, milk and shortening, cooked in a loaf pan. It was heavy, kind of gummy and well,  I wasn't pleased.

Luckily this wasn't a Home Economics assignment or anything....just an experiment.

Through the years I've tried dozens of recipes and methods.  Some of them were successful, brilliantly so.   Others were....well....not so brilliant. But from these trials and errors I learned a great deal.  The first thing is that maybe loaf pans aren't such a good idea for cornbread.  Such pans tend to force this bread's batter into strange behavior.  It wants to be cooked on the outside but stay pudding-like within.

Store brand yellow corn meal
Ingredients play a role too. Some people will insist on adding flour....saying that without it the bread will be hard as a rock.  I've had that experience too, which is why even without the flour I add "lifters."  What are these "lifters?" Eggs and baking soda, plain and simple.  Baking powder is another "lifter."  And don't forget to include the air that you beat into the egg before adding it to the batter - it has merit, too.

The type of cornmeal used can be important.  Stone or Coarse ground will act differently than fine ground.  The bread's texture and density will vary depending on the type grind used.

For cornbread, my favorite cooking vessel is a cast iron skillet, heated in the oven with bacon drippings or oil. Periodically I try a batch in a regular loaf pan with limited success.  When it does work out, it's because I've pre-heated the greased pan before filling it only half way with batter and placing it in the center of the oven all by itself for around 40 - 50 minutes.

So here are a couple of recipes that have worked for me.  I hope they work for you.  Let me know!

Preheat oven to 375 F.

3 Tbs. bacon drippings, lard or oil
1 1/2 to 2 cups of coarse ground cornmeal
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp baking soda
Salt to taste (optional)
1 egg, beaten.

Put the bacon drippings, lard or oil on a cast iron skillet, then put it in the oven to heat.

Add dry ingredients (cornmeal, baking soda, salt) together in a large bowl, pour in buttermilk, beat egg before adding to the batter.
Check to see if the pan is ready. It should be smoking hot.  Pour the batter into it. The pan should sizzle and begin to fry as it hits the fat-lined pan.  Put in the oven and bake until golden brown.  Check after about 30 - 40 minutes

You can add a can of creamed corn to this recipe if you want real corn "berries."  If you do, reduce the amount of buttermilk to about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

Preheat oven to 400F 

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons double acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 cup milk
1 egg beaten
1/4 cup bacon drippings or vegetable oil

Grease a heavy loaf pan and put it in the oven to heat. This step is very important.
While pan heats, blend all the dry ingredients together. Add remaining ingredients until dry ingredients are just moist. Check to see if the pan is ready.  Again, it should be smoking hot.  Pour batter into the pan and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Serve warm.

To add a can of creamed corn to this recipe, you'll need to lessen the amount of milk in your recipe to about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

Cornbread is a great thing for any time of day....from breakfast through midnight snack.  It's a great accompaniment to chili, is perfectly at home sliced thin and pan toasted with melted cheese and can even be coaxed liven up that old stuffing recipe you've been using for years.

Here's to cornbread!!!
Please feel free to share your ideas, recipes and comments!
Skillet cornbread
Loaf pan cornbread

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