Friday, June 29, 2007

Easy: Great Corn Bread

Recently we've been eating a lot of corn bread. The nobler reason is to accompany the delicious fresh organic vegetables Kevin, our daughter Maria's fiancé, has been producing. The other, and more practical, reason is that as summer and its bugs show up we want to eat our stone-ground corn meal before the weevils get in there and eat it for us.

There are many different corn breads, especially in the South. Some have added goodies like "craklin's" (crisp-fried pork or bacon fat bits with most of the grease fried out) or jalapeños. Some are thin and crisp, some thick and cakey. Some are greasy, some are sweet. Our family favorite is "spoon bread", a soft, moist, almost custard-like treat that is spooned out hot onto the plate and generously buttered. Originally from Virginia, it seems like a New World response to Yorkshire Pudding. And it does go well with roasts, especially ham. A close second favorite is a moist and tender, but more conventional, corn bread of the type we encountered as "egg bread" during our two years in Tennessee. I've worked on the recipe and what I show below is the result. The spoon bread recipe follows that as a bonus, but it is essentially the recipe from the "Joy of Cooking" with minor adjustments.

Traditions and availability vary on the type of corn meal to use. White is typical in the South, but yellow corn meal shows up here as well. Yellow is more common in the North and Midwest. Self-rising meal, with salt and leavening added by the miller, or cornmeal "mix", with wheat flour as well as leavening and salt, are pretty common in the South. With the latter, you add only egg and milk or buttermilk. Personally I prefer plain cornmeal so I can make the bread the way I want, plus I usually like less salt than is in the mixtures. Stone ground meal, readily available in the South but perhaps not elsewhere, seems to make tastier bread than the regular meal, but even Quaker or Aunt Jemima's (both from the Quaker Oats company) work fairly well. Sugar is individual preference, with Southern cornbread less sweetened. The traditional shortening was bacon grease or lard. I use butter or, increasingly, olive oil, which make a great corn bread. Finally, buttermilk is the traditional (and very tasty) liquid for corn bread. But regular milk soured with some vinegar, or the newly popular kefir, work well too. Some bread is made with regular fresh rather than soured milk, in which case no baking soda is used, only baking powder. The corn bread recipe below has a soured milk for the liquid, while the spoon bread which follows uses fresh milk.

One of the "tricks" for good crispy corn bread is thoroughly heating the baking pan or dish, heating the butter or oil in it, mixing the heated butter or oil into the batter, and returning everything to the still-hot pan. The classic baking dish was a large cast iron skillet.

Southern Corn Bread Tim (serves six)

Set oven for 375 degrees (360 for convection). Place a 9-by-12 inch glass or metal baking pan in the oven and heat it thoroughly. Five minutes before baking the bread, add 6 (or less) tablespoons butter or olive oil to the pan or dish to heat.

Mix together and transfer onto a piece of paper:
1 cup yellow or white corn meal (not "self-rising" or "mix")
2/3 cup flour
2 to 3 teaspoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

In the bowl, lightly beat 2 eggs, then stir in:
2 cups buttermilk, kefir, or 2 cups less 2 tablespoons milk plus 2 tablespoons vinegar

Stir in the dry ingredients, just until moistened. Pour the hot butter or oil into the batter, stir it in briefly, then put the batter back into the hot pan. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the edges are golden and the bread bounces back when you touch it in the center. Serve warm.

Spoon Bread in the manner of Joy of Cooking (serves six)

Heat a large shallow casserole dish in a 375 degree oven (360 for convection). Five minutes before baking the bread, add 1/4 cup butter or olive oil to the baking dish.

Mix together and set aside:
1 cup white or yellow corn meal (not "self-rising" or mix)
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, lightly beat 2 eggs. Stir in:
2 cups milk (an extra cup of milk will be poured over the batter later)

Gently mix in the dry ingredients, just until moistened. Remove the hot casserole dish with the shortening from the oven and pour it into the batter. Mix it in very briefly, then pour the batter back into the hot dish and place it the oven. Pour over the top of the batter:
1 cup milk.

Bake 30 or more minutes, until the top and edges are crispy. Serve hot from the casserole dish by spooning the soft bread onto the plate and eating it with a lot of butter.

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