And now…from diabetes to cornbread. (How’s that for a segue?)
After a chilly, dry winter, the rain has finally arrived in Northern California. This is the kind of weather that fleece blankets were made for. Sam has been begging me for weeks to make chili, and it finally felt like the weather gods were giving me a directive.
But with chili this good, we needed something to mop the bowl. And my trusty cast-iron skillet felt due for a baking workout. Helllllooooo, cornbread.
This is a classic, no-frills, Southern-style cornbread. I’m a born-and-bred Yankee girl, so this is just about the polar opposite of what I grew up eating. Around here, cornbread is almost always a cakey, sweet confection, based as much on wheat flour as on corn. So for me, traditional Southern-style skillet cornbread is an exotic treat–crumbly and chewy, enveloped in a tender golden crust, tasting of nothing but salt and corn. It’s got much the same appeal as that magical one-ingredient corn pudding: all the summer-sweet indulgence of eating corn on the cob, but in bread form.
Plus, it happens to be whole-grain, sugarless and gluten-free. If you’re into that sort of thing.
Classic skillet cornbread gets its lift from one of my favorite chemical dance duos: baking soda and buttermilk. I’m always surprised by how much downy, dewy softness comes from a tiny scoop of baking soda and a glug of something tangy. This cornbread baked up gorgeously, firm and crunchy at the edges and pillow-tender at the center. It’s rich and homey without being decadent, and I could. not. stop. eating it.
Now, as soon as this post goes live, someone is going to complain that this recipe calls for greasing the skillet with butter instead of bacon grease. It’s true that bacon grease is the traditional lubricant for this type of cornbread. If you want to use bacon grease, go right ahead. Me, I’m a freak of nature who thinks bacon is weird and creepy and tends to override the flavors of anything it touches. Plus, there’s a reason you put butter on your corncobs in the summer: it’s a freaking transcendent combination. But do what you like. You could even use olive oil.
The original recipe I used suggests whipping softened butter with some maple syrup or honey to spread on top of the cornbread. I tried that, and the friends I was feeding loved it, but I honestly thought the cornbread didn’t need the extra sweetness. Especially since most of this batch ended up submerged in bowls of chili, sponging up the spicy, meaty juices.
If there’s a higher cornbread calling, I don’t know what it is.
Classic Skillet Cornbread (serves 4 – 6)
NOTE: This recipe is designed for a 9- or 10-inch skillet. I multiplied it by one and a half to fit a 12-inch skillet, which worked beautifully.
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups buttermilk (shake well before measuring)
4 tbsp (1/2 stick or 2 oz) unsalted butter
Special equipment: a well-seasoned 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet
Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven, and place the (dry, clean) skillet on it. Preheat the oven to 425º F and let the skillet heat up inside the oven while you prepare the batter.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, baking soda and salt, breaking up any baking soda lumps. Then, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together eggs and buttermilk.
When the oven is preheated, remove the hot skillet (carefully!) and place the butter in the skillet. As the butter begins to sizzle and melt, swirl the skillet gently to get the bottom and sides coated. You may see the butter start to brown; this is a glorious thing and should be encouraged.
When the butter is fully melted, pour it into the buttermilk and egg mixture, and return the now-greased skillet to the oven to keep it hot. Whisk the hot butter into the buttermilk, then add cornmeal mixture and whisk until a batter forms. No need to mix super-thoroughly–some lumps are fine–but, unlike flour-based breads, this one won’t toughen if you overmix, so don’t stress it too much.
Pull the hot skillet out of the oven again and pour the batter into it. If you’ve done your prep right, the outside edges will start to puff up and cook right away. Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the top is golden and center is set but still soft and pillowy. Remove from oven and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes, then slice into wedges and serve directly from the skillet.
You want a blank canvas for your artistic cornbread aspirations? This is the perfect recipe. Once the batter is ready for the skillet, you could fold in half a cup of shredded cheddar cheese, or a roasted chopped poblano pepper, or a small minced jalapeno, or half a cup of oven-roasted corn kernels, or the zest of a lime, or some combination of things. And if you do, please invite me over for dinner.