I know what some of you readers must be thinking, "Oh, no! Not another write-up on cornbread!"
Don't stop reading cornbread lovers! The thesis of this write-up is not a recipe, even though it contains one. It is not an essay on the virtues, or on the history, or on how much corn bread in the northern euphemism sucks ass. The previous write-ups have already tilled these rows enough.
This is a review of someone else’s recipe; Erika Bruce. Cooking and writing for Cook's Illustrated, she attempts to bridge the north-south cornbread divide with a compromise encompassing the best sentiments of both styles.
"Wanting to avoid a regional food fight, I figure that everyone- North or South of the Mason-Dixon line-could agree on one simple notion: Cornbread ought to be rich with the flavor of corn. A deeply browned crust also seems far from controversial, and, when it comes to texture, I attempt a reasonable compromise: moist and somewhat fluffy but neither cakey nor heavy. Could this humble dish finally unite North and South?"
Personally, I never gave much thought to cornbread until I married. I grew up in a Chicago suburb and, yes, cornbread was a sweet sticky cake that was served on occasion in some "Yankee" restaurant. There are two things I cannot stand in this kind of cornbread: chunks of corn or, especially disgusting, chunks of Jalapeno pepper. Other than that I like it well enough.
Then I married my wife, Virginia. She was nourished by my mother-in-law, Deborah; who in turn was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama and raised there until she was 13. Virginia's diet growing up consisted of what her father liked to eat. In Virginia's own words, "sweet tea, cornbread, green beans or pinto beans cooked with bacon until it was mush, round steak fried to shoe leather consistency and gallons of catsup to help choke it down."
My Mother-in-law's cornbread is one part white self-rising corn meal, one part yellow corn meal, buttermilk, vegetable oil, butter and eggs. She cooks her cornmeal in a cast-iron skillet in a 450 degree oven. No flour, no sugar. It is southern cornbread through and through which serves up flat and crusty. It is a perfect vehicle for sopping up the "soup" from a pot of beans. It also goes great alone with butter and Golden Eagle Syrup.
I like both kinds of cornbread. Get me an American flag pin and put me up on a podium; I am a cornbread "moderate". So, I am intrigued by Erika's recipe for All-Purpose Cornbread, which can be found online here, and will give it a shot.
Right away, I notice the inclusion of pureed corn. I am skeptical, but decide that as long as it was not corn chunks I would try it.
The other thing that does not jive with me is that it calls for the corn bread to be baked in a cake pan. I will break with the recipe here and use a cast iron skillet pre-heated in the oven, like Deborah does.
Deborah sets her oven to 450 degrees; Erika calls for 350. I split the difference at 400 degrees.
Speaking of Deborah, she is watching me as I mix all of the dry ingredients in a big Pyrex bowl and blend the corn and the wet ingredients in a little Cuisinart.
Deborah, does not think very highly about the inclusion of brown sugar into the mix, "I don't use sugar in my corn bread."
I fold the wet ingredients into the dry and it comes up a bit too sticky and solid. I add a half cup more butter milk and achieve a texture that I find more suitable. The batter is not sweet. Deborah won't taste it because it has raw eggs.
"Come on, Deborah, taste the batter. You would if it was a yellow cake mix."
Deborah tastes the batter, reluctantly, and confirms that it is not sweet.
The cast iron skillet is now hot. I add two tablespoons of vegetable oil to the skillet which should aid in getting the crispy crust that all southern cornbread must have.
Erika's recipe calls for a baking time from 25 to 35 minutes.
After 25 minutes, I poke a wooden chopstick into the center of the bread and it does not come up clean.
After 30 minutes the chopstick comes up clean but I think that the top of the bread is too pale yet.
After 35 minutes I still do not see the color that I am looking for but, concerned about drying the corn bread out, I remove it from the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes.
I do believe that Erika has succeeded in making a compromise between northern and southern cornbread. It does have a bit more of a cake-like fluffiness than Deborah's, but not significantly so. I find that to be a plus, as Deborah's corn bread, when eaten without butter, beans or syrup can stick in the throat a little. Erika's All Purpose Cornbread did not get as satisfying of a crust however, even in the cast iron skillet. In sweetness it is much closer to southern cornbread. This is no cake. Yankees would not dig it.
I have a crock pot of beans that I have been cooking this afternoon. The All Purpose Cornbread passes the sopping up of the bean "soup" with flying colors. It also passes the butter and Golden Eagle Syrup test very well. Of course Golden Eagle Syrup would make Civil War Era hardtack taste good so that is no surprise.
So is this the miracle corn bread that will bring about a new brotherhood of man? Not a chance! Deborah had to go off to work by the time the cornbread was ready but I had my father-in-law, to try some.
"It ain't like Deborah's corn bread"
He didn't finish the piece.
No, in the end, people like what they have grown up with and corn bread sentiments run as deep and as they vary regionally. My last thoughts on Erika's All-Purpose Cornbread" is that if I want southern corn bread, I will look to my mother-in-law. If I want something sweet and cakey, I will look elsewhere.
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Note: I originally referenced this write-up from the following source: Bruce, Erika. "Rethinking Cornbread". Cooks Illustrated American Classics, 2008