Sunday, September 17, 2023

Privileged Cornbread


Here in the South, cornbread is almost always sold in the bakery department at one's local grocery store. And you can count on biscuits to be found on many menus and in the kitchens of Southern born-and-raised folk. Everyone has a secret biscuit recipe or technique passed down from their "meemaw." 

I am a bread snob and prefer artisan-created breads. But they are getting a little too pricey. They are now selling "half loaves," but those are even worse of a deal. 

So I've been making cornbread. In the Colonies, it was called "pone" or "corn pone." A wedge is considered a "pone." It's great in the morning with my coffee. A bit of good butter and jam. Perfect. For lunch, a few slices of cold cuts or since it is still tomato season, a few slices of fresh tomatoes, mayo, salt, pepper and a flutter of basil leaves. Now that's good eating. The cornbread absorbs juice of the tomato and mayo. Yum! And, of course, it's always good with whatever you are having for dinner, especially stews and soups.

The other day while making up a batch, I just happened to have a wedge of blue cheese, half gone, sitting on the counter. Out of curiosity, I crumbled some into the batter and, instead of using sugar, squirted in some honey that needed to be used up.

Man, it was GOOD!

In the past, I have added sour cream and canned cream corn.

Because fresh corn is so abundant right now (really, throughout the year), I decided to try fresh corn kernels and they did not disappoint. Frozen and canned, I think, can bake up a bit chewy. Fresh remained plumper, sweeter and crisper.

I use this handy tool for corn. Yes, you need one!

I finely diced a green onion and threw that in. 

I love this gadget! You will, too!

Since it was a small loaf, I used the rest of the corn and another scallion to make a saute to serve with dinner.

Die-hard Southerners insist on white corn meal. And no sugar.  To appease both sides, I simply mix white and yellow together which I keep in 1/2 gallon jar. Problem solved.

I do like sugar, though. Many who insist on no sugar in cornbread end up slathering it with sugar in the form of honey, molasses, or some kind of syrup. So, really, what's the difference?

It's traditional to bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet that is HOT with melted grease. And lots of it. Never a square pan. It is cut into wedges and served warm. 

I have several of these Lodge cast-iron skillets. The two handles are very handy.
It's considered an 8-inch skillet. The bottom is 6-inches. Also great for macaroni
and cheese and Dutch Baby pancakes. Amazon used to sell them in sets
of two, but not anymore. Often, they are on sale.
You can also get a lid, separately. 

Honey is not cheap. So, here I have used white sugar.

I always have bacon fat on hand because I buy it in containers. Many grocery stores now stock it: "BACON UP." And lard. Lard is pork fat. Both are healthier than butter and certainly better for you than any "seed oil." Bacon up has a slight smoky, bacon flavor and is perfect for frying eggs. It's also great for greasing the sides of casserole dishes. Add a bit to boiled beans to perk up the flavor. Ironically, it's cheaper at the grocery store than to order on Amazon. It has a long shelf life. I wouldn't be without it.

Also, buy a 'wedge' of cheese. Crumbles are just leftovers ... You don't need a gourmet brand here. My preferred brand is "Litehouse Simply Artisan Blue Cheese Center Cut," but it's getting more and more difficult to find. That is some good blue cheese for the money!

  • .5 or one-half cup yellow cornmeal
  • .5 or one-half cup all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
  • 1/4 - 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2-3 tablespoons melted bacon fat plus more for the pan
  • 1 egg plus one egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk maybe 1-2 tablespoons more
  • 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese from a whole wedge
  • 1 green onion, white and green parts
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh corn kernels
  • a dasher two of garlic powder
  • a dash or two of ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F. 

To a six or seven-inch cast-iron skillet, add at least one but not more than 2 tablespoons lard, bacon fat, shortening, butter or a combination thereof. Avoid all butter; it scorches easily. Place in oven to melt and to heat up the pan. You want a puddle of grease, not a thin coating. Why? It is what produces the great crust for the bread.

In a medium bowl, add your cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, garlic and pepper. Stir to combine.

In a small bowl, mix eggs, milk and melted fat. Add to dry ingredients and stir just until combined. Batter will be a bit thick. If too thick, add a bit more buttermilk, but you don't want your batter thin, like a pancake batter. Cornbread batter is forgiving and usually bakes up nice.

Gently mix in broken up cheese, onion and corn. 

Carefully, and with oven mitts, remove pan from oven. Gently swirl grease from bottom of pan to coat sides. Or use a brush or spoon. 

Gently and evenly, fill hot pan with batter. It will immediately begin to cook the edges. Return to oven and bake for about 20-25 minutes. The top should be golden with the pone pulling away from sides of pan with just a bit of sizzling grease. A toothpick or cake tester when inserted should come out clean.

WARNING! PAN WILL BE EXTREMELY HOT. USE PRECAUTION. USE OVEN MITTS, HEAVY POTHOLDERS. AVOID DISTRACTIONS. Place wire rack on top of pan and flip. Then re-flip and keep on wire rack to cool.

This is fine eaten on its own without butter or syrups. It is a bit on the rich side. Is it white-privilege rich? I don't think so. Cornbread, like all food,  has always been for everyone and that's how it should stay!

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Washington Apple Cake

This is not a fancy-looking cake. Its rustic humility belies its alluring, delicious appeal.

Who doesn't love apple season?
There are almost 7500 unique apple varieties in the world. Here in the United States, we grow about one 
hundred. And we love sweet apples, unlike Europe which treasures apples we have never tasted and which tend to lean on the "herby" side. Difficult to explain. England had some of the best apples I ever tasted ... Many were like sipping a cool crisp glass of Chardonnay. The closest I can think here are Winesaps. What a great old apple. Here in the mountains of North Carolina, some dear souls still tend to the old trees. A bowl of fresh Winesaps will fragrance a room ... And one or two in a pie will make it unique and special!

I love my local farmers market!

Europeans tend to let the apples do the talking in their recipes, so they don't overload them with cinnamon and spices. I know it sounds strange, but it works. Here, we love our apple pie spice. Extra cinnamon. Nutmeg. And lots of sugar. The apples kind of get lost.

I honestly don't know where I got this recipe, but I make it often. It's like a walk through the woods in the autumn. It's fun to change up. Originally, it called for walnuts; but, when I can find them (afford them!), I do love black walnuts and what they add to any apple recipe.

I avoid cakes made with copious amounts of oils. Seed oils, in case you haven't heard, are bad for you. Very bad. They are greasy and you can often feel it on your tongue. Instead, I half the oil with melted butter. And be sure your oil is fresh, not on the verge of going rancid.

This is a dense cake that reminds me of autumn bark on oak trees. The corners and end pieces are almost like brownies. But that's what I love about it. And the pure, clean layer of apples on the bottom. I rarely frost this ... a light coating of powdered sugar will do. Melty vanilla ice cream is good, too ... or a nice English custardy sauce. I could also see a cinnamon or maple-glaze frosting.

I usually half this. Store leftovers, covered, in fridge, and bring to room temp before devouring ... or nuke a bit to have with your morning cuppa ... People say it freezes well.

The original recipe calls for two cups of sugar, but many find that too sweet and use 1.5 cups. I stick with two cups for that "brownie" effect.

  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil (I use 1/2 cup melted butter and 1/2 cup oil)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon (I use apple pie spice)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I like the combo of 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond extract. You do you.)
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional. I like black walnuts
  • 4 cups peeled, thinly sliced apples (about 5 medium)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter or spray a 9 x13-inch pan or dish. If making half a recipe, use a 6 x10 or 8 x 8 pan or dish. I prefer glass/pottery.

Spread apples neatly and evenly in rows over the bottom of the pan.

Beat eggs until thick and light. Combine sugar and oil or oil-butter mixture and add to eggs. Beat in just until combined.

Stir together flour, cinnamon or apple-pie spice, soda and salt. Add to egg mixture and beat in. Add vanilla.

If using, stir in nuts.

Please note: batter will be very thick!

Dollop spoonfuls of batter over apples and, using an off-set spatula or butter knife,  carefully spread to create an even surface, being careful not to disturb the apple layer.

Bake for one hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

If desired, frost with icing of your choice. I think it's just fine plain with a sifting of confectioner's sugar.