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A Proper Pan of Cornbread
Although we modern folk are in many respects divorced from the constraints
imposed by Mother Nature upon our food sources, it was not so with our
ancestors. Climate shaped culture, food in particular. In the American
South, for example, the weather is too warm and humid for raising the hard
winter wheat used for yeast bread and pasta. Instead, soft summer wheat is
milled into fine, fluffy flour for “short” baked goods, such as piecrust,
dumplings and biscuits.
Corn, on the other hand, thrives in heat. In fact, time to maturity in corn
has to do not so much with the number of days the plant spendsgrowing, but
rather the number of days when the temperature rises above a certain point
early and remains there for most of the day. As a result, we eat a lot of
cornbread down here. Besides the relative cheapness and abundance of corn
(the same type of corn that’s made into cornmeal is used for animal feed) in
comparison to wheat flour, a proper pan of cornbread can be whipped up in less
than an hour while a loaf of bread, of course, takes much longer. Since, in
days gone by, the term “housewife” included such duties as splitting firewood
and milking in addition to cooking, time was of the essence. (How little that
part has changed!)
No doubt there are as many cornbread recipes as there are grandmothers in
Tennessee, and endless discussion about the ratio of cornmeal to wheat flour,
stone ground versus machine ground, and so forth. These same grandmothers
will then excuse themselves, insist on being left alone in the kitchen, and
secretly use their favorite brand of cornbread mix off the grocery shelf.
Only in this way can one be certain of a consistent result. If you cannot
find a Southern-style cornbread mix in your area, try shopping when you
travel. The mix will keep several months and may be frozen.
I have access to two local brands, and usually choose “Three Rivers,” so named
because the Holston and French Broad Rivers come together to form the
Tennessee just east of our town.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Set a heavy 10 - 12 inch cast iron skillet,
well seasoned if possible, on a stove eye. Dribble about 2 tablespoons
vegetable oil in the skillet, turning to coat the bottom evenly. In a large
mixing bowl, place one pound cornbread mix. In another bowl, combine 2 large
eggs, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and 3/4 cup milk, mixing well. When the
oven is ready, turn on the heat under the skillet, or place it in the oven.
The secret to a brown, crunchy crust on the cornbread is a hot, well-oiled
skillet. While the skillet heats, make a well in the center of the cornbread
mix, dump in the liquids, and stir with a wire whisk or fork until just
combined. If the batter is not pourable, add milk by dribbles until it is.
When the oil in the skillet is almost smoking, pour in the batter in a steady
stream, scraping out the bowl well. Carefully return the skillet to the oven
and bake the cornbread until the top is golden, about 20 - 25 minutes. Remove
from the oven and cool before cutting into pie wedges.
Cornbread needs nothing more than butter to make a delightful meal with a
glass of milk. The traditional way to enjoy cornbread in Tennesse is with a
pot of beans or greens. It also goes well with barbecue and seafoods.
For hush puppies, the batter is left dry enough to hold its shape in a spoon,
and is deep fried in vegetable oil at 350 degrees until golden.
A leftover cornbread wedge can be sliced in half to form two triangles, and
then browned in butter on the cut side to create a delicious crouton. Topped
with, say, crawfish hash and a poached egg, you have a hearty lunch.
Leftovers can also be frozen for use in making cornbread dressing to accompany
roast pork or poultry.
One more thing: I know your grandmother did not make cornbread this way.
Neither did mine, or so she said.
John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to
develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local
market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he
holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. Now a
full-time freelance writer and author of six books, Tullock also co-owns
"Gardener and Gourmet," a retail business that specializes in rare plants
and fine food products.
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