Being of southern heritage, I have a great fondness for cornbread. Although I fancy myself an urbane sophisticate, I even like grits. And black-eyed peas. And collard greens, too.
Thanks to the patient tutelage of my mother, Kathleen Campbell, I’ve long been able to cook most southern delicacies. I’ve even learned to fix them without fatback for the low-cholesterol ’90s, just in case Covert Bailey ever happens to drop by.
A Snack for Hard Times
When my mother was a kid, during the Great Depression (yes, they had that in Alabama, too), cornbread was a snack, she told me. I think she used to tell my sisters and me this to get us not to eat so many candy bars and drink so many Cokes. She said she just couldn’t wait to come home from school in the afternoons and pour herself a tall glass of buttermilk and then dip a piece of cornbread in it. And then eat it! (I’ve even heard that some people put black-eyed peas, onions, and turnip greens down in a glass of buttermilk and stir up this noxious concoction before adding cornbread!)
As much as I love cornbread, I would just as soon eat boiled okra for a snack as to have anything involving buttermilk in its raw state. It tastes something like yogurt and vinegar mixed up.
Food of Princesses
But consumed as it was meant to be–piping hot and moist, buttered and slightly crispy–cornbread is the perfect complement to any meal. I can just imagine Princess Di in happer times at the table with Charles, Elizabeth, Philip, and the rest of the gang, saying, “This pâté de foie gras simply cries out for cornbread! Haven’t we any?”
Until recently–even though I had many times experienced the sheer culinary ecstasy of lightly browned, thick-crumbed, golden cornbread–I had never been able to successfully cook it myself. It would always turn out nicely crusted on the outside but soggy on the inside. After several failed experiments, I finally just assumed that the making of perfect cornbread was an art I was never to master. I just hadn’t inherited the Cornbread Gene.
But when I was back home in Alabama for Christmas this past year, my mother made us all a couple of batches of cornbread so fantastic that I just had to ask her to impart the secrets of this manna. Others have overcome more serious disabilities. Perhaps I could learn from her and thus no longer be cornbread-challenged.
“Sure,” she said. “There’s nothing to it.”
Right. Like there’s nothing to hang gliding, or correctly setting the timer on the VCR.
The rest of the time I was at my parents’ house, I kept forgetting to get her to write it down for me. When I got back to Atlanta, the weather turned cold, and with a big pot of lentil soup in the offing, I had to give cornbread another chance.
The Secret Is Revealed
I called my mother up, and she gave me the recipe over the phone.
I tried it.
You’re not going to believe this, but it turned out perfectly the first time!
Well, almost. But compared to my earlier pitiful flops, this seemed like perfection to me. It had a lovely crust, although a couple of shades too dark perhaps, with a finely pocked surface–the classic cornbread texture. It crumbled nicely, it was a lovely yellow on the inside, and it tasted…well, not too bad.
The problem was that I had been hoarding a limp bag of corn meal in the refrigerator for about two years, hoping that some divine force would smite me like a thunderbolt, rendering me suddenly and miraculously capable of cooking perfect cornbread. Until then, the bag would sit near the back of the second shelf.
So actually to call my first almost-perfect batch of cornbread “not too bad,” would be a bit charitable. It was tolerable, but certainly not good. I learned a valuable lesson that day:
Stale corn meal doth not a perfect cornbread make.
I’ve made cornbread two or three times since then, and each time it’s gotten a little better. I know I’ll never be able to make it as well as my mother. But at least, in my little kitchen, I can now make cornbread that does melt in one’s mouth.
Buttermilk Cornbread Recipe
You’re going to be making this in a cast-iron skillet, so if all you have is one of those wimpy frying pans with a wooden or plastic handle, you’ve got to make a trip to the store.
Where can you find a good cast-iron skillet? According to alert reader Mike Moore of Delray Beach, Florida, you can buy one from any Ace Hardware store or Lechters’s Kitchen Store. I guess you might find one somewhere else as well, like an enlightened kitchen equipment store (if they can carry devices to pit cherries and seed cucumbers, surely they can stock something as basic and necessary as a cast-iron skillet!).
If you’re really getting into this, you’ll want to check out my basic information on the care and feeding of skillets.
But wait a minute–we were about to fix some cornbread, weren’t we? Okay, I’m going to give you proportions for two basic kinds of skillets:
- 9-inch divided skillet
- Big skillet (mine is 10 inches across and about 2 inches deep)
You might also be able to get your hands on a corn-stick pan–one of those little things that has a row of half-cylinders, possibly even shaped like corn ears. Those are not only cute, but they also have the practical advantage of providing more crust in each bite. Yum! If you have one of those, use the proportions listed for the 9-inch skillet.
9-inch Divided Skillet, or Corn-Stick Pan
1/2 egg 9/10 cup buttermilk 2 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil *1 scant cup self-rising cornmeal mix 1/2 tsp. salt (optional)
1 egg 1 4/5 cups buttermilk 4 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil *2 scant cups self-rising cornmeal mix 1 tsp. salt (optional)
*If you don't have self-rising cornmeal, you can use regular cornmeal plus 1/2 tsp. baking soda and 1 tsp. baking powder (double those amounts if you're making the Big Skillet quantity).
- Pre-heat the oven to 500 degrees.
- Beat the egg in a medium- to large-sized bowl.
- Add the buttermilk and oil. Mix.
- Add salt (optional, and not at all necessary).
- Gradually add the cornmeal, and stir just until blended.
- Coat the inside of the skillet with about 1 tbsp. of oil. Heat it on an eye of the stove until it smokes. By now the oven should be good and hot, too.
- Pour the batter into the skillet. It will give off a satisfying sizzle.
- Put the skillet into the oven. (This is why you can’t use one with a plastic or wooden handle.)
- Check on the cornbread after about 15 minutes, and keep looking at it every minute or two. Opening the oven door lets out a lot of the heat really fast, so just look through the glass window if your oven door has one; if it’s old and dingy like mine, use a flashlight.
When it’s done the cornbread should be a lovely golden brown, and a knife inserted in it should come out clean. It should take 20 minutes at the most.
How To Consume Cornbread
Serve hot. Slather with butter or margarine. Best served with southern “soul food,” pot likker, vegetables, or soup.
How To Consume Cornbread (Alternate)
Pour yourself a tall glass of buttermilk, dip the cornbread in, take a bite, and…gag!
Still Haven’t Had Enough?
My mother’s is the only cornbread recipe you’ll ever really need, but if you’re compelled to try some other ones, check out these links:
- Index of /recipes/cornbreads (FATFREE: The Low Fat Vegetarian Archive)
- Cornbread Recipes from Veggies Unite! (“Your On-Line Guide to Vegetarianism”)
- Cornbread Recipes from Recipe Source
- Cornbread Recipes from About.com
- Even Martha Stewart has a cornbread recipe (Caution, she adds sugar! I suggest you leave it out.)
Originally published in 1999 (personal site)