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Cornbread Carries The (Election) Day(And Night)

Some people may assume I love cornbread. I co-host a weekly community potluck called Cornbread Supper (you're invited.)

Part of the Cornbread Supper community, November 7, 2016.

I co-host a weekly community radio radio show called Hot Water Cornbread: Kentucky Food Radio.  (You can listen any time to past shows here, or join us live—touch the "Listen Now" button—on Tuesdays at noon on Lexington Community Radio 93.9 WLXU LP FM.)

Co-hosts and guests at Hot Water Cornbread: Kentucky Food Radio, October 2015. From left, co-hosts Chris and Ouita Michel with their daughter (seated), Willa, and show guests Ashley Smith and Lacreesha Berry, co-host Rona Roberts.

Co-hosts and guests at Hot Water Cornbread: Kentucky Food Radio, October 2015. From left, co-hosts Chris and Ouita Michel with their daughter (seated), Willa, and show guests Ashley Smith and Lacreesha Berry, co-host Rona Roberts.

The truth is that I don't so much love cornbread as respect it. I'll share some of my reasons, and encourage you to make cornbread tonight. It will shore you up through the important, unpredictable election dramas ahead of us.

  • Cornbread is nonpartisan.
  • Cornbread stays within budget.
  • Cornbread sustains health and strength.
  • Cornbread flexes when necessary and stays crisp when it matters. (We're talking about the Big Tent of cornbread here, one that allows all regional and cultural variations at the table. Find just a few versions, in all their variety and glory, here.
  • Cornbread comes from around here. This can be true almost wherever you live, but is especially true in Kentucky when made with Weisenberger meal, JD Country Buttermilk, and your own backyard eggs.
  • Cornbread thinks long-term. Leftovers are just as good later if split and toasted, or—so I'm told, and so I have certainly observed countless times without ever being tempted—crumbled into a glass of sweet milk or buttermilk and eaten with a spoon for a classic simple supper.
  • Cornbread doesn't lollygag. Assemble it in less than 10 minutes, and be patient while it gets to maximum gold-brown crunch. Count on it coming to the table in less than one hour, start to finish, including washing the prep dishes.
  • Cornbread gracefully accepts new ideas. Add-ins from bacon to browned onions, or toppings from sweet sorghum syrup to serrano-laced salsa: yes.

Because I usually bake cornbread for the weekly Cornbread Suppers, I have had a chance to try different approaches to cornbread. In a trail of online recipes, the record shows my best thoughts at a given moment and then . . . my position evolves. The main plank in my cornbread platform is that Black Skillet Hot Water Cornbread (the kind with neither flour nor sugar) should marry an attention-getting crunchy crust with a tender, moist interior. I've worked out several ways to get more of what I want without compromising my principles.

The extra steps keep making the recipe longer, but the shortest version, with no extras, still works well: get your oven and skillet really hot, add a bit of oil or fat or bacon grease, stir all the ingredients together however you wish, pour into the skillet and bake until brown.

Here's the version that gets my votes right now. This recipe is also available at One Wonderful Hot Water Cornbread Recipe.

Yield: Serves 8–10 from one standard 9-inch black skillet

Ingredients
·       2 ½ cups unbolted white cornmeal; Weisenberger Mill meal is widely available
·       1 Tablespoon baking powder
·       Scant 1/2 teaspoon soda (a little less than the full 1/2 teaspoon measure)
·       1 teaspoon salt
·       2 cups whole milk buttermilk; JD Country Milk sells a fine Kentucky buttermilk
·       1 egg; from your backyard?
·       1/3 cup plus 1 Tablespoon browned butter, coconut oil or bacon fat (the extra tablespoon greases your skillet)
·       1/3 - 1/2 cup boiling water, or more

Optional Add-Ins
Coarsely ground black pepper, up to 1 Tablespoon, or other forms of peppery flavor (ground or crushed cayenne, of sliced jalapeños, for example) according to taste. Parmesan cheese. Cheddar cheese. Finely chopped or grated onion, shallots, scallions or chives.  Finely chopped browned bacon. 1 cup corn kernels. 1/2 cup cottage cheese. Some combination of the above. Experiment.

Steps

  1. Optional:  This is not necessary, but it's also not hard. "Sprout" or soak the 2.5 cups cornmeal in the 2 cups buttermilk for up to 24 hours before you begin. This means that at any point from the night before up to a few minutes before you make your batter, your cornbread benefits if you stir together just the cornmeal and the buttermilk and let the mixture stand before you add all the other ingredients. No literal sprouting occurs, but some biochemistry happens that makes your cornbread's interior more moist, particularly if you are using a coarse grind or "unbolted," which is highly recommended for crunch.
  2. Turn oven to 425.
  3. As oven begins to preheat, put fat (bacon fat, butter or coconut oil) in a 9" or 10" black cast iron skillet. Put the skilled in the oven to get hot-hot-hot. Special note about butter: if you encourage the milk solids in the butter to brown to the point of gold or even nut brown, your cornbread will have more flavor. Don't worry about having gone too far unless the butter positively stinks, in which case you must begin again. This cornbread is also delicious with simple melted (unbrowned) butter, and bacon fat is amazing.
  4. Set the water to boil.
  5. In a large, heat-proof bowl, mix all ingredients except water, which means getting the hot melted fat from the oven and adding it to the bowl, too. Put up to a tablespoon fat back in the skillet to help prevent sticking and add to the crunch of the crust. [At this point I borrow from sister Paula and do a small thing that is not necessary but can boost crunchiness: add up to a tablespoon of fat back into the skillet, and then sprinkle about 1 Tablespoon cornmeal across the bottom of the skillet. Set the skillet back into the oven to keep it blazing hot, or set it on a medium hot burner for a minute.]
  6. Stir or whisk the ingredients until nearly smooth, maybe 15 strokes. Cornbread batter does not require much beyond a thorough stir.
  7. Pour boiling water over the top of the batter, a little at a time, and stir, stir, stir. Stop adding water when the batter is like very thick paint or melty soft-serve ice cream. It can be thinner than you think.
  8. Remove the skillet from the oven and pour in batter, carefully.
  9. Bake until nicely brown and crusty. Times and ovens vary. It will take at least 15 minutes and up to 30. Err toward browner (longer cooking) for best texture and taste.
  10. Carefully, with thick potholders, remove pans from the oven and either upend the cornbread onto a platter or a rack.
  11. Eat immediately with butter or flavored butters. Use Kentucky sorghum too. Or Kentucky maple syrup or honey.

Notes:

Cornsticks or Muffins: You can use cast iron cornstick or muffin pans instead of the single skillet. You may find it easier to melt the fat in a separate small pan instead of using the depressions in these pans, but do put some fat in each depression to help with crunch and release. For crispy cornsticks, the batter works better if it is a bit thinner (from hot water) and fatter (from bacon grease or other fat) than these proportions. But nothing matters as much as having the pans or skillets blazing hot and amply greased before you add the batter. Note that cast iron corn muffin pans bear little resemblance to the deep, cupcake-shaped muffin pans you may already own.

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