After my last post a few weeks ago, we joked in comments about the passing around of cornbread and how I might write a recipe in my next post. Even though I don’t have an extra special cornbread recipe, I have certainly cooked enough of it and eaten enough of it to share a few things about it.
The most basic of cornbread recipes is simply corn meal, salt, and water. After scrambled eggs, this is probably the first thing I learned to cook myself. We mixed this together to a lumpy pancake batter consistency and fried it, like pancakes, on top of the stove. Even when times were very lean, we always had cornmeal which meant we always had something to eat. I remember many very filling meals of cornbread served along side dried beans cooked with salt pork. Even today, this meal could be had for pennies per serving.
I use the same basic recipe for plain cornbread that I think most people use, whether they measure or not. If you find yourself in a pinch without a recipe, the one printed on the bag of corn meal will serve you very well. I use the following:
¼ cup of oil (vegetable oil, shortening, lard, or bacon fat)
2 cups of self rising corn meal mix (corn meal mix is different from plain corn meal!)
1 egg, slightly beaten
½ to ¾ cup of milk (some people like buttermilk, but I don’t)
Mix all together, pour into a greased 8 or 9 inch pan and bake at 400 for about half an hour.
To get it just right, it’s best to do it like this:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Get your iron skillet and place it on the stove on low heat. Scoop out a big, heaping tablespoon of lard and put it in the hot skillet. While the lard melts, dump two cups of corn meal mix into a bowl. Break an egg into the bowl and stir the egg, by itself, until it’s lightly beaten. Add half a cup of milk. By this time, your lard should have melted in the pan. Pour the melted oil into your bowl and place the skillet back on the stove.
Pinch up a teaspoon or so of dry cornmeal mix (from the bowl or the bag) and sprinkle it around in the hot iron skillet. Let it brown a bit while you stir your cornbread batter. The batter should be somewhat lumpy and runny. You can add a little more milk if it seems too dry. It should be somewhere between pancake batter and cake batter. Either way, you’re committed by this point, so just pour the batter right into the hot skillet!
Move the skillet to your preheated oven and bake for 25 or 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. My grandmother’s official test for doneness was to pull the skillet out of the oven, press the top of the bread down gingerly with her hand, and if it sprung back, it was done. Then, she moved it to the broiler for a little additional browning on top.
For a nice crusty bread, I can’t recommend anything over a heavy iron skillet. I have just recently inherited one of the skillets my late grandmother used to make cornbread 30 years ago. You can see the knife marks where the bread was cut into squares. This significance of a square pan is that you get 4 corner pieces—each of which has two crusty sides. My cousins and I would race to get the corner pieces!
Besides being so inexpensive, another great quality of cornbread is its versatility. Aside from eating it as the bread part of a meal, it is also delicious crumbled hot or cold, with milk poured over it as a cereal. It can be split into two pieces (like slices of bread) and dressed with mayo and thick slices of ham or bacon—a great breakfast on the go for us country types. It can be spread with butter and topped with jelly, honey, or oh-my-goodness thick chunks of pear preserves! It can also be crumbled into soups, stews, or chili.
It’s not surprising that cornbread is common wherever in the world corn can be grown. It can make a meal all by itself.