"Everyone at least agrees that the best cornbread is made at home" Felicity Cloake
"all cornbread is authentic, as long as it's good, hot, and made with love and fresh ingredients." Jeremy Jackson
So speaks a man who wrote a whole book about cornbread - The Cornbread Book: a Love Story with Recipes. But I was confused. However, having now read through many recipes for cornbread, I think I have, at least more or less, sorted out the key differences as well as a bit of the history.
Why am I talking about cornbread? Well we have friends coming for lunch on Saturday and I have started browsing the cookbooks for ideas and inspiration, and during my browsing I came across a recipe from Ixta Belfrage's wonderful book Mezcla called Brown butter curried cornbread - a completely inauthentic recipe which looks completely delicious - this is it. And it must be because several internet cooks have had a go, including the Culinary Cartel whose photograph is above and who have reproduced the recipe. The writer describes it as: a wild fusion of flavours unlike any I’ve had before!" The picture below is of the whole thing. So shiny and gorgeously tempting looking. Happy. And completely inauthentic - curry powder is not a native American ingredient. However, it didn't really fit into my ideas about what I shall cook - (not set in concrete as yet, but getting there). So I thought it might go with the freezer rescue soup we are having for dinner tonight, but David is making his delicious sourdough bread, and so it really will have to wait for another occasion. Maybe good enough to be worth inventing another occasion for it. A barbecue with the family perhaps?
Anyway with a head full of cornbread and a vow to return to talking about actual food on this foodie blog, I thought I might as well 'do' cornbread.
I should make clear perhaps that I am not talking about tortillas and other kinds of flatbreads here, what I am talking about is in some ways more like a savoury cake than a bread - a kind of damper, soda bread, scone - call it what you will.
The 'bread' in cornbread is a wonderful euphemism for 'cake'" Yotam Ottolenghi
The native Americans, of course, had been using maize for centuries to make various bread like things. They made flour by grinding dried corn kernels to varying consistencies and then made a range of bread and pastry like items. It should also be noted that there are hundreds of varieties of corn in America. At least there were back in 1964 when my American Heritage Cookbook was published. It would be interesting to know whether all of those varieties still exist or if growing maize is, like so many other grains and plants, now a monoculture. Or maybe it's now becoming trendy and all sorts of new varieties are appearing. My American Heritage Cookbook mentions a few of the 'hundreds' which are roughly grouped into five 'families' - flint, dent, soft, sweet and popcorn. In the north it's mostly flint (white) and in the south - dent (yellow). Which leads to the authors of the book saying:
"This difference in northern and southern corn, has of course, always made a difference in northern and southern corn breads - it would be inexcusable to make Spoon Bread with northern flint corn."
They then give recipes for a whole host of different kinds of cornbread - Pone, Corn sticks, Hoecake, Spoon bread, Hominy bread, Cracklin' bread Corncake and Johnnycakes. Bert Greene in his Grains Cookbook also has a heap of different recipes from here there and everywhere in America. None of these use the corn kernels, whether frozen, fresh, canned or creamed - just various kinds of corn flour - or corn meal and he only has one more cake version in Greene on Greens. We mostly don't have cornmeal here. We have polenta, which is similar but not the same. Well polenta is not a flour anyway - it's a dish as everyone seems keen to remind you. There are also various degrees of coarseness to polenta as well - which I shall come to.
The other main difference between north and south is sweetness, which is partly down to the kind of maize and partly down to whether you add sugar or not. Sweet in the north, not in the south.
As you know by now I am not a purist, but of course there are lots of them out there when it comes to cornbread, but fewer outside of America than here. Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats, is one of those who bang on about the best ingredients,
"I highly recommend you also seek out the best stone-ground cornmeal you can, whether by ordering online or seeking out a local mill. That's because, based on my rounds of testing, the cornmeal itself has the single biggest impact on the final cornbread."
A local mill! But he is not alone:
“the main key to a quality southern cornbread is to use as coarse a cornmeal as you can find” Chowhound
"avoid any sort of instant polenta." Felicity Cloake
The Australians join in with exhortations to only buy at health food shops. On the other hand you have those who almost say that anything goes:
"Bread is whatever starchy stalwart you turn to when your belly needs filling and your stew, sauce or soup needs bolstering and mopping. It doesn't matter what grain it's made from, or by which method it's held together in the heat – it's still cornerstone stuff." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Felicity Cloake takes you through all the major alternatives, culminating in her idea of perfection, as shown here. And one point she makes is that it may well be that in the north of America they make cornbread with white cornmeal, if you can't get it - as in the UK - and here as well I think - not easily anyway, then the only choice is polenta - yellow corn.
I also have to say that the trendies - Ottolenghi et al. and the magazine type sites, don't seem to get quite as carried away with what kind of flour you use, or indeed what kind of corn kernels - if you use corn kernels - fresh, frozen, canned or creamed. The only comment I found was from Nagi Maehashi of Recipe Tin Eats, (this is her version) who said:
"Canned creamed corn is the key ingredient here. Ordinary canned corn kernels won’t work"
Well what can I say when a whole host of other cooks both with high reputations and without, use every kind of corn kernel (or not)?
So what did I find.? Well a range I suppose with more or less ingredients, cooked in a skillet on the stove top or baked in the oven. Mostly, I do have to say, in a skillet on the stove top. Do we use the word skillet? Don't we mean a frying pan? A cast iron one seems to be the thing if you have it, with some finishing in the oven, some not.
Having said that there was a range of options I suppose the additions tended to fall into a small group - chilli and bacon - which comes from some American recipes cooking in lard or bacon fat. Then there's occasionally pumpkin, or cheese, or onion and that's about it usually. Although there was this Orange and cranberry cornbread by Joshua Bousel of Serious Eats, which is almost dessert, although he used fresh cranberries which we cannot get here, and supposedly these are bitter. He had a whole lot of other options too. Walnuts I seem to remember featured in one of them.
There were a whole range of recipes for the plain variety that was made purely with the flour and no corn kernels or anything extra, but the ones I'm showing here are the ones, to which I confess, I am most attracted. Those with things in them: Bacon and cheese skillet cornbread from Taste - which has several recipes from here and there including Chilli cornbread from Coles, who also have other options. delicious. in the person of their food editor Charlotte Bins-McDonald has Roast chilli and pumpkin cornbread and in the UK there are: Chilli cornbread with broccoli/Thomasina Miers and two from Ottolenghi who seems to be a bit of a fan - Cornbread with cheddar, feta and jalapeno and Honey and yoghurt cornbread.
I checked all my favourite cooks, and websites, and whilst there were indeed many others, I think the group here is pretty representative of what is on offer and how to do it. I think it's one of those things, that once you've mastered the basic method and mix you can play with to add what you like.
Did I say there's a tendency to drizzle with honey or maple syrup as well? Maybe that crispy chilli oil would be a good idea.