There is something quite magical about cornbread. The golden quick bread is incredibly simple to make and at its most basic form, takes very few ingredients to come together. In fact, it’s quite plain. But when you slice into it, fresh from the oven, with tendrils of steam wisping and twirling their way off the top and place a bit of butter on top that slowly melts into the bread, sliding down the surface, a comforting warmth grows inside. Drizzle honey on top to sweeten it up. Or maybe a sprinkle of flaked sea salt and cracked black pepper for a more savory version. A coating of jam also goes incredibly well on this plain, simple baked good. And you know what? Why stop there. Go ahead and serve it alongside a bowl of chili and make a comforting dinner even more comforting! In just about ten minutes of work, you can relax and a short while later you’ve got an incredibly versatile base for just about anything. That’s why cornbread is magical.
I don’t view cornbread as a summer treat. It involves turning the oven on. And even though it’s fairly light, it’s not quite light enough to be considered a summer breakfast staple for me. But I believe the real reason it feels more fall-ish for me are all the autumn seasons taking a trip up to pick some apples with my family. Flannel shirts, jeans, a crisp autumn day with the bright sun high in the sky, a light breeze every now and then rustling the leaves and letting them slowly drift to the ground. The crunch of the leaves as you walked through them. Going out and running around the orchard and filling up baskets full of apples. As we’d pay for all the apples collected, you could watch them make apple cider in the mill. I remember my mom would also grab a bag of the homemade cornmeal they made. The next morning, I’d wake up, just in time for the cornbread to come out of the oven.
She didn’t use cast iron. Just a plain ol’ glass pyrex baking dish. Greased with Pam and filled with the batter. Off it would go into the oven as a cool molten mass and then out it would come, a mounded yellow cake. I couldn’t wait to cut into it, slice a piece in half and drop some butter on top and then pop it into the microwave. It would come out, even hotter with a puddle of butter on top, slowly seeping into every nook and cranny of the cornbread. Slightly sweet, slightly salty and deliciously buttery, cornbread was (and is) heaven. A perfect treat on a cold morning.
I still treat cornbread like it’s a special event, even though, more often than not, I have most of the ingredients on hand and could whip it up just about whenever. However, I don’t want to make it every week and I don’t want to get tired of it (although, I think that would be pretty hard to accomplish). Even if it is ridiculously easy to make: no need for a mixer; it’s easy enough to make in just two bowls and just one stirring implement; it’s quiet and quick and soon enough you have breakfast…or lunch…or a snack…or the perfect friend for chili.
But me being me, I couldn’t resist trying to come up with my own version. Whenever I get the urge to make cornbread, I usually find a different recipe. One day it will be from Ina Garten, another it will be from a random baking book. I’ll make that one with a few tweaks and call it day. But I don’t have a standby. And so I wanted to try making a great base recipe for cornbread. One I could later add jalapeños and cheddar to. Or maybe sweeten it up a bit more for muffins. So I combined everything I learned from all the cornbread I’ve made and eaten and hobbled together a recipe.
First off, I should state how there is a difference in cornbread throughout the United States. The cornbread we make in New England is quite different from the cornbread you’d find down south. This recipe is based off of my memories and what I really consider to be cornbread…so it’s a bit sweeter and baked in a baking dish, not a hot cast iron skillet.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand (well, there are many things) it’s dry cornbread. You need to think of cornmeal like it’s grits. All the moisture has been taken out of it. So when you go and add in the wet ingredients, it starts to soak it all up. So when it goes into the oven, the cornmeal is still absorbing all that liquid into it and never fully rehydrates by the time the bread is done. When you combine the dry and wet ingredients together and let them sit for a half hour, the cornmeal is fully rehydrated. Sure, it adds an extra half hour of waiting time, but you can do whatever you want for a half hour. Then it goes into the oven and you’ve got another free half hour to do whatever you want. You can get everything mixed together in 10 minutes. So, when you think about it, you’re basically doing nothing.
To help combat dry cornbread, another trick is using buttermilk. The wondrous byproduct of butter. Buttermilk has a way of keeping food moist. Think of buttermilk fried chicken or buttermilk biscuits. They’re delicious and moist. One last tip I’ve picked up, is that, while butter is delicious, it doesn’t keep food as moist once it’s baked in. But oil does. So I like to go half and half when it comes to the two. So there’s both butter AND canola oil in this recipe. Butter for the flavor, canola for the moistness.
Since cornbread has corn in the name, I always think it’s great for corn to actually be in cornbread. I’ve tried adding in fresh corn, frozen corn and cooked corn. But then I finally realized that adding in creamed corn was the way to go. Slightly sweet corn that’s nice and creamy and moist will just make the bread even better. And of course, for richness and tang, instead of sour cream, I opt for mayonnaise.
So now, go and make some delicious and moist cornbread in 10 minutes and relax with a cup of coffee for an hour.