Last week I expounded upon Chili & Beans in the article and recipe, and I did mention that it should be eaten with Corn Bread, so I couldn’t help but follow up this week with a Corn Bread recipe. After all, few things are as American as Apple Pie, but cornbread is one! As usual, I uncovered some interesting facts in my research, some I was familiar with, and some were new to me. Apparently, there are two distinct kinds of corn bread found here in the United States — Northern and Southern. Northerners prefer sweeter, lighter and thicker, golden-colored cornbread. Southerners like theirs crumbly, dry, flat, and a mere fraction above one inch in height. However, all seem to agree that nothing complements chili and beans more than freshly baked cornbread.
Corn would not exist if the people living in central Mexico 10,000 years ago hadn’t developed it from a wild grass known as teosinte. Today’s corn is totally dependent on man for its propagation. It cannot reseed itself, which means those who traded corn needed to explain its cultivation. It spread throughout South America and finally reached the eastern woodlands of North America. Most certainly, it was on the menu of the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving. The original recipe for cornbread was learned from Indians who resided near the English’s southern colonies — particularly from the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek.
How Indians were able to bake corn bread was remarkable. Supposedly, some had clay ovens. Others may have baked it in hot ashes, which early settlers called ash-cake. Indians had neither milk nor eggs which could cause one to wonder what constituted their recipes. It took another 200 years before a leavening agent (pearl ash) was used to create a corn bread that we would recognize. In 1796, Amelia Simmons, an orphan, and a woman of modest means, authored American Cookery. It had recipes for using corn in several dishes, including a “Hoe Cake” and “Indian Slapjacks” – it isstill in print.
Cook’s Illustrated stresses that the difference in the Northern and Southern style of corn bread began with milling. Stoneground cornmeal produced a textured cornbread thought to be more interesting and tastier. However, its higher moisture content permitted it to go rancid if not tightly kept in a moisture-proof container — a problem that occurred when whole grain cornmeal was used. Meanwhile, it appears that white cornmeal was supposedly the choice for Southern-style cornbread. Only trace amounts of flour and sugar were typically included. In recipes, buttermilk moistened, bacon drippings enriched, and a combination of baking powder and soda gave lift. Typically, classic Southern cornbread batter was believed best when poured into a scorching hot, greased cast iron skillet. This developed a thin, bitter, crisp crust as it baked.
The proponents of Northern-style corn bread generally call for equal amounts of flour and cornmeal. Some Yankee experts, finding their cornbread lacking in “real corn flavor,” have resorted to adding finely ground, fresh corn kernels. But the main difference appears to be the predominance of all-purpose flour causing Northern cornbread to be sweeter. All these recipes called for yellow stone-ground cornmeal and an equal amount of all-purpose flour. An article from Cook’s Illustrated September-October 1995 boldly claims Northern Cornbread the best stating, “Southerners use 100 percent white cornmeal, and like it crumbly, dry, and flat—about one inch thick.” I never measured the height of my Mom’s, but then it probably wasn’t meant necessarily to be high, sweet, and fluffy. A more recent article entitled Fresh Corn Cornbread in Cook’s Illustrated, July-August 2013, insists cornbread recipes should include fresh kernels cut from the cob. All that is very nice, and the equal amounts of flour and corn meal is what causes Northern Cornbread to stand taller.
Generally, the 1st edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book verifies this procedure, but gives no hint to the color or type of the cornmeal. The last 12th edition, however, specifically noted the use of yellow cornmeal. So does Gillespie County Cooks, a small cookbook published by the Gillespie County Extension Association, and a recipe submitted by Betty Stroeher Olfers in the 175th Anniversary Fredericksburg Heritage Cookbook concurs. So, why was no white cornmeal used?
Not one of my Texas cookbooks had recipes using fresh corn or white corn meal. This leads me to conclude that Texans, like Yankees, prefer yellow corn meal — the rest of the southern states apparently do prefer white cornmeal.
Texas Style Cornbread
2 cups sifted yellow cornmeal
½ cup flour
2 cups sour milk or buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tsp soda
Mix cornmeal and flour, add milk, butter, sugar, salt, the beaten eggs, and lastly, the soda dissolved in the sour milk. Beat thoroughly and bake in a square pan, Pyrex pie plate, or even a well-seasoned iron skillet at 400ºF.
Cast Iron Skillet Corn Bread
1 ¼ cup yellow cornmeal
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1/3 cup whole milk
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
8 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 425º F and place a 9-inch cast iron skillet inside to heat.
In a large bowl, whisk cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda.
Whisk in milk, buttermilk, and eggs.
Whisk in in all but 1 tbsp of the melted butter.
Reduce oven temperature to 375ºF as one removes the skillet.
Coat the bottom and side with the remaining butter.
Pour batter into skillet.
Return skillet to middle rack of the oven.
Bake approximately 20-25 minutes.
Test with a toothpick at its center.
Allow to cool 10 -15 minutes before serving.