Page 251

Your attention, please, for a very important announcement: Molly Wizenberg. A Homemade Life. Page 251.

If you’re checking in here early enough this morning, you now know what you’re having for Sunday brunch. It’s called custard-filled corn bread, it is the oddest, most wonderful thing, and it looks like this:

To those of you who have a copy of Molly’s book on your shelves: That is all. You’re dismissed. Go on, now, into the kitchen! The rest of us will be along soon.

I arrived at this custard-filled corn bread en route to something else entirely, namely, baked oatmeal. Or, I should say, a vision of baked oatmeal – what it might be in the best of all possible worlds – that jolted me awake precisely two weeks, two days ago at 3:33am. I had never eaten baked oatmeal before, let alone prepared it, so in all likelihood, my expectations were wildly unfair, and perhaps even borderline delusional. I wanted something like a bowl of creamy oats, turned custardy in the oven, but only in places, oats that swelled and seethed – and partially set up? – beneath a crisp, nut-studded top layer. I’m not sure if oats even do that. Some people have imaginary friends. I, apparently, have imaginary breakfasts.

A couple of days later, I did it. I baked oatmeal. It was just okay. The specimen did, at least, have the crunchy outer crust I was after, but that’s about it. It wasn’t creamy enough. It certainly wasn’t custardy. I must have been fixating on this last part when I was discussing all of this with Molly, because after batting around a few potential tweaks and changes for my next attempt, she mentioned her custard-filled corn bread.

Custard-filled corn bread is also called spider cake, Molly told me. That sounded kind of creepy to me, so I decided to do some digging. I looked up “spider cake” in the Oxford English Dictionary to find that a spider cake (“spider-cake”) is a word of U.S. origin meaning “a cake cooked in a spider pan.” The entry offers up a line from the 1869 book, We Girls: a home story, by American writer Adeline Dutton Train Whitney. The quotation sounded so promising that I tracked it down in the book itself. I think you’ll understand why I can’t help sharing it with you in context:

Barbara got up some of her special cookery in these days. Not her very finest, out of Miss Leslie; she said that was too much like the fox and the crane, when Lucilla asked for the receipts. It wasn’t fair to give a taste of things that we ourselves could only have for very best, and send people home to wish for them. But she made some of her “griddles trimmed with lace,” as only Barbara’s griddles were trimmed; the brown lightness running out at the edges into crisp filigree. And another time it was the flaky spider-cake, turned just as it blushed golden-tawny over the coals; and then it was breakfast potato, beaten almost frothy with one white-of-egg, a pretty good bit of butter, a few spoonfuls of top-of-the-milk, and seasoned plentifully with salt, and delicately with pepper, - the oven doing the rest, and turning it into a snowy soufflé.

Barbara said we had none of us a specialty; she knew better; only hers was a very womanly and old-fashioned, not to say kitcheny one; and would be quite at a discount when the grand co-operative kitchens should come into play; for who cares to put one’s genius into the universal and indiscriminate mouth, or make potato-soufflés to be carried half a mile to the table? (Pages 79 and 80 of the 1871 edition.)

M. F. K. Fisher, eat your heart out!

But back to our custard-filled corn bread, “a cake cooked in a spider pan,” which, according to another dictionary entry, is “a kind of frying-pan having legs and a long handle.” You can read about the history of the spider pan over here, or just click here for a picture of the thing, if you’d like. Whew. This spider cake business is quite the rabbit hole. I’d better get on with it. How about one more photo to fortify ourselves?

Our custard-filled corn bread, or spider cake, the one you’ll be eating in an hour or so, begins as a very loose, milky batter. I’ve poured pancakes from batter thicker than this. But fret not! That’s how it’s supposed to be. The magic – and it really does feel like magic – begins just before baking, when you transfer the batter to its warmed and buttered pan, measure out a cup of heavy cream, and pour it into the very center of the thing. I had envisioned the cream drifting out like a sheet over the batter, but instead, it disappears straightaway through a tiny belly button of a sinkhole. In the oven, the cream spreads and separates into a layer of silky custard just beneath the cake-like surface. And beneath that is corn bread. A moist, coarse-grained cornbread that is perfect in every way. It’s bread! It’s custard! It’s cake! It’s a little like cream of wheat, too, said Eli, after moaning Molly’s name in a way that some people might consider entirely inappropriate. (“Some people” have obviously never tasted Molly’s custard-filled corn bread.)

I haven’t made it yet to the perfect baked oatmeal, but as far as I’m concerned, this recipe is to baked oatmeal what Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon are to a cross-country drive from point A to point B. Custard-filled corn bread is a glorious detour, indeed. I’ve always preferred the scenic route.

Custard-Filled Corn Bread
Adapted from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg

Molly’s corn bread is inspired by a recipe from Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book. If you read Molly’s blog, Orangette, you already know that Ms. Wizenberg and Ms. Cunningham make quite the team. The one change that I would make to this recipe the next time around is to add more salt. I might even go so far as to double it. I plan on baking this corn bread again next Sunday for some out-of-town guests (Martha and Rich, if you’re reading this, brace yourselves!), so I’ll up the salt then and report back. For now, I’ve kept it at half-a-teaspoon, as printed. UPDATE: I have upped the salt in this recipe to 3/4 teaspoon. This corn bread is best enjoyed warm, preferably with maple syrup à la Molly’s husband, Brandon, a man who counts grades of syrup instead of sheep before drifting off to sleep.

3 Tbsps. unsalted butter
1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ c. yellow cornmeal, preferably medium ground
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
2 large eggs
3 Tbsps. sugar
¾ tsp. salt
2 c. whole milk (not low fat or nonfat)
1½ Tbsps. distilled vinegar
1 c. heavy cream
Pure maple syrup, for serving. (And perhaps some roasted rhubarb, too, my plan for next weekend.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square or 9-inch round pan (I used the latter), and put it into the oven to warm while you mix together the batter.

Melt the butter according to your preferred method. I like to do it on the stovetop over a gentle flame; Molly suggests melting it in the microwave (carefully, on medium power, so it doesn’t splatter) or in a heatproof bowl placed in the preheated oven.

Transfer the melted butter to a large mixing bowl. While it cools, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and baking soda in a small bowl. Set aside.

Whisk the eggs into the slightly cooled butter. Add the sugar, salt, milk, and vinegar, and whisk well. Then, while continuing to whisk, add the flour mixture. Whisk until the batter is quite smooth.

Remove the heated pan from the oven, and pour in the batter. Slowly pour the cream into the center of the batter. Do not stir. Carefully place the pan into the oven – don’t jostle it – and bake until golden brown on top, 50 minutes to 1 hour. I let the just-baked bread rest for 10-15 minutes so that the custard would have a chance to set up a little. Serve warm.

Molly notes that covered with plastic wrap, the bread will keep at room temperature for one day, and in the fridge for three. Brandon suggests reheating the leftovers in the toaster oven. Something about crispy edges. Good man.

Serves 6-8.


Sarah said...

This looks amazing! Alas, I'm too late to make it for brunch today and will probably have to wait for next weekend (somehow I feel like adding a cup of cream to a breakfast dish is only appropriate on the weekend).

Also here's a thought for your baked oatmeal (which sounds lovely): have you tried Kim Boyce's Oatmeal Pancakes from her book Good to the Grain (if you don't have the book I believe Smitten Kitchen has blogged about the recipe)? It does have the crunchy outer crust, a strong taste of oatmeal and, when I make them, a pretty creamy center. Just a thought if you want to turn it into a quickbread and maybe give it the heavy cream treatment. Or to partially satisfy your desires until you get your recipe figured out.

Rogue Unicorn said...

I have to concur with Sarah- I haven't made Kim's Oatmeal Pancakes, but I have made other recipes from Good to the Grain and am pretty much in love with the whole book. If anyone can get close to baked oatmeal it's Kim Boyce.
Also, I love it that the first place you went was the OED. The mark of a true humanities scholar. I also love it that you have imaginary breakfasts. Right now I have imaginary muffins.

linda said...

i truly enjoy your posts & this one is packed with such interesting & educational material…& such strong women!!

eager to bake this recipe…i have been baking sherry yard's honey corn bread for sometime…but, this custard filled corn bread is definitely calling my name.

molly said...

I cannot imagine what has possessed me not to make this, yet. I'm fairly certain I dog-eared the recipe, 3 days after publication.

Page 251, here I come...

Žiupsnelis Druskos said...

What a lovely lovely post! Your writing is simply magical.

As for the bread, just got added to the 'must bake' list. Looks delicious!

Rivka said...

Oh my oh my. Yes, I will just have to make this.

Sally said...

This looks absolutely AMAZING. I'm newly pregnant and craving carbs, so may have to make it this weekend...

Molly said...

Reading about the baked oatmeal conjured up images of girls in pinafores and boys in breeches. At least for me, anyways. Doesn't it sounds so old-fashioned in the most delightful way possible?

And anything that is described as "custard filled" conjures up an image of me holding a spoon, ready to dive head first into the pan. Can't wait to give this a shot.

Jess said...

I admire your restraint, Sarah! (Though, hmmm, does the fact that it takes only about 10 minutes to throw together make it enough of a weekday recipe to counter the weekend-y cream?...)

About the pancakes: Thank you so much for mentioning them. Good to the Grain has been on my list for a while, and I actually have no idea why I haven't snapped it up yet. With everything I've heard, it just seems wrong! I have a birthday coming up, so maybe I can drop a hint or two... I clicked over to Smitten Kitchen, and the pancakes look wonderful. I have a favorite oatmeal pancake recipe, too. Actually, like this corn bread, it's Molly's. You can find it here. What's nice about Molly's recipe is that you don't have to cook the oats first (instead, you let them soak overnight). There's only half-a-cup of flour in the whole thing, so they're wonderfully oat-y. And you know, I hadn't thought of it, but you're right! There is something a little creamy about them on the inside. I'll definitely keep all that I know and love about oatmeal pancakes in mind as I work on this baked oatmeal thing. In the meantime, I see some oatmeal pancakes in my very near future.

Hi, Tiki! Okay, that does it. I must get my hands on this book. And, ha! What can I say? My grad student stripes are showing. I have no shame: I love the OED. The end.

Thanks, Linda. I just looked up Sherry Yard's honey corn bread, and I'm going to have to give it a try. I haven't had much luck with traditional corn breads in the past, and I'd love to find one that really works. I take an endorsement from you quite seriously. Thanks for the tip!

Hi, Molly. You know, I've read Molly's book and cooked from it, too, but when she mentioned this recipe, I drew a blank. I had no memory of it whatsoever. Makes me wonder what other hidden jewels may be lurking in all of my favorite cookbooks, recipes that, for some reason, I've managed to miss.

You're so kind, Žiupsnelis Druskos. Thank you. Yes, yes, get this baby on your list at once! Zoom it to the very top, in fact! It's that kind of recipe.

You will love it, Rivka.

Oh, Sally, Congratulations!! What happy news! Thank you for sharing it here. I hope you're feeling well (and if you're not, that it passes soon enough), and that you're taking good care of yourself -- which, if you ask me, definitely includes treating yourself to this corn bread. And then a nap.

I know what you mean about the old-fashioned thing, Molly. And I know even more what you mean about custard-filled anythings demanding a spoon in hand at once!

Rosiecat said...

OK, Jess, this is my fear: that I will make custard-filled cornbread, fall in love with it, and want to eat it all the time. Oh, and I'll be forced to give up wearing pants to accommodate my new shape ;-) I had mentally bookmarked that recipe, but your photos are irresistible! Mmm.

Oh, and I have to comment on your fantasy oatmeal. I have a baked oatmeal recipe I like, but it's definitely not custardy, so I think I know what you mean about the difference between what you wanted and what you got. I wonder if you could take a cue from rice pudding and substitute oats for the rice, perhaps with a few adjustments on the amount of liquid. Rice pudding, when it's good, is SO creamy, and I bet an oatmeal version would be even better.

Good luck! If you need a taste-tester, I could be in Boston in a matter of hours. Hee hee!

Jess said...

I hear you, Rosiecat. As I mentioned, I'm going to make it again this weekend for a brunch I'm hosting, but then I think I'll have to cut myself off for a while! Thanks for your thoughts on the oatmeal. I'm beginning to think that what I want it to be is just not what it is. I think I need to shift my vision, maybe to a baked oatmeal that's at least as creamy as my favorite stove-top recipe, plus a nice, crisp top. Now that I have this corn bread recipe and know where to get my custard fix, I might be able to move on from the idea that baked oatmeal must be custardy, too.

claiborne said...

Until I saw your pictures I imagined spoon bread, which my southern nana used to bake - but this is a different beast entirely, and I'm fascinated by the layered effect here. Will have to give this one a go.

Charlotte au Chocolat said...

Hi! Have you tried Heidi's Baked Oatmeal from her latest cookbook? I haven't made it, so I can't attest to whether or not it fits your bill, but it does looks delicious. Lottie+Doof blogged about it a little while ago.

geraldine said...

Hi Jess, I found your blog through Orangette and now I'm addicted to both! I have a delicious recipe for baked oatmeal from Australian chef Bill Granger's latest book. Would you like me to email it to you? Hope you are enjoying your new apartment. Warmest wishes,
Geraldine (in Australia)

Jess said...

Hi, Claiborne. You're actually not that far off to think of spoon bread. As you can see, this bread stands up to slicing, and it's so beautiful with that layer of custard that I couldn't resist. It's definitely firmer than a traditional spoon bread. But it's also soft enough that I could see serving it with a spoon, especially if you dig in while it's hot.

I have, Charlotte au Chocolat. It's good! It's just different from what I had in mind. (Though, as I've noted, I may be chasing a mythical species of baked oatmeal that doesn't exist.) Heidi's is actually the recipe that I'm using as my starting point. I've been tweaking it to see if I can nudge it over into creamier, maybe even custardy, territory. (Heidi, if you're reading this, I hope you don't think I'm committing some kind of baked oatmeal sacrilege!)

Hello, Geraldine, and welcome! I'm glad you're here, and grateful to Molly for sending you my way. Yes, if you don't mind, I would love it if you could send me Bill Granger's recipe. We ate my latest attempt for breakfast this morning, and while it's coming along, I definitely need all the help I can get! My e-mail address is sweetamandine (at) gmail (dot) com. Thank you!

kickpleat said...

Thank you so much for posting this! It's a much needed jog to my memory and a bit of a slap because I should have made this ages ago. I do love baked oatmeal and while I'm not sure I'm a custard fan, I'm still curious and I love the layers here. Lovely.

Jess said...

Hi, kickpleat! I was just discussing this recipe with a friend who's not much of a custard enthusiast. She thinks that she might be able to handle this corn bread since the custard isn't one of those super eggy, pudding-y type custards. Maybe you, too?

Megan Gordon said...

Oh Jess...I can't help but think about topping it with roasted rhubarb in the spring and baked apples in the fall...like a few other folks who have commented above, I too dog-eared that page while reading Molly's book and never took the plunge. Thanks for the reminder (and glad you're slowly settling in!)

Molly said...

this.looks.so.good. xoxox

Jess said...

Megan, I made this again on Sunday and served it with roasted rhubarb, and YES, it was so, so good. Do it.

You will love it, Molly. I can't wait to make it for you. xo.

Stephanie said...

Did I just run to the store for corn meal? I might have. No, I won't leave you hanging...I actually did. And I'm making this today. You are so persuasive with your words and photos! Thanks for sharing and filling my Sunday morning with excitement!

Tracy said...

How did I miss this post? Goodness.

Jess said...

That's my kind of impulse buy, Stephanie! I hope that you and this corn bread got along swimmingly. I made another batch last weekend, which makes three Sundays in a row. It doesn't get old.

I don't know Tracy, but it's not too late! The weekend is upon us. Go forth and bake!

Francesca said...

You know, I've read A Homemade Life from beginning to end and back again, and somehow I missed this recipe, so merci! It shall be made forthwith!

Jess said...

You're very welcome, Francesca. This recipe must have been hiding among the pages, somehow, because I'd missed it, too!

Kimberly said...

This reads delicious, cannot wait to try it, so many recipes, never enough time. My blog partner has a baked oatmeal recipe that she is very fond of - http://flavorista.com/2011/02/16/baked-oatmeal/

Jess said...

Thanks for the oatmeal recipe, Kimberly. I'm still stuck on that one, and I appreciate all the help I can get!

Amanda Hawkins said...

Oh my, yes, this is the best thing anyone can make for breakfast. I actually served it for dinner this winter alongside a bowl of chili, but it was a bad idea...no one wanted any chili after tasting the custard glory that it is.

Oh, and Brandon is spot-on...toaster-ovened crispy edges are this breakfast delight's encore.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jess! First-time commenter here, wanting first to say I love your blog and thank you so much for all the wonderful recipes you share. Second, I want to ask, What did I do wrong?!! I tried this recipe this morning but it came out nothing like yours. The cream pooled in the middle, then some of it ran across the top of the batter so that when I put it into the oven, more than 2/3rds of the top was just pooled cream. Then, when I opened the oven after 50 min, at least 1/2 of that had spilled onto the floor of the oven! When it was done, none of the cream had spread; it was still just a creamy pool in the center of the batter. Delicious but no custardy innerds at all. Thoughts: overmixed batter so not porous enough for spread? Pan not hot enough when poured batter into it? Finally, didn't pour the cream on slowly enough, so it flowed across top instead of slowly seeping under the batter? Your thoughts would be much appreciated! Thanks, Cheryl

Jess said...

Hi, Cheryl. You're very kind to say such nice things about this site when this recipe failed you miserably! I'm so sorry about the cream on your oven floor. What a mess. So, let's try to figure this out... Do I understand you correctly that when you poured the cream, it didn't disappear into the center of the batter, but rested on top of it, instead? How strange. I wish I could tell you what went wrong, but I'm drawing a blank. Of the possibilities you raise, I would guess that pouring the cream more slowly the next time might help. (If there will be a next time!) It does make sense to me that any cream that remains on the surface of the bread would just become hot cream. Please let me know what happens if you try this recipe again. I'm so curious about what went wrong...

Anonymous said...

Jess, thank you so much for the fast reply! And yes, you understood me correctly. I'm thinking it was a combination of 1) the overmixing, rendering it not porous enough for the cream to get through, and 2) pouring it on too fast. I will definitely give it another go, as the flavor was very good even without the custardy center (my co-workers thought it was more like cake :). I promise to let you know how it goes. Thanks again! Cheryl

Anonymous said...

I made this tonight and thought it was fabulous! One curious thing though is that the layers of mine were opposite of yours - custard on the bottom and cornbread on the top. Any idea why that would happen? Thanks!

fanny said...

this. tomorrow. early morning of course. my kitchen. that is all.

Lia said...

I made this yesterday morning and it was delicious! My custard layer didn't separate as clearly as yours, but who cares about that? Thanks for sharing this recipe. Unfortunately I won't be able to make this a lot if I still want to fit into my jeans in the future!

tiffany said...

You mentioned baked oatmeal...well do I have a recipe for you, and what's the best part of this recipe? You can make it in advance (for real) and fry (yes, fry) it up whenever you want a piece. Fresh, baked oatmeal -- one serving at a time. I've made this many times and it's easy but more importantly, delicious.

I've made this recipe with steel cut oats, dried cherries and any other modification that I've dreamt up. The nice part is that the oatmeal is cooked before you assemble it so there's no worrying about messing it up. Try it, you'll never go back. (PS, it's messy to flip the oatmeal b/c there's nothing binding it, just do it with confidence) I feel the lemon curd is optional but the maple isn't.


Jess said...

Oooo, Tiffany! Thank you so much for this. It is officially on deck here. I can't wait to try.

carolyn said...

I tried Tiffany's link, but did not connect.
Sllightly different, but try making oatmeal pudding with your favorite rice pudding recipe, and rolled oats. My favorite is with nutmeg, chopped dates and walnuts, but can add any fruit &/or nut desired....

rachael said...

Do you know if this will work for buttermilk?