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.
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.