And here we are, another corn bread before us. The funny part isn’t actually the two-corn-breads-in-as-many-posts thing. I mean, corn bread is good. Bring on the corn bread, right? It’s that the two corn breads in as many posts both hail from my very own Cambridge, Massachusetts: a yeasted sandwich-style loaf from Hi-Rise Bread Company and, today, a skillet quick-bread from a restaurant called the East Coast Grill. Now that, 180 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, is unexpected.
I’ve got a few things I’d like to say about today’s corn bread, but having just scrolled through the comments posted beneath the article on the New York Times site, I continue with trepidation. (Do not, I repeat, DO NOT mess with people’s corn bread.) Hopefully, with a loaf of corny sandwich bread as our starting point, it’s safe to say that today’s version is at least closer to what many of us imagine when we hear the words, “corn bread.” (Or the word, “cornbread,” depending on whom you ask.) It’s baked in a skillet, for one thing, and it’s leavened with baking powder, not yeast. Plus, it just plain looks like corn bread. It smells like corn bread, too, as it bakes and browns and crisps up around the edges, which is why I was surprised to discover that it didn’t quite taste like corn bread. At least not the corn bread I had in mind. Don’t get me wrong. Some people will tell you that with the presence of eggs, flour, yellow cornmeal, and sugar, this is no corn bread, but an abomination. I am not one of those people. I am a person, though, who once upon a time, circa 1989 in Cleveland, Ohio, slid squares of corn bread from the school lunch line onto my tray, and got something dense and crumbly, not unappealingly dry, and with a one-note, corn-only flavor. That I measure my corn bread by the yardstick of my grade school cafeteria should tell you that I have not a lick of authority in the corn bread department. All I’m trying to say is that I guess I was expecting something like that. And yet, despite what I thought today’s corn bread might be, and what it actually is, my message to you is that I like it very much.
This corn bread, as you can plainly see, is many energetic strides away from the upright loaf of Hi-Rise Bread Company fame. But as it approaches (what I consider to be) the land of classic corn bread, it takes a flying leap into full-blown cake territory. Here, like in the Hi-Rise recipe, the single cup of cornmeal never truly grabs you, mingling as it does with twice that amount of white flour. Even with the added corn kernels, what we have here is not the corniest of corn breads. Sifton does, by the way, suggest playing with the balance of corn meal and white flour to suit your taste, and I plan on changing things up the next time around, just to see what happens. Still, there’s no denying that cake territory is a lovely, lovely place. Things are sweet there, and if you’re lucky, light and moist, and we could all do worse than a corn bread that is all of these things.
The only trick is figuring out just what to do with this cake-like bread. First, there is the matter of temperature. I have always operated under the general rule that warm-from-the-oven bread, left to cool just long enough to finish pulling itself together, is always preferable to room temperature bread. Cakes, though, are best fully cooled. Breads, warm. Cakes, cool. Then along comes this cake-like bread... See the problem, here? The beauty of a skillet-baked corn bread is that you can bring it in the skillet from oven to table, and cut into it while it is still warm. That's what we did with this skillet-baked corn bread, only to discover that still warm, it's actually kind of weird. (A case of, ahem, cast iron-y, perhaps??) (Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.) It tastes, for lack of a better word, rare. As in, not quite cooked. This, despite it being, by every measure, baked through. The flavor and feel are what I would imagine classic birthday cake might be if you were to eat it straight from the oven. Too sweet, very white, in need of salt, and a little, I don’t know… batter-y.
It was the strangest thing. So strange that I remained on the fence for a while about whether I would share the recipe with you at all. Then, a few hours later, when the bread was cool, I tried it again, and found that it had ripened into serious deliciousness. The white flour did its job, adding stature and spring, but had stepped back a bit behind the corn. What was once too sweet was now perfectly in balance, and upping the salt no longer felt necessary. It just needed some time to settle, I guess. As for how I’ve been eating it: with soft, salted butter, with raspberry jam, and, of course, with the killer hot pepper honey that the newspaper also, in its supreme and clear-eyed bossiness, insisted I make.
So. Another corn bread for you, friends. And now that I’m officially collecting them, it seems, I think I’d like to find one more. Something corn meal-heavy so that the corn really sings. Do you have a favorite recipe you’d be willing to share? I hope so. I’d really love to know.
East Coast Grill Corn Bread
(and Honey with Red Pepper flakes)
Adapted from The New York Times Magazine, where Sam Sifton adapted it from the East Coast Grill
If you managed to read all the way down to the end of this post, you already know that I advocate for the complete cooling of this bread before eating. Leave it uncovered in the skillet so that you don’t lose the crunchy bits on top and around the edges. One other quick note: I like my corn bread gritty, so I use medium-grind cornmeal.
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. stone-ground yellow cornmeal, medium grind
¾ c. white sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
2 large eggs
1½ c. whole milk
1½ Tbsp. vegetable oil
¼ c. melted butter
2 c. fresh or frozen corn kernels
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch cast-iron skillet and put it in the oven to heat up.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and oil. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, add the melted butter and the corn, and stir until just mixed.
Take the hot cast-iron pan from the oven and pour in the batter. Use a spatula to even it out, if necessary. Put the pan back into the oven and bake for approximately 1 hour (start checking at 50 minutes), until the bread is browned on top and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.
Honey with Red Pepper Flakes
Spoon some honey, however much you’d like, into a bowl. Sprinkle with red-pepper flakes, to taste. Wonder why you’ve never thought of this before.