A flying leap

The newspaper told me to make corn bread yesterday. Yes, again. In my defense, this corn bread is really its own thing, so one might argue that it’s not “again” at all. Also in my defense, it’s hard to say no to a newspaper, especially when that newspaper is The New York Times, and especially, especially when it’s speaking in the voice of Sam Sifton. There’s talk of sopping, and stuffing and, (I love this part) “powerful croutons.” Then, the following statement: “There is really no reason not to make corn bread right away.” Including, I assumed, the alarming rate of corn bread production and consumption already underway in my kitchen. “No reason” means no reason, after all. So I got up, oiled a cast-iron skillet, and put it in the oven to warm.

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.

Serves 6-8.


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.


megan said...

What?! This post is so amazing. I was looking for more reasons to love Jess when I opened my browser over a bowl of frizzled broccoli (slightly failed, I'm sorry to say - I think a case of too-casual adjustments for a singleton). You just don't disappoint!

I'm putting both breads on my list for the summer...luckily it's cold here in June so it will work out fine. Or maybe you guys should come in June? ;-)


molly said...

I have never found any problem whatsoever in bread OR cake. And still, I love this post, every last word.

Amrita said...

I've never had cornbread, can you believe it?
For that matter, apart from fried chicken, I've never really had chilli or grits even. But this makes me want to try. And if not chilli, I can always try and make it go with - blasphemy ahead - curry!

Danielle said...

So happy to see you here today! Hope things are well with your tiny (or not so tiny) one.

I have never had corn bread. Is this because I'm Canadian? So I should definitely eat this.


Andrea said...

That photograph makes me want to run straight to my kitchen right this instant. Yum. Also, it is my opinion that one can never have too many breads or cakes in their repertoire. :)


A Plum By Any Other Name said...

I think collecting cornbread recipes is much more useful than collecting, say, coins. (This also means I get to benefit ... in a way that I never could from a buffalo nickel.) ;) BTW, I had a shortbread recipe do a similar thing on me. Out of the oven they tasted raw, but overnight they transformed into something wonderful. I say keep the recipes comin'!

Natalie said...

This is so uncanny that two places I love and frequent are both mentioned in this post! I haven't tried Hi-Rise cornbread, but I will need to at some point, especially since you say it is so different from any other cornbread... I can attest to the fact that their vanilla bean loaf and brown bread are pretty amazing, as are their sandwiches. I have tried East Coast Grill's cornbread though (they serve it with chili lime butter) - it is a very New England style cornbread, which is not my favorite (very fluffy and sweet, not gritty and hearty like Southern cornbread). East Coast Grill does have an amazing brunch though, and for me what was most memorable there was their grilled Texas brioche toast (grilling toast! who would have thought?) with guava butter alongside their grilled avocado. I've had thick slabs of grilled toast on the mind ever since. Though of course, your penchant for cornbread really resonates with me, as cheesy as it sounds. I am a total sucker for cornbread and have gone into the historical archives at my college's library to find the cornbread and pone recipes that were used in 19th century America... I'm a bit of a culinary nerd!

Sarah said...

Mmmm . . . I love cornbread and this cake-like version is something I need to try. I normally make and love this skillet corn bread (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Sage-and-Honey-Skillet-Cornbread-240376) with or without sage. It's delicious and maybe a little more corn-y than the above recipe. Also best warm. But I'm not a southerner and don't have a lot of corn bread expertise either so I'm not sure how traditional it is.

I have another request for you: do you have good Cambridge/Boston restaurant recommendations? Or places you go to for recommendations? I just moved here from NYC and am kind of lost without the New Yorker and NY Times reviews. I've been to high-rise and love their bread. I also tried East Coast Grill and was on the fence. I remember you once mentioning Oleana which I still need to try. Anything else?

Robert Richards Recipes said...

Well, this recipe is not something I would of thought to make. But, I love trying new recipes and this looks like a fun one to make. ;-)

Megan Gordon said...

Alright! You made it -- I ogled it, but you actually went for it. Glad to hear it has serious delicious potential. Also, new word in my vocabulary: cast-irony. Love it. Happy weekend, Jess.

pad thai said...

Hi, I have added your blog to my list of favourites, and in response to your question, would recommend another favourite foodie blogger's corny cornbread muffins. I made these, and love them! Link here: http://smittenkitchen.com/2007/05/always-the-corniest/

Julie said...

Cast irony! Love.
I was hooked on cornbread bought at a restaurant out in Tofino last week (our oven was broken) and I've been meaning to start making it again now that we're home. Will try this! Thanks!

GG Mora said...

My standard cornbread recipe uses buttermilk, and is on the lower end of the 'cakey' scale. I add sugar when making it for eating straight; I also use it for my Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, in which case I omit the sugar. I warm the liquids gently in the microwave so that the butter gets evenly distributed (pour melted butter into cold buttermilk and you get...clumps of butter).

When corn is in season, I'll add a cup or two of sweet white corn kernels. And sometimes I'll add a bunch of minced jalapeno (for serving with chili, for example). The leftovers are really really good for breakfast, grilled in a skillet with a lot of butter.

This recipe makes kind of a dainty little batch; I often double it and bake it in a 12" cast iron pan.

1 1/4 cups AP flour (150g)
3/4 cups stoneground yellow cornmeal (135g)
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk (232g)
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 425 ˚F. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking pan.

Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well with a large whisk.

Melt butter in microwave on very low heat (2 minutes @20%).

Measure buttermilk into large glass measuring cup and break in eggs. Beat to break yolks and blend with a whisk or (better) egg beater. Warm carefully in microwave (2 minutes @30%). Stir in melted butter.

Pour liquid into dry ingredients and mix to blend with a balloon whisk using quick, deft strokes. Do not overmix.

Quickly pour batter into prepared pan, smooth top and pop pan into oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until cornbread is lightly browned on top and springy in the center.

Nicole said...

I too bookmarked this recipe upon flipping through T Magazine (I'm pretty much always up for a new type of cornbread, cakey or otherwise). Though my go-to recipe (at least for the last six months or so) comes from Melissa Clark's Cook This Now, her recipe for Honey Whole-Wheat Cornbread is really exceptional, especially when made with a coarse grind cornmeal, and perhaps a bit more "corny" than this one. On that note, this cornbread stuffing (with leeks, pecans, and bacon, oh my!) http://www.marthastewart.com/361859/cornbread-bacon-leek-and-pecan-stuffing is a pretty fantastic way to use it up, though it sounds like you don't need any ideas there!

kels said...

I need to make this for my dad. I hear he's had soup/salad/cornbread for lunch nearly every day for the past few years... this would be a real upgrade from the stuff at the Intel cafeteria... :)

misliteljica said...

You have a big fan all the way in Croatia. I have tried couple of recipies and I love them. Especially corn bread. It is the first bread I have ever done and all of my familiy thinks it is great. It is kind of difficult for me to find all sorts of sugar you are mentioning in your posts, but I manage somehow.

10xpro said...

I love making corn bread. I'll have to try this way out. A Pastry Chefs View From Inside A Bakery