Living Within: November 2016
As we enter the final stretch of an election that, by now, almost dare not speak its name, the USofA is enabling at least some of the rest of the world to distract itself from its own worries. I had toyed with writing about festival food, or pumpkins (at time of writing the latter are very much moving into the “culinary” part of the news) but instead I am distracted too with this US bias - they may not put on an election that I fully comprehend, but they sure do know how to put on a compelling show.
So, while the US is leading from the front - not, sadly, in the field of highbrow political debate, but in psychological medicine - election anxiety being now very much “a thing” - it may be my safest moment to enter a different debate and give a UK take on a US comfort staple; cornbread.
Cornbread can be served, like other kinds of bread, as part of, or with, almost any meal at any time of the day, and it exists, so my sources tell me, in various forms - north and south notably differ in whether to add wheat flour and, if so, how much - but the version that I am going to approximate is one from the southern states where cornmeal, in quantity, is essential. And they mind, by the way, about the quality and the freshness of the cornmeal!
You can find cornmeal here in various “grinds” - from coarse to fine - and each will make a difference, but it is probably easiest to find as polenta - which is misnamed as an ingredient; it is more accurately the name of the cooked Italian dish. However, it is a coarse ground cornmeal, and can be used to make a coarse grind cornbread.
Cornbread is cooked in a skillet (frying pan); it needs strong heat, and strong fat (fat that, even if it doesn’t add flavour, will take high heat) - bacon grease is often recommended. The cream of the mostly tattoo-sleeved chef brigade who currently dominate much of the conversation about Southern cuisine disagree among themselves on whether to mix any flour or sugar with the corn, and the disputes and debates have extended in the past to whether eggs are allowed in the batter.
But as Brits we can probably avoid most of the controversy and do exactly as we please - nobody is likely to be looking; we have no grandmothers to disappoint, no family tradition to uphold, no heirloom recipes; so we can assimilate and appropriate and, even if we get it badly wrong, so long as we like the end result, nobody is likely to get hurt.
Weigh out your ingredients. In a large bowl, add about 300g of cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), and a teaspoon of salt, and whisk all these dry ingredients together.
In another bowl, beat together 1 large egg with 350ml of buttermilk (or sour cream, or a mix of any kind of dairy that includes some “sour” - the acid helps the rise).
Choose a skillet wisely - black, heavy, well-seasoned, preferably cast iron - render down some finely chopped bacon (smoked is good) - cook until the bacon is crisp, scoop the crisp bacon out of the pan and put to one side, and leave the rendered fat (topped up with a little oil or even butter if you haven’t got a generous coating). Put the pan in a hot oven, for the fat to get “properly hot” (think “smoking” like for a Yorkshire pudding; remember that this bread should be beyond golden on its under side). Meanwhile, mix your wet ingredients into the dry just like for any other batter - carefully, so that the mixture does not become lumpy.
When the batter is ready; put your skillet over a flame (NB remember, it’s just come out of the oven; the handle will be HOT!), pour in the batter and listen to it sizzle. Finish in a hot oven (200ºC or more); as for your Yorkshires, it will take about 20 minutes (it will be done when a fine skewer prodded into the centre comes out clean), and you want to serve it pretty much straight away, fluffy and warm. You can cut it straight out of the pan - flip it upside down first if you want to see it’s crackly bottom - serve with butter, or whatever else you fancy - bacon bits and maple syrup went down well in my house - a true Southerner might prefer molasses. It is a bread almost like any other, in that it will mop up juices well!