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Grandmother's Cornbread

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I'm adding this recipe mainly for the Dutch since Americans just use their mothers' recipes, and Americans whose mothers didn't make cornbread tend not to eat it. The recipe's from my mother, who got it from her mother, who doubtless got it from hers. It's the standard East Texas recipe and is typical for the southern United States. Northern cornbread is very different, typically having a much higher ratio of wheat flour to corn meal and way too much sugar.

Grandmother upgraded from a wood stove to a gas stove not long before I was born when gas, electricity, and indoor plumbing came to town. In gas ovens, the heat comes entirely from the bottom. Electric ovens tend to burn the top before the cornbread is cooked through unless you set them so that only the bottom element is working. This will also tend to help keep the cornbread from sticking to the pan, but it wants very badly to stick and will do so at the slightest opportunity...as my Dutch friends can confirm.


Traditionally, cornbread was cooked in an 8 inch (20 cm.) cast iron frying pan. You can double the recipe and use a 10 inch (26 cm.) pan as seen below.


 

 


I still use these pans, and if they are kept properly "seasoned," the cornbread does not stick during cooking. The principle is the same as with the standard French iron omelette pans. If you wipe them out with paper towels and salt after use and do not scrub them with detergent, they will develop a relatively non-stick surface. However, most people now use some kind of non-stick modern pan because they require less care. Then again, I look at my collection of modern pans with the non-stick lining mostly gone and realize, yep, I
ate that lining over the years. Well, and served it to my friends.

Late Heretical Note: After fussing with those iron pans all my life, I have discovered that a Pyrex® (oven-proof glass) pie plate is actually better for baking cornbread than the traditional iron frying pan. The crust turns out more even, the cornbread sticks less, and the glass pie plate is much easier to clean and take care of than the iron pan. I told my sister about this and she was aghast that I would even try anything other than the "proper" pan. I didn't push it for fear she'd have me committed.
 

Later Heretical Note:  Grandmother is turning in her grave, but i've been tweaking the recipe and have discovered that most folks like this bread even more if i use, for a double recipe, 2/3rds c. flour, 1 1/3rd c. cornmeal, and 3 T. sugar, but otherwise follow the original recipe.


ABOUT MEASUREMENTS

European recipes typically measure fluid ingredients by volume and dry ingredients by weight, but American recipes usually measure everything by volume. This can get little confusing for Europeans (and for that matter, many Americans) because we use the word "ounce" (abbreviated "oz." and no, that is NOT a typo) to describe two different measurements, the fluid ounce (measured by volume) and the dry ounce (measured by weight). Fluid ounces (abbreviated fl. oz.) are normally measured by the cup (abbreviated "c.", which is 8 fl. oz.) and fractions of cups, and again, we use these "fluid" ounces to measure both liquid and dry ingredients. For smaller amounts, we use tablespoons (abbreviated "T.", which is ½ fl. oz.), teaspoons (abbreviated "t.", 3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon), and fractions of teaspoons.  Our tablespoon is about the same as the Dutch eetlepel.

My friend Karin called to my attention a pretty nifty conversion tool that will, with what looks like good accuracy to me although I haven't cooked with it, convert those pesky American volume measurements to metric weights for a wide variety of common foods. That said, as one who finds it actually easier to measure a pint (16 fl. oz.) of sugar in a graduated measuring cup than to weigh out 383 grams of it, I find the tool more entertaining than truly useful.



ABOUT INGREDIENTS

Corn meal is a grind halfway between corn flour and the coarser grind used for polenta. I've been taking my own cornmeal to Amsterdam, but next time I plan to do some serious hunting for a Dutch equivalent. You could also just give the polenta grind a few zaps in a blender to get it down to the right size. I've done this successfully at home.


The cornmeal should be made from the whole grain of "dent" corn, which is not the same kind of corn that is eaten as a vegetable but rather the corn used for polenta. Whole-grain cornmeal is more difficult to find because it spoils fairly rapidly unless it is refrigerated or at least kept cool. Nowadays, most people use cornmeal from which the "germ" (which has all the fat and many of the vitamins) has been removed so that the meal will keep for years like white flour. Whole-grain cornmeal tastes better and is more nutritious.


Baking powder is used instead of yeast to make the bread rise. I've seen it at Albert Heijn. Here's more information than you may want on it: Baking Powder


Soda is pure sodium bicarbonate (natriumbicarbonaat in Dutch) and also helps make the bread rise. Maybe I didn't look hard enough, but I didn't see this in Albert Heijn. I did see it, though, in San Andrecito, formerly on Spuistraat but in 2007 moved to Nieuwe Nieuw Staat 16 but with a miserably poor selection compared to its Spuistraat days.


In the past, I've been taking my own soda and baking powder to Amsterdam, but I'll be buying them locally now since these are not good times to be transporting through airports small plastic bags full of white powders.


"Bacon drippings" is the fat left in the pan when standard American bacon is cooked. This is (or was) saved and used to flavor other dishes and to make cornbread. If folks happened to be out of bacon drippings, which was unusual since they almost always had bacon for breakfast, they substituted lard or butter. This is why the men in the previous generation tended to die in their fifties and sixties of heart attacks....those who had not already succumbed to gunshot wounds in their twenties and thirties. (Well, that was Texas.)


What most folks do nowadays is substitute a good oil - like canola oil or better yet, sesame oil - for all or at least some of that saturated fat.



PROCEDURE


1. Beat one egg well in a measuring cup. Then stir in buttermilk (Dutch karnemelk seems to be the same thing) until you have 8 fl. oz. (235 ml.) of liquid. Set aside. This is done as the first step so that the liquid ingredients can get closer to room temperature.


2. Preheat the oven to 425 Fahrenheit (220 Celsius).


3. Mix the following dry ingredients in a large bowl.


¾ c. or 6 fl. oz. (175 ml.) corn meal.


¼ c. or 2 fl. oz. (60 ml.) wheat flour. I've used all-purpose white flour, whole-wheat flour, and pastry flour. They all seem to work, but I prefer whole-wheat flour. So does my doctor.


1 T. (15 ml.) sugar.


¾  t. baking powder (3,75 ml.)

¼ t. soda (1,25 ml.)


¼ t. salt (1,25 ml.)


You can do all of the above steps a couple of hours ahead of time, but the remaining steps should be put off until about 35 or 40 minutes before you want to serve the cornbread. For an explanation of why, see "Hot Breads and Nazis" in Amsterdam by Foot.


4. Put 2 T. (30 ml.) of "bacon drippings" or one of the above substitutes into the cooking pan, and put the pan into the oven for 4-5 minutes to heat the pan and melt the fat.


5. When the fat is melted in the hot pan, mix the above wet and dry ingredients well and then rapidly mix in the melted fat.


6. Immediately pour the batter into the still-hot pan and put the pan into the oven. Cook until the top is "dark golden brown" and the bread is cooked through. The bottom crust will be a much darker brown. This will take approximately 35 minutes.


7. Dump the cooked cornbread onto a warm platter and cut it into wedges. You may need to run a flexible instrument of some sort around the edges and underneath the bread if it has stuck to the pan. Serve immediately while it is still too hot to eat. In the old days, we would put butter on it, but nowadays folks don't eat so much butter...or know we shouldn't eat so much.


Introducing cornbread to Amsterdam has given me enormous pleasure. Here's what it looks like upside down on the platter:


 

And here it is turned it over for the presentation. Actually, I could have left this one in the oven for a few more minutes to get a little darker:

 




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