American as . . . cornbread. Let’s disqualify “apple pie” as a contender right off: it’s “aeppel pye” (Old) English, and of more than 20,000 varieties of apples grown worldwide, only one, the non-pie-friendly crabapple, is native to America.
But corn is indisputably American, as are the breads made from it. Carefully cultivated by generations of Native Americans, corn was the continent’s staple grain long before the Pilgrims arrived. Cornmeal was used in many ways, but, as with all staple grains, its foremost use was in bread. Tortillas, which we now think of as Mexican, are actually America’s first bread. With a dough made of just three ingredients (the alkalinized cornmeal known as masa, water and salt), this simple flat bread has nourished those who live on American soil since before that soil was American.
But what we think of as cornbread today is not the corn tortilla.
What we think of is a quick bread, leavened with baking soda or powder. From there what we think of as cornbread depends on where “we” are. To American Southerners, cornbread is made of all or mostly stone-ground cornmeal, more often white than yellow, with buttermilk as the liquid. Baked in a hot skillet, it is round and decidedly not sweet. (Mark Twain famously remarked, “If God had meant cornbread to be sweet, he’d have called it cake.”) To Yankees, it’s made of equal parts flour and cornmeal, more often yellow than white, with sweet milk as the liquid. It’s usually baked in a square pan, which isn’t preheated, and, yes, it is very sweet. If you are African-American, your cornbread is probably more Southern-style, except it may be a little sweet and the cornmeal is usually yellow. And if you’re from the Southwest, it could very likely have some minced green chiles thrown in.
Which is the best? Whatever cornbread you grew up on is probably the one you consider perfect. But wherever you are from, when someone mentions cornbread, if you’re like most people, you probably find yourself exclaiming, “Cornbread? I love cornbread!”
Combining the best elements of Northern and Southern, this is a superb, just-barely-sweet version of one of the classic African-American cornbreads. Be sure to use stone-ground cornmeal for its full flavor and distinctive, delicious grittiness. If it’s not available locally, it’s worth ordering by mail. Two good sources: www.wareaglemill.com and www.bobsredmill.com
Vegetable cooking oil spray
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup corn or canola oil
2 tablespoons butter
1. Preheat oven to 375F. Spray a 10-inch round baking pan or heavy oven-proof skillet with cooking oil.
2. Sift flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl.
3. In a small bowl, stir baking soda into buttermilk. Whisk in sugar, egg and oil.
4. Place skillet over medium heat, add butter and heat until butter melts and starts to sizzle. Carefully tilt pan to coat sides and bottom.
5. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients; combine quickly, using as few strokes as possible. Scrape batter into pan; bake 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool a few moments, and slice into 8 wedges to serve. Serves 8.
Per serving: 230 calories, 4g fat, 5g prot., 28g carbs., 3g fiber, 360mg sodium.
Look for Relish magazine, celebrating America’s love of food, each month in the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin. For more Relish recipes and to sign up for our newsletters, log on to relish.com. To download our new Relish For Moms digital edition and Relish Daily Dish phone app, go to relish.com/mobile
Photo credit: Mark Boughton Photography / styling by Teresa Blackburn