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Mike’s Crusty Cornbread

I have been having a great time chatting with and getting recipes from a friend down in South Carolina.  His name is Mike and has a great wife, Barbara, who bakes – and wins all sorts of ribbons and such.  Lots of them.  I admire folks who have the patience to create recipes and enter contests.  It’s a lot of work.  And I really love recipes with a story.  Real food with history.

I won 2nd Prize in a Cherry Pie Bakeoff once – and the People’s Choice Award for my White Bean Chili when I was on staff at UCSF.  Neither were State fair-type competitions, but they were fun.  But I digress…

Mikes Crusty Cornbread

This recipe (as all great recipes do) comes with a great story – and pictures!

Crusty Cornbread

Mike Amason

Rural South Carolina during and after the Great Depression was a lot like a third world country.  There was little to eat if you didn’t produce it on the farm.  Everyone had a few chickens and a couple of hogs, both very efficient animals at producing meat from whatever could be foraged.  Lots of farms had a single cow for milk and butter.  With chickens came eggs.  The only groceries that were purchased were coffee, flour, salt, corn oil, and on occasion a bag of sugar.  Everything else was grown at home or done without.

Many farms had small patches of corn of a variety suitable for grinding at the grist mill for grits and cornmeal (My grandfather grew a white corn called “Hickory King” just for this purpose).  The miller ground and bagged your corn and kept a portion as his payment which he later sold.  Biscuits ruled at breakfast, but cornbread was the staple quick bread for lunch and dinner.   Many a child in the South in the 30s and 40s went to school carrying a pint jar of buttermilk and a large slice of cornbread for lunch, with a slice of fried fatback if times were good.

The secret to the crust:

The Perfect Crust

This is the way all six of my great aunts and my grandmother made it, baking it in a cast iron frying pan which gives it a crust like no other bread in the world. Cast iron holds heat better than anything else, and that is really the secret of this bread.  You can make suitable cornbread in a roasting pan or a casserole dish if you have to, and some modern cookware may be up to the task, but I have never been able to get this crust from any other cookware I have owned.  Other materials simply lose too much heat while you are pouring the batter into the pan.  If you don’t have a cast iron pan, you can pick one up at a junk store or thrift shop for a couple of dollars.  I use a 7” pan for mine, but an 8” works just as well.  My Mother still uses a 6”pan she bought in 1944 for fifteen cents, and her cornbread beats mine every time.  But I think she cheats.

Serves 6-8    Quick breads are only good the day they are baked.  Leftovers don’t freeze well for reheating to eat, but should be frozen to use later in pan dressing to go with chicken or turkey.  If you already have a freezer full, toss the leftovers out for the birds.   They love it.

Ingredients:

Preheat oven to 450.

  • Two cups self-rising white or yellow cornmeal, or add 3 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp salt to plain cornmeal
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • One egg, beaten
  • 3 Tbsp vegetable oil or melted fat
  • 1-1/4 cups buttermilk (or plain milk with 2 tsp vinegar to sour it)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil to coat pan

Take the 1/4 cup of the vegetable oil and put it in the frying pan.  Turn the pan to coat the bottom and sides well.  Too much is better than not enough.  You should be able to see a shallow pool of oil in the bottom of the pan.  Put pan in oven to heat.

Put dry ingredients in a bowl and mix well.  Add the wet ingredients all at once and stir to make the batter.

When the oil is HOT! (smoking slightly), pour the batter into the pan and enjoy the sizzle.  Return it to the oven for 20 minutes.  It is done when a knife inserted into the top comes out clean.

Turn out of pan upside-down onto a plate.  Stand and be amazed at the reddish brown crackled crust approximately 1/8” thick covering it.   Do not sample at this point if you plan to serve for dinner.  You may not have any left by the time everyone gets to the table.  It slices better when it cools for a few minutes, anyway.

Outstanding with any vegetables (especially a thick vegetable soup!) or by itself with butter.

WARNING:  South of Pennsylvania it is illegal to serve collard or turnip greens or any type of beans without cornbread.

It is a capital offense in some states to serve black-eyed peas and collards with pepper vinegar on New Year’s Day and not cook a cornbread to accompany them.  And it well should be.

In the hot pan
After 20 minutes in  a hot oven.
After 25 minutes

Variations:

1) Any type of onions are great chopped and sautéed for a couple of minutes before adding to the batter.  The result is like a hush puppy but not as greasy.
2) A chopped jalapeno pepper added to the batter improves any bland side dish.
3) ½ cup whole corn makes a good addition. Drain whole corn well if you use it.  For creamed corn, use ¾ cup, reduce the milk to 3/4 cup and reduce sugar to 1 tsp.
4) ½ cup finely chopped broccoli florets gives the bread a flavor that surprised me the first time I tried it.
5) Cracklins.  Many people have never heard of them.  These are bits of pigskin (cured bacon rind) that have been chopped and cooked and are available in groceries all over the South. ½ cup of them make a cornbread you will talk about for years.

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