EASY, CHEESEY (IN THE BEST WAY) CORNBREAD

When I decided to serve cornbread with the Lentil Soup (see previous post), I’d forgotten that a recipe for it had been included in The Homemade Pantry, the book From Scratch Club was reading and cooking/baking its way through. Didn’t even look in the book before clamoring through my cabinets to see if I had cornmeal. And I didn’t feel like putzing through a bunch of cookbooks to find a recipe I could either make “as is,” or play around with to my own taste. It isn’t that I’ve never made the stuff before, just that previous cornbread has either been from a boxed mix or the recipe I made it from didn’t thrill me enough to get it written down.

It turned out there were two cornmeal possibilities amidst my baking goods: ol’ reliable Quaker yellow cornmeal and a more authentic-looking stone-ground type with a Native American profile on the front of the package (reminiscent of the fact that the only time I ever heard of cornbread as a child and throughout teen years was when certain Indian tribes were discussed during history lessons, usually around Thanksgiving!). Since the Quaker package sported an upcoming expiration date in December 2012, my more frugal persona took over (maybe that’s the other kind of cheesey surfacing, as in the cheapest, but not always the most delicious, way ). I wasn’t about to toss out still-good ingredients, even if the alternative was probably “better for you,” maybe tastier and perhaps the result of more organic farming methods. Didn’t want to know all that. Just wanted to get on with baking.

Of course, perhaps I should feel guilty for… for not feeling guilty about using the “better” cornmeal. After all, modern technology has taken what was/is a sacred food for many of the world’s inhabitants (and former inhabitants) and bastardized it into chemically-enhanced products solely to give it longer shelf-life and thus allow industry to make larger profits. “Longer shelf life” does not equal “more nutritious” and sometimes it does equal “not-so-good-for-you.” Whole civilizations once built their spiritualities around goddesses worshipped because human beings believed these other-worldly beings somehow controlled crops, shepherding in a rich harvest that could nourish their families through the long, hard winter (or conversely causing drought, disease and other disasters which invited starvation and death).

Corn Mother is a big deal in the Americas to Native Americans. She’s found in various forms in indigenous faiths throughout the two continents. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen (Llewellyn Publications, 2003) tells us, “The Quiche Mayas of Guatemala and the Navajo believed that the first humans were created from corn. The Mayas, Incans, Aztecs, and nearly every American Indian tribe ate corn and incorporated it into their religious beliefs and rituals. The corn mother was perhaps the most widely worshipped deity in the pre-Colmbian Americas. As a symbol of life, fertility, eternity, and resurrection, corn was a sacred gift of the Mother Goddess.” Corn was one of the Americas’ gifts to the world. It may not be called sacred by the millions it feeds today, but it sure can help to fill a growling belly.

Cunningham notes that many people still view corn as sacred and believe that  to waste it is to cause poverty. He compares it to the way Asians feel about wasting rice. [Here’s my “out” – out of the guilt: however processed Quaker’s cornmeal might be (and I don’t know the extent of it and don’t want to bad-mouth the company), it’s still a corn product that shouldn’t be wasted. This is perhaps today’s alternative to my mother’s directive to “Eat—there are starving children in China.”]

Quaker’s recipe, on the back of the fat cylinder in which their product comes, was called “Easy” but it also looked like it was trying to be lo-cal or lo-fat or both, which is fine so long as there would be plenty of flavor. Reading through the ingredients, however, I wasn’t exactly hopeful about mouth-watering taste; so naturally I fooled around with it. Here are the changes I made (I think I’m remembering them all, but be aware that I only scribbled down what I did do, not how it was different from the Q-recipe):

  • Decreased amount of flour.
  • Increased amount of cornmeal.
  • Used same amount of sugar, but half was evaporated cane juice sugar and half was light brown sugar (I used no standard granulated sugar, which I think was inferred for use in the Q-recipe although they didn’t actually say what kind of sugar to use.).
  • Substituted buttermilk for skim milk.
  • Lightly beat the egg before adding to mixture.
  • Added cheese for flavoring (it all melts into recipe).
  • Added nutmeg.

I toyed with the idea of adding chives and/or parsley (have done this with cornbread before and liked it). Didn’t do it this time, but it’s always an option (as it could be for you!) – went with addition of nutmeg instead.

Here’s the recipe. If and when you decide to make it, think about this: Patricia Telesco’s A Kitchen Witch’s Cookbook (Llewellyn Publications, 1994) lists corn’s “Magical Associations” as “Life of the Land, cycles and eternity.” I don’t think the term “eternity” on this list is meant to encompass living forever on this planet in our current bodies, but there is something eternal about our being. Scientists have determined that there is no new energy in the Universe. Our bodies decompose and become (or more accurately, remain) One with All that exists. I am content with corn symbolizing this eternal cycling and re-cycling. Sure feels sacred to me.

(MAYBE SACRED) CORNBREAD
Yield: I get 16 “slices” of cornbread, but you might like smaller or larger portions!

Ingredients

  • butter to grease the baking pan
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • ¼ cup sugar (I split this up between evaporated sugar cane juice and light brown sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt (I used iodized table salt)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup olive oil or vegetable oil (I only had olive oil; ran out of canola)
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup shredded cheddar or mixture of parmesan/asiago cheeses
  • a couple of dashes of fresh-ground nutmeg, to taste

Process

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Generously grease an 8”x 8” or 9”x 9” baking pan (I used a square one) with butter.
  3. Combine dry ingredients – flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar and salt – in a large bowl. Whisk together well.
  4. Combine buttermilk, oil, and egg together in another bowl, whisking until mixed.
  5. Add liquid mixture to dry mix; combine with a few strokes of a wooden spoon or spatula.
  6. Fold the cheese(s) into the mixture, and sprinkle nutmeg (if using) over it as well.
  7. Give mixture a last few stirs (do not over-stir) and then pour into prepared pan.
  8. Bake until cornbread is lightly browned and pulling away from side of the pan. A cake tester or butter knife should come out clean when inserted into its center.
  9. Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before cutting into slices.

I like it when it’s still warm and I can slice it horizontally to insert a skinny pat of butter, which immediately melts to add to the yumminess. Ahhhhh…

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