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This post is part of a series on cornbread; the simple yet widely variable staple of the Southern table.

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If you follow this blog you may have been wondering what business I have writing a blog called Syrup and Cornbread without actually blogging about cornbread. I admit it, I’ve been dancing around this for a while and I have a confession to make: I don’t yet have the perfect cornbread recipe. Unlike some of my friends, we didn’t really eat cornbread much in our house growing up; although my  mom hails from Memphis, her family were German immigrants from Cincinnati. In my dad’s family there was always cornbread, but it’s just not something for which you’d pass down a recipe. Since my mom did most of the cooking when I was growing up, I was never really given the tutorial on how to properly cook it. Inspired by my friend and fellow cornbread-lover Katy, who has just returned from a trip to Mississippi, I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts about my search for the perfect cornbread recipe. I hope that this series will take me further into my own families recipes (I’ve simply never thought to ask), as well as other people’s.

Cornbread is a pedestrian bread; it is very rarely the star of the show, but people are passionate about it. In the South cornbread is not sweetened at all. Here in New England all cornbread has sugar in it. This is wrong. Cornbread, if made properly, should be thin, crumbly, have a nice dark crust on the bottom, and be made with bacon grease or butter.

For my first attempt I turned to my favorite Southern cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking. You all know how much I love Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, the authors of this cookbook. I have the utmost respect for them both and came very close to actually swooning over the dinner I had at his restaurant Watershed (oh, and don’t forget when I was spying on his biscuit-making at Slow Food Nation ’08). Well, I tried their favorite cornbread recipe and was underwhelmed; it turned out too egg-y. You might be able to see in the picture (my fancy camera is on the fritz so you have to make due with the point-and-shoot) that there’s a layer of egg on the top. This was unexpected, and I’m not sure I like it; maybe I did something wrong, although I can’t figure out what.

The only substitution I made in the recipe was bacon grease for butter. I just keep a jar of bacon grease in the door of my refrigerator. It keeps forever and is perfect for getting that nice bottom crust that all cornbread should have. His technique, from what I can tell, is pretty standard. You melt the grease in a cast-iron skillet in a hot oven. Then, once it’s melted, you pour it into the batter, stir, then pour the batter into the skillet. Katy told me this is what her mom does, and it’s pretty close to the method I use.

Don’t get me wrong, this cornbread turned out really good; I realized that I do like buttermilk or sour milk, but this particular recipe just didn’t it the mark. I want a bit more crumb and certainly less egg. The search continues.

Our Favorite Sour Milk Cornbread
From The Gift of Southern Cooking by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis

1 1/2 c. fine-ground white cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 3/4 c. soured milk or buttermilk*
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp. unsalted butter (I used bacon grease)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix the cornmeal, salt, and baking powder together in a bowl. Stir the milk into the beaten eggs, and pour over the dry ingredients in batches, stirring vigorously to make a smooth glossy batter.
Cut the butter into pieces and put in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or baking pan. Put the skillet in the preheated oven, and heat until the butter is melted and foaming. Remove from the oven, and swirl the butter all around the skillet to coat the bottom and sides thoroughly. Pour the remaining melted butter into the cornbread batter, and stir well until the butter is absorbed into the batter. Turn the batter into the heated skillet, and put in the oven to bake for 3040 minutes, until cornbread is golden brown and crusty on top and pulls away from the sides of the skillet.
Remove the skillet from teh oven, and turn the cornbread out onto a plate. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve the cornbread while it’s hot.

*I didn’t have buttermilk, so I soured some milk according to their note: “A Quick Sour Milk It only takes about 10 minutes to make this tangy substitute for buttermilk. Stir into 1 3/4 cups sweet milk 2 tsp. lemon juice and 2 tsp. cider vinegar. Let sit until curdled.

My husband Dru and I just got back from a terrific trip to San Francisco. I had to go for a business conference and I decided early on that I would take him and make the trip half business, half pleasure. I grew up in Mississippi, lived in North Carolina for a stint and then moved to Massachusetts. Aside from a four-week roadtrip when I was in college and a trip or two to Washington state, I’d never really explored the West coast too much. The Bay Area is so vastly different than what I’m used to; the landscape reminded me a lot of the Mediterranean, the weather was fantastic (I know that we lucked out on this one), people were laid back, and there were bookstores everywhere. It’s really ridiculous how many books we bought while we were there. I’d been on the lookout for some M.F.K. Fisher for a while now and haven’t been able to find any of her books here in the environs of Boston. But, we went to City Lights and of course they had everything she’d ever written (not really, but close). I got Serve it Forth and How to Cook a Wolf. I also got Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan; a great cookbook which has inspired me to render my own lard. A topic for another post.

Scott Peacock

Slow Food '08 Victory Garden

Coincidentally we were there during Slow Food Nation ’08. We didn’t get to participate too much due to our flight arrangements, but we did go to the marketplace at the Civic Center Plaza. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven. It was a huge farmer’s market with amazing produce, rice, nuts, cheese, olive oil, and on and on. All of it grown locally and most of it grown organically. I bought some peaches and plums for us to eat right then and there, some almonds, rice, wheat berries, and pistachios. I wanted to buy everything in sight but knew I couldn’t fit it all in my luggage. Right in the middle of the plaza they’d installed a “victory garden” which they will harvest for the San Francisco food bank. It was an amazing garden and I was totally jealous. On the other side of the garden were vendors selling small meals. I was pleasantly surprised to find my favorite chef Scott Peacock cooking ham biscuits with jam. I stood there like a fool and watched him make biscuits. He clearly used lard and cut it right into the flour with his hands. He was making way more than I usually make, of course, but I think I’ll try that next time instead of the pastry cutter; they are biscuits after all and not a delicate flaky pie crust. There was a line, but once I got some of those biscuits I ate them pretty fast. I have to say it was incredible being surrounded by people who were as excited about local food as I am. I get a small taste of that when I go to the farmer’s market around here, but that’s not on such a grand scale.

A happy girl

What else did we eat you might be wondering? Well, I ate the hottest pepper I’d ever eaten in the Mission District. It was hidden in the “hot” salsa on this plate of Carne Asada:

I’ve gotten way too used to ordering the hottest thing on the menu here in New England. The hottest dish is never hot enough for me; if the menu has three chili peppers and warns in big letters “WARNING: This dish is very spicy,” I order it and find it just right. I have a friend whose head sweats when he eats something spicy; it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and I always take the opportunity to make fun of him. Well, that’s here in New England where people like their dinners boiled and their food bland, thank you very much. Not a Latino neighborhood where people can actually handle a little bit of spiciness in their food. WOOWEE! I tell ya, that pepper was a-spicy. An hour later I could still feel it on my lips. Luckily I’d ordered an horchata, which cut through the spice; water would have just made it worse. The food was really good; this was at La Cumbre, supposedly the oldest taqueria in San Francisco. The Mission District is so interesting; it is definitely a place of extremes, on one block I felt like we were in a rough part of Mexico City and then the next block felt a little more like a hip street in Brooklyn somewhere. It’s definitely a neighborhood on the edge of two extremes; gentrification on one side and poverty on the other.

The last day we were there we went to Berkeley and made the pilgrimage to Chez Panisse. It was an absolute necessity for me to go to this restaurant; I couldn’t be that close and not go. So, a month ago I called to make a reservation; even then they could only fit us in for 5:30, but of course we took it. Needless to say the meal was amazing. We decided to go to the cafe instead of the restaurant. In the restaurant the meal is much pricier; like $95 for prix fixe. In the cafe it is more like $23 for an entree; still pricey for us. We started with Pizzeta with Tomales Bay clams (picture above). It had a really yummy creamy sauce on it and the clams were teensy, especially compared to the Ipswich clams I’m used to. Then I had Wood oven-roasted squid and pimientos with romesco sauce and Dru had Hand-cut rosemary pasta with Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit ragu. We were both happy with what we ordered; I have to say I would never  have ordered the squid, but the waiter insisted it was good. Of course he was right. It wasn’t tough at all and the flavor was incredible. For desert I had Meyer lemon sorbet with fresh berries and Dru had Affogato, which apparently means warm espresso over vanilla ice cream. What a perfect way to end a perfect trip!

Meyer lemon sorbet with summer berries

Affogato

Affogato