September 3, 2012

Sara Foster's Salt and Pepper Cornbread

I've eaten cornbread all my life but have rarely stopped to think about its significance on the dinner table. It wasn't until I moved to Germany during my junior year in college and discovered that students from other areas of the country baked cornbread like a sweet cake and ate it with honey. No, that's not my experience. Our cornbread was baked in a cast iron skillet and served savory with chicken and pot roast. It was sometimes slathered with salted butter but more often crumbled into bowls of chili and winter soup.

There are three things that I think make a superior cornbread: first, that cast iron skillet. The heaviness of the skillet gives the cornbread a delicious golden bottom and crunch. Second, bacon grease. Ever since I started keeping a jar of bacon grease in the refrigerator, I've used it mainly for pans of cornbread. Bacon grease melts beautifully as you prepare the hot skillet, and during cooking, it settles richly into the cornbread itself. Third, good quality corn meal. I am sometimes dismayed at the lack of cornmeal quality on grocery store shelves, and I try to buy mine from local country stores that feature coarse, stone ground meal. I baked with a good Arkansas cornmeal for a couple of years until I moved to North Carolina and found that the local cornmeal here is as good as anywhere.

Sara Foster's cornbread recipe is one that I've tried only once but one that I'll keep in my repertoire for years. I love the way this cornbread has a balanced flavor of peppery and sweet, and I love that Ms. Foster does not skimp on ingredients. After all, a thick, high wedge of cornbread is much more satisfying than a short little sliver.

Sara Foster's Salt and Pepper Cornbread

Dry mix
2 tablespoons bacon grease
1 1/2 cups good, stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Wet mix
2 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Preheat oven to 425 F. As the oven is heating, add bacon grease to skillet and set it in the oven to melt.

Whisk together all dry ingredients until well combined. Add the wet ingredients together until smooth then add to dry mix. With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, combine dry and wet ingredients until just incorporated. Do not overmix.

Remove hot skillet from stove and pour in cornbread mixture. Sprinkle top with salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Bake about 25 minutes, until the top is golden and a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Serve warm with chili, soup, chicken, or pretty much anything you are having for supper. My mom has her cornbread with buttermilk but I haven't gotten that far yet. 

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