Geek Cuisine — Making Cornbread

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Growing up in the heart of Kentucky farm land, a staple of our diet was Cornbread.

For those who have never had cornbread. it is really more cake like than bread.  You don’t slice it in to thin slices and put sandwich meat or peanut butter and jelly on it.  Instead its typically baked in an iron skillet or other cooking dish, cut into squares like cake.  Its consistency is very grainy and it tends to crumble easily.

Sometimes its made into pancakes  and other time into muffins and its typically a salty buttermilk type of cornbread or a sweet cornbread.  Its color tends to indicate the type, with buttermilk tending to be whiter and sweet tending to be more yellow in color.

But this blog post isn’t about that.  It’s about learning to cook it.

Stereotypes are what they are, stereotypes and I’m an unfortunate by product of that.  Boys learned to use tools and dig holes in the ground and pepper rabbits with buckshot on a farm.  Girls learned how to cook.  In an urban situation, the actions by gender may be different but at the end of the day, more girls learn to cook than boys do.

Usually when you grow up, you learn to love your mother’s cooking.  Other mom’s just don’t do it right and if things work out correctly, those recipes pass down through the generations.   When I left the nest and got married, my wife (following stereotypes again) tends to do the cooking.  Cornbread was not a staple of hers growing up in Louisville and she tried to learn how to but we’ve always fallen back to using prepared mixes, with Jiffy’s sweet corn muffin mix being the best.

I lost my mom in 1997 and my father passed in 2002.  I sit here today, like I have for the past 15 years (10 in Dad’s case) in regret that I didn’t spend more time learning their recipes.  Mom’s Coca-Cola cake was legendary.  She made the meanest fried corn and country fried steak.  Man could she cook.  Of course she would always over cook her pasta until it was mush (no one is perfect).  And her cornbread was amazing.  Well I should say Dad’s cornbread.  Honestly I’m not sure I could tell you the difference, their cornbread was nearly identical, but I tend to remember Dad cooking it more than Mom.

Now while my father was one of the toughest old manly-man codgers you would have ever met.  There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix or build and he never let anything like work get in his way.  He hunted, fished, played sports, de-horned and de-boyed cows with the best of them.  He was rugged, strong and stubborn (He was quite loving and kind too, but he rarely let people see that).  He’s not the kind of person you would expect to have finesse in the kitchen.

I don’t know if he learned it from my grand-mother or not or if he picked up techniques from Mom, but I do know that during World War II, while fighting at places like the Battle of the Bulge, his military specialty besides dodging sniper bullets was a cook.  Well as a Staff Sergent, he probably was the boss of the cooks.  So in addition to knowing his concrete, his coal mining, his farming,  he was also a great cook.

Fast forward to modern times.  My wife, the Queen of Free, saves an enormous amount of money each year with her shopping savvy.  One of the rules that comes with that is you have to live with the brands that are on sale.  That means we don’t get a lot of Jiffy Corn Muffin mix any more.  Our pantry is ether loaded with Martha White mixes or bags of straight up corn meal, the main ingredient.

If I’m being honest, these non-JIffy mixes don’t measure up to the Jiffy mix and that doesn’t measure up to Mom and Dads.  Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to figure out just how to get to something closer to what I grew up with.  Being scientific in nature, I want a repeatable formula.  I’ve never tolerated a pinch of this and a dash of that.  Give me exact measurements, precise timings and I’m much happier.

I’ve observed.  I’ve experimented.  I’ve researched.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1.  Pre-heating your oven is critical to the cooking time.  If the formula, er. recipe says 20-25 minutes,  that’s assuming you are starting at the prescribed 425 degrees F.  Our oven can take 10 minutes to pre-heat and if you’re taking that 10 minutes of cooking time out of your 20 total, then your food will be under cooked, meaning longer cook times which can lead to burning.

2.  At least for cornbread, pre-heating the pan seems to also be important.  We have always poured the mix into a cold glass baking dish (we gave up on iron skillets a long time ago.  The concept of not washing them was difficult to deal with, but the rust was harder…  You put your oil/spray/lard into the pan and let it melt, over the pan and let it heat up.   This way as soon as the mix hits the pan it starts cooking.  This makes it come out of the pan much easier.

3. My cook times are still taking longer than they should.  I suspect that my oven (nearing 15 years old) may not be heating to the set temperature.  Sounds like I need a new oven!

Now I’m still off on taste.  The last batch I made was very dry almost like all the liquid baked out of it and I was left with corn meal.  I followed the formula exactly.  It was using a Martha White buttermilk formula and it only called for water or milk to be added.  I felt like it needed an egg or something to give it some glue.   The Martha White sweet cornbread mix I had used previously was also a bit drier than I liked but it did hold together better (and was more tasty).

I have a new batch that is cooling now that was made with a Mrs. Butterworth brand corn meal mix.  It asked for oil, an egg, milk and a little sugar.   I can’t wait to check it out and see how well it turned out.  It took about four minutes longer than the formula called for.

I will someday find the right formula.  But with having two boys who have not spent time in the kitchen, I doubt I will be able to pass my recipes down to a new generation.

Do you have a favorite cornbread recipe?  Post it in the comments below!


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