“The North thinks it knows how to make cornbread, but this is gross superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern Cornbread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.”- Mark Twain.
This quote is the opening of an entire chapter of my dear friend Adrian Miller’s book “Soul Food The Surprising story of an American Cuisine one plate at a time”.
It’s here that he writes in great detail about one of the south’s most beloved foods- Cornbread, along with the history of it.
It doesn’t get more southern than a thick slice or quartered off hunk of crumbling cornbread, does it? I’m sure there would be as many different answers to that question as there are debates about the right way to go about making it.
White cornmeal over yellow, is it baked in a skillet or not..?
Mostly it’s the addition of sugar, which to some is a sin worthy of asking the good Lord for forgiveness. However, when you venture into what people refer to as the “soul food” realm of all things food, cornbread is undoubtedly sweet. Either using a trusty box of Jiffy or divulging in a more from scratch method, you better not forget that sugar, or you’ll be talked about amongst the tables in the fellowship hall after church.
Cornbread was easily taught to me as a teenager, melting butter and sugar together before mixing it into the dry ingredients with “a little” egg to “stick it all together”.
My instructions were about as vague as that and accompanied with the tale of my Great Grandfathers- Great Uncle Henry and the oral history of making ash cakes while working in the fields of a South Carolina rice plantation. A method adapted from the Native Americans- mixing cornmeal with water, placing it between two leaves and covering the leaves with hot ashes.
It was that story that stayed with me, one evening standing in some wayward field on the outskirts of Mebane, North Carolina. A group of us, home from college, decided to recreate the ash cake, mainly due to the urgings of a friend studying African American history at Winston Salem State. I was nominated to be the cook while he struck the fire and our friends looked on in amused silence. I remember the brightness of that fire on an already sweltering June night, Stephen (my scholarly- now history teacher) friend telling me to recount the story that my grandmother shared with me as I went about my way mixing cornmeal in a plastic bowl while spilling water on my shoes.
He recorded my nervous ramblings on an old Sony micro-cassette voice recorder that would skip, turn off and have to be restarted again and again. Using some collard leaves, I went about the process of cooking the ash cakes over the fire, burning through several until we got it right.
The night sky was pitch black when we finished, embers lit up around us like fire flies buzzing in glass mason jars. The smoke rose up clogging my eyes, making it hard to focus on the task at hand. He played the story back as we attempted to eat the fruits of our ash filled labor in utter silence. I’d be lying if I said the ash cakes were some enjoyable culinary discovery, because they weren’t. Yet I doubt that was what my dear friend was in search of while conducting the experiment of cooking as our ancestors did.
With the improvement of their circumstances, African American cooks would evolve the ash cake, from hoe cakes to hot water cornbread. Better access to milk and eggs brought about the concept of spoon and egg breads along with the much loved skillet cornbread baked on the stove or in the oven.
Abby Fisher, an ex-slave who went on to publish the first cookbook written by an African American woman- her recipe for Plantation Cornbread or Hoe Cakes (which doesn’t call for sugar) reads as follows:
“Half tablespoonful of lard to a pint of meal, one teacup of boiling water. Stir well and bake on a hot griddle. Sift in meal one teaspoonful of soda”
In another recipe she calls for “sweet milk” which would’ve been fresh whole milk. I’ve taken that, the dispute over white cornmeal being the better choice and adapted this recipe for Sweet Milk Hot Water Cornbread, using the sizzling griddle Mrs. Fisher calls for and adding my own touch of sweetness with sweetened condensed milk. Crispy edges give these a little crunch as you bite into them, followed by soft bread like centers with a dab of sweetness.
Sweet Milk Hot Water Cornbread
Prep Time: 20 mins Cook Time- 15 mins Yields- about 10 cakes
2 cups white stone ground cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 1/4 cup boiling water
Vegetable oil for frying (about 3 tablespoons + more if needed)
In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal. baking powder and salt to incorporate the dry ingredients. Stir in the milk and 1 tablespoon of oil to combine. Slowly pour in the boiling water, stirring to combine the ingredients until the batter is the consistency of grits or thick mashed potatoes.
In a medium sized skillet, pour about 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil and heat over medium high heat until it simmers. Scoop the batter into 1/4 measuring cup and drop the batter into the oiled skillet, frying in batches. Fry each until crisp around the edge, flipping the batter over and cooking it on the other side. This takes about 2-3 minutes on each side. Be sure to watch as they will brown quickly over the high heat. Remove each cooked cornbread from skillet and drain on a paper towel lined plate. These are best served warm.
These have just the right hint of sweetness. Brush a touch of melted butter over the tops and really set these off.
*Don’t throw away the unused can of condensed milk. When transferred to a glass or plastic container that has a tight cover, it can last up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.*