Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Cornbread Chronicles

My messy cupboard door -- very handy!

Taped to the inside of a cupboard door in my kitchen is a recipe for buttermilk cornbread. I like that it’s simple, calling only for cornmeal, no flour, and that it uses buttermilk, which I adore, and just before it’s put into the oven the leavens are added – baking soda and baking powder, along with some salt –to, in effect, react with the buttermilk and create an explosion. Then it’s scraped  into the greased, smoking hot cast iron skillet in which bacon has been rendered and put back in the oven for 20 minutes.

I like it in theory, but my family is unimpressed, and so I don’t like it in fact. In spite of the buttermilk/baking soda catalyst, it’s really quite a heavy slab. And, if you heat the pan with bacon in it it’s liable to end up burned to a crisp.  Beyond that, there was something... missing, something not quite right with it.

But after a very interesting, if esoteric, conversation on-line with some food academics about the practice of adding lye to water in which to cure ripe olives; and after I confessed that several years ago I used Drano (a new, unopened can) as the lye in question and never had I tasted more buttery olives; and after I began to think about how lye or other such esoteric ingredients are used in other food processes, I had an aha moment about that cornbread.

Note: Lye, the result of filtering water through wood, or other ashes, is also called potash (as a matter of curiosity, Samuel Hopkins, of Pittsford, was granted the first US patent in 1790 for an “improvement in the making of pot ash or pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.”), or sodium hydroxide, and is incredibly alkaline, and very caustic. Indeed, it should not be stored in glass bottles because it eats the glass.  Slaked lime can be substituted for lye in some instances.
You see, the reason Mexican cuisine, so heavily based on corn, has proven healthy over the eons is that somehow they learned very early on to soak the corn in, in effect, lye. Mexicans burned sea shells and limestone and added the ashes to the water in which they cooked the corn kernels because they’d found it took off the kernel’s hard-to-digest hulls; and as a revolutionary by-product, as Rick Bayless writes in his book, Authentic Mexican, “... their bodies felt more strength: The corn now gave them more minerals like niacin, more protein at their service, perhaps more calcium. They had made the one nutritionally energizing discovery that could yield a strong race: nixtamalization (from the Nahuatl nextli, ‘ashes’ [and tamal, “dough”]).”

And that brings me to the real underlying unease I had with that cornbread. You like to think that what you put on your family’s table has more going for it than just good taste – you like to think that it is good for them, that it contributes to their well-being.  While, to my mind, bleached white wheat flour has very little going for it, cornmeal, except for being gluten-free, has very little more. But if I were to substitute an energized, nixtamalized  corn product for that cornmeal, wouldn’t I be happier? And so I tried it – substituting 3 to 1 a mixture of masa harina to grits for the cornmeal – and the results were phenomenal!
While some people nixtamalize their own corn, I wasn’t ready for that.
The Ingredients -- cold pan, frozen cracklings, ready to go in the cold oven

I had some Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina and Corn Grits or Polenta. The masa is very fine, like a flour, and the kernels from whence it comes have been slaked with lime; while the grits are not nixtamalized but are coarse cut, and so contribute texture to the finished cornbread, and texture is always good. And instead of the bacon, I melted half a cup of cracklings (leftover from rendering lard) in the pan.

And perhaps it should be mentioned, I swapped out my old tins of baking powder and baking soda for new. They do wear out, you know.

Although the plain cornbread was too good for words, next time I added about a cup of frozen corn kernels to it, caramelizing them first in a frying pan in the time it took the oven and skillet to heat up. And the time after that I added some chopped jalapenos along with the corn, and sprinkled Cabot cheese over the top. Now, I imagine that a handful of cubed ham would be very nice. Maybe some cumin seeds.

Because this is light, fluffy, moist, robust, crispy-bottomed, ham-fisted cornbread! It’s very accepting. And it’s very forgiving, as I found out one afternoon when I was making it as my contribution to our Sunday Cocktails at Five. I shoved the hot skillet back into the oven, spanked my hands together – job well done! – when my eye lit on the little bowl of leaveners! Yikes! I had forgotten to mix in the baking soda, powder, and salt at the last minute! I stood frozen for a split second, swore, tore open the oven, scraped out the pan into the bowl – all those lovely cracklings no longer on the bottom, cheese on the top, but stirred altogether in with the leaven -- scraped it back into the pan and back into the oven. It was... still VERY good. You can’t ruin this stuff!
This isn't a great photo, but you can see the texture is light and moist, and there's a nice skin on the bottom of the piece on the right. Yum!

Of course I couldn’t leave well enough alone, so I called Maya Zelkin who I knew could tell me something about making masa nixtamalera. I was answered by Maya’s young son, Manolo, who told me his mother was at a pottery show. I was about to say goodbye when I realized that Manolo could probably tell me how it was done. “Oh sure,” he said, “I’ve done it hundreds of times.” It involved, he said, buying big sacks of “I think dried” dent corn, and soaking them “or maybe cooking them” in water with “slaked lime”. Maya told me next day that she boils the corn in the lime water until it’s soft, then let’s it soak overnight.. Next day they rub the skins off the kernels, “but we don’t get anal about it. You can drive yourself crazy that way.” Then she grinds the kernels with a Corona grain grinder into a soft dough from which she makes tortillas. I’d like to try stirring buttermilk and the leavens into it for cornbread. Maya invited me up to participate in this process when the nutziness of the holidays is over and I accepted.

Buttermilk Corn Bread
  • 1/3 cup of bacon grease or lard, or ½ cup of cracklings
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups buttermilk (you may need more)
  • 1 1/4  cups masa harina (5 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup grits (3 ounces)
  • 1 scant teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 scant teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 heaping teaspoon salt
  • (optional) 1 cup corn kernels, drained; chopped jalapenos to taste; cubed ham; grated cheese; whatever... I think apples might be good...
Put the grease, lard, or cracklings into a cold 10” cast-iron skillet. Put the skillet into a cold oven and set the oven to 450°. (Just because you think I’m lardcore, do. not. skimp on the fat. There is none in the batter, itself, and you have to get some unctuosity in there somehow.)

Whisk the egg and then whisk in the buttermilk. Whisk in the masa and grits. Set aside.

Into a small bowl measure the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside in a prominent place so you don’t forget them.

Prepare whichever optional ingredients you might choose to use.

When the oven reaches temperature, take the skillet from it and place it on a burner (careful! I leave a potholder draped over the handle to remind myself not to grab it).

Add whatever optional ingredients you desire to the buttermilk/cornmeal mixture. If it’s too stiff stir in a little more buttermilk – it should be thick but stirrable. Add the baking powder/soda/salt mixture to it, mix it all up and pour and scrape the batter into the hot and smoking pan. Sprinkle the cheese over the top if you’re using it, put that hot skillet back into the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes.

That’s it!
Note: While I am talking to Maya I am also making one last batch of plain cornbread. The pan is heating while we talk, and then the pan is ready and I tuck the phone beneath my chin and scrape the buttermilk mixture into it and put it in the oven, set the timer to 20 minutes, talk some more and as we’re saying goodbye I notice the little red bowl of leavens sitting still on the counter! The timer now reads 10 minutes. Too late. Apparently I’m making a big, fat tortilla!
The leavens and salt -- What you should. NOT. FORGET!

Yes, I am aware that talking about turkey today would’ve been relevant, but you could always make a cornbread stuffing. Stuff it, shove it in the oven, and it’ll get done in a couple hours. Make your mashed potatoes, your squash, your Brussels sprouts, your pumpkin pie (all locally grown, of course). It will all be delicious if you’re not afraid of salt, butter and fowl fat, and hugs from your relatives and friends – and please don’t be. Enjoy your family, your company, and/or your waiter.  Think what you would like to be able to say on November 25 of 2011, and make it happen in this year in between.

Think hard, now!


Dog Clocks said...

I can't believe you showed the inside of the cupboard, it's like airing dirty laundry! Privacy, please!

Dog Clocks said...

I think I might have figured out how to post comments on your articles!

Penny said...

Thanks for this recipe Sharon. We love cornbread and David's secretary Rosa made the best southern cornbread with buttermilk and lots of fat. I want to try it this way. I knew nothing about lye.

Penny said...

By the way, is this gluten free with the masa harina and the corn grits?

Alchemy Gardens said...

Finally got around to reading this. I love Manolo's quote--I can just picture him saying it. And, you were right about Maya holding off on the workshops. Rats! Hopefully we can both convince her to give us some private tortilla making lessons :)

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Dear Dog, wait till you see the next post for Penny -- my kitchen as it is in the hubbub of cooking without cleaning as I go.
And Penny, I think it's all gluten free -- it's corn, no flour, nothing else that could contribute.
And Lindsay, that would be fun! The three or four of us... (including Manolo.)