My attempt to locate online an unsweet cornbread recipe exactly like the one my mother and her mother made has failed but if you follow the above link to a wonderful blog about Appalachia and family you’ll find an approximation of it (I’ll give ours, below). The photo favors my mom’s cornbread, that’s for sure!
Well, the reason I embarked on a cornbread recipe hunt today is that while reading Gene Williamson’s book Of the Sea and Skies: Historic Hampton and Its Times I noticed that a supposed ancestor of ours, William Claiborne (via one of his descendant’s marriage to John Webb–the couple relocated to Georgia), had returned to Virginia in 1635 and set up a windmill and a second mill on the east side of the Southampton River at Mill Creek near Point Comfort in Hampton.
Though this busy fellow kept up his other pursuits as well such as fur trading and disputing with Lord Baltimore over Kent Island (a battle and an island he eventually lost to Maryland), Claiborne began grinding corn to make cornbread for it seems that his fellow colonists had acquired a taste “from the Indians and one they came to prefer over bread made from wheat”.
For this preference I certainly don’t blame them since cornbread that is moist not dry, not too crumbly or overly sweet, or is otherwise bordering on inedible, is delightfully scrumptious though of course a goodly amount of melted butter may be involved (which is seldom approved by medical doctors). No, cornbread isn’t for every day anymore but we do like to have it occasionally, waistlines notwithstanding.
So! Toss the egg, sugar, and bacon fat and let’s talk cornbread recipe which doesn’t have to be made in an iron skillet but usually should be. For you see, an iron skillet goes into a very hot oven (450, or I’d say 475 degrees to be turned down later as needed) with about an inch-worth of your preferred oil rolled around to coat the pan. My mom tended to use Crisco vegetable shortening but later switched to corn oil which is my preference. Now we don’t measure but if you’ve cooked cornbread before, I’m sure you can figure out the amounts especially when I tell you about the desired consistency of the batter, below, plus, the size of the skillet or pan is what counts.
A Simple (Unsweetened) Cornbread Recipe
Ingredients: self-rising cornmeal (the buttermilk kind of meal is good if you have it–white, not yellow–this is no cake recipe!), a generous amount of buttermilk (low fat if you must but regular is tastier), and about 3 tablespoons of oil stirred in. That’s it, folks. Consistency of the batter should be easy to pour, not stiff or dry. If it looks dry then the buttermilk hasn’t moistened all the grains of meal yet so add more buttermilk and stir well enough but don’t over-stir into a Goodnight Moon mush!
Carefully take from the oven the skillet of oil once it’s really hot but not smokey, pour a little of the hot oil into the batter, stir quickly, then pour the batter into the very hot skillet. You want the batter to crackle (the louder the better!) so that the crust will turn out brown and…well, crusty and on the thicker side. Bake in the oven turning down the heat to about 375 or 400 (you know your oven) for anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes depending on the thickness of the bread and size of your skillet or pan.
Once it’s out of the oven, test the center with a table knife or toothpick. If it comes out clean, it’s done. The middle of the top should be golden brown, the crust a darker brown, and the center on the moist side (yet fully cooked). If it needs to be put back in the oven, a sheet of foil may be placed across the top of the bread for 10 or more minutes in order to make certain that the center is done.
Now some of the recipes I’ve read online say to let it sit in the skillet for up to 30 minutes but I never do this since leaving the cornbread in the skillet more than a couple of minutes seems to increase the risk of it sticking to the pan which mucks up the lovely crust. And be sure to run a knife or spatula around the edge of the bread just after it comes out of the oven.
Once you turn the skillet upside down and plop the corn bread onto a platter, it will ‘set’ with crust intact and you have only to slice the bread and set the butter out! Good with all manner of greens, peas or beans, Mexican dishes, soups or stews, or alone if you wish. If you try this recipe (or already use a similar one from your own mama) please leave a comment here to tell me how your cornbread turned out!