Wednesday, February 24, 2010


The first colonists to arrive in the land that is now called New Bern were surprised to find that it was not empty; it was occupied by Neusioc and Tuscarora Indians, both Iroquoian.  The native Americans, who most likely migrated from central Mexico, brought corn seeds with them.  (Corn does not grow wild; it is a cultivated plant, probably derived from a grass.)   They knew how to dry and grind corn into corn meal that could be used to make corn cakes, pones and breads.  The European settlers were happy to learn about this wonderful life-saving grain -- it was unheard of in Europe in the early 1700's. 

And so, Southern cornbread was born.  Being from the North, I'd never eaten true Southern cornbread, and I wondered what all the fuss was about.  I liked my cornbread with lots of sweetener, and Southern cornbread has almost none.  How could it be good?  The biggest difference, though, is that it's baked in an iron skillet.  Well, I have an iron skillet.  Admittedly, it doesn't get much use, but I dusted it off for this experiment.  Neither my husband nor I were prepared for just how good Southern cornbread is.  All I can say is I will never make corn muffins again -- that is, unless I can find an iron muffin pan.  The crust that forms from baking the bread in an iron skillet in a very hot (450F) oven is divine; the texture is dense but light and moist; and the flavor of the cornbread is complex and sweet.  I must give kudos to the South.  My only regret is that I waited so long to indulge in this fine Southern comfort food. 

The story of the Indians and the colonists could have been a sweet one with a happy ending, if only the early colonists had treated their friendly benefactors well.  Instead, they took whatever the Indians offered them and repaid their kindness by kidnapping and selling their men, women and children into slavery and boldly encroaching on their land without even a thought of payment.  The colonists' attitudes were that they (the colonists) had a perfect right to be here, and the Indians did not.  This led to several wars and a massacre of about 130 of the colonists in 1711.  And the rest of the story is, well, history.

Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's personal chef, has a recipe for classic Southern cornbread that I tweaked.  Art insists good cornbread can only be made by using stone-ground cornmeal. 

Art uses oil, not butter, for a moister bread.  I reduced the oil slightly and added applesauce, caramelized onions, garlic, fresh sage, and cheddar cheese.  If you don't have a 10" iron skillet, I heartily recommend that you go out and purchase one to make this wonderfully moist, flavorful bread.  It is so so worth it.

Classic Southern Cornbread
Adapted from "Back to the Table," by Art Smith
Rating:  10 out of 10

2 Tbsp. Smart Balance buttery spread (or oil or butter)
1-1/2 cups chopped sweet onion
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh sage
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups stone-ground whole-grain cornmeal
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups buttermilk (or 2 cups milk + 2 Tbsp. vinegar)
2 large eggs
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil, plus about 2-3 Tbsp. for the pan
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese

In a medium skillet, saute Smart Balance and onions over medium-high heat till onions are wilted and beginning to brown, about 5-6 minutes.  Lower heat to medium-low; add sage; stir; continue to cook another 10-15 minutes, or till onions are lightly browned.  Add garlic and cook another minute.  Remove from heat and cool.

Pour 2-3 Tbsp. oil, or enough to cover the bottom of a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet.  Place the skillet on the center rack of oven and heat to 450F.  It will take almost 10 minutes to heat the pan and oil, plenty of time to mix the cornbread.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry igredients (cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt).  Make a well in the center.  In a medium bowl, whisk the liquids and cheese (buttermilk, eggs, oil, applesauce and cheddar), being sure the eggs are well combined. 

Pour the liquids into the dry ingredients, all at once, and stir with a spoon or spatula lightly, just barely combining everything.  Do not overbeat, and please don't worry about lumps. 

Using potholders, carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour in the batter.  Return to oven and bake 20-25 minutes, or till bread springs back when pressed in the center.  Transfer to wire rack to let stand 5 minutes, then turn out onto a plate or bread board. 

You can also serve this directly from the skillet, using a hot plate or trivet underneath the pan; but do be careful as the skillet will remain hot and should not be touched with bare hands.  Slice into wedges and serve with Smart Balance or butter.  Yield:  8 servings


  1. Perfect cornbread, just the way it should be!

    Judy, thanks for the history behind this great Southern classic.

  2. Being a northerner, I like my sweet cornbread but with all your high praises, I'm going to have to give this a try. I have a skillet that's been neglected..will certainly give this a try. I've seen cast iron muffin pans in the antique mall; now I know why they're made. May just have to snatch one up the next time I see one!

  3. Here, in the UK, we call cornmeal polenta.. I love it made the Italian way with lots of cheeses melted through ... or letting it set and slicing it through horizontally, filling the middle with MORE cheese and heating it again so it becomes a polenta pie! I'm going to try your way, too!

  4. Wendy, In the US, stone-ground cornmeal is not as coarsely ground as polenta.

  5. This cornbread is so intriguing with the sage and applesauce. It looks wonderful!

  6. My goodness, this looks amazing. Its going into my bookmarks.
    *kisses* HH

  7. Hello, Judy,

    What a terrific article and as always, mouth watering photos! You are truly gifted. I'm looking forward to seeing you in action as a Judge for the Neuse Riverkeepers "Taste of Coastal Carolina"!

    Keep up the great work!



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