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

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Ask any Southerner where red velvet cake originated, and you will likely be told it was the South.  This famous derivative of devil's food cake is synonymous with the Land of Dixie, even though the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City had a hand in making it famous.  Just where the cake originated is an unsolved culinary mystery, but there are some things we do know --

1. A recipe for a new kind of chocolate cake (Devils’ Food) was published by Arnold & Company, Philadelphia, in 1902 in Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book. (Mrs. Rorer was a well-known cookery expert who founded and ran a cooking school in Philadelphia for 18 years.) If the cookbook was published in 1902, then the cake existed before 1902, because it takes some time to put together a cookbook and then have it published.  Interestingly, angel food cake came on the scene right before the turn of the century.  There was no red food coloring in the ingredient list of the original cake, but devil's food cake was so called because of the slight reddish tint from using smaller amounts of chocolate.  (Remember that brown, the color of chocolate, is a combination of red, blue and yellow on the color wheel.)  It was sometime later that cooks began using a red tint to enhance the red color.

2. The Perry Home Cook Book, published in 1920, contained a recipe for Philadelphia Red Cake. Soon after, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, NYC, made the cake famous.

3. There is no record of the cake's being made  in the South during the first decade of the 20th century.

It would seem that the cake originated in the North, but we may never know for sure.  What we do know is that the South has embraced this cake with fervency and called it its own.  The cake even has religious symbolism,  supposedly signifying the contrast between good (white frosting) and evil (red cake, the color of the devil).

The Waldorf-Astoria red velvet cake is filled and topped with an exquisite custard-type frosting that looks and tastes like whipped cream; but just about everyone now makes the cake with cream cheese frosting.  Either way, the cake is delicious; that is, if you can get past the vibrant red color.  Remember  I'm a Yankee in the South.  I didn't grow up on red velvet cake, and seeing that slice of red in front of me is somewhat off-putting.  So I close my eyes and savor the moment, trying not to think about what's in the red dye.
Red velvet is enjoying a resurgence of late.  There are red velvet brownies, cheesecake, whoopie pies, and cupcakes.  You can find red velvet confections in any part of the country now, not just in the South. 
Duncan Hines makes a red velvet cake mix, and you can also buy canned cream cheese frosting.  But there's just nothing like homemade.  If you’ve never made a red velvet cake from scratch, give it a try. It’s a special cake with a rich history and makes a dramatically beautiful Valentine’s Day or Christmas dessert. The version below, from Cook’s Country (an affiliate of Cook’s Illustrated) is very moist and flavorful, with dark red color. And if a layer cake scares you, just make cupcakes and pile the frosting on top. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Cook’s Country Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Bear Rating:  10 out of 10

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 Pinches salt, divided use
1 cup buttermilk*
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
2-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract, divided use
2 eggs
2 Tbsp. natural cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. red food coloring
3-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened, divided use
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 (8 oz.) pkgs. cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces, softened

Heat oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.  (Instead of flour, I coated my pans with cocoa powder.  Because I used springform pans, I also wrapped them in foil.)

Whisk flour, baking soda and pinch of salt in medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, 1 tsp. vanilla and eggs in large measuring cup. Mix cocoa with food coloring in small bowl until a paste forms.
With electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat 1-1/2 sticks butter and granulated sugar together until fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add one-third of flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Add half of buttermilk mixture; beat on low until combined, about 30 seconds. Repeat, ending with flour mixture. Add cocoa mixture; beat on medium speed until completely incorporated, about 30 seconds.
Using rubber spatula, give batter final stir. Scrape into prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center returns with just a few crumbs, about 25-30 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes, then turn out onto rack to cool completely.

With electric mixer, beat 2 sticks butter with confectioner’s sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add cream cheese; beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Beat in 1-1/2 tsp. vanilla and a pinch of salt.

When cakes are cooled, spread frosting over bottom side of one layer. Top with second layer, bottom side down. Spread remaining frosting all over cake. Garnish as desired, with coconut flakes, toasted chopped nuts, flaked white chocolate or fresh raspberries. Yield: 12 cake servings (or about 24 cupcakes)  (Note:  I made a half recipe, which was enough batter for 3 (4-1/2") springform pans.  This made 2 (3-layer) cakes.)

*Buttermilk substitute: Add 1 Tbsp. lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup of milk. Let stand 15 minutes.