A Recipe for an American Sacrament
When I came to the United States, cornbread was a revelation. Corn originated here and took over the world. There are national corn dishes all over the world, Italian polenta being an example of a notorious one. American cornbread, however, is the corniest corn dish of them all, is more American than Apple Pie, and deserves the bow of every immigrant.
I set out to taste cornbread during my travels across the United States since arriving here about 30 years ago. I took notes until I could identify no new patterns in the recipes. Then I tested 10 different ingredient and process configurations in search of creating one that would make a tourist from a continent other than the Americas stop and say “Oh, wow, this.”
I want them to, like me, realize that this is what we all suspected corn can do but never quite experienced it. And then I want them to take the bodily memory of this cornbread experience and take it home as their soul’s precious souvenir and the sacrament taken from this land.
So, here it is. My tried and true. A basic recipe, plus variations, all in gratitude to Native Americans’ gift to the world and the Great Spirit watching over us all.
1. Make it in a way that it could work as the main dish, not only as a sidekick.
2. Include bacon and bacon drippings. This is across the board agreement of the American cooks I trusted. However, the times they are a-changin’, so develop a vegetarian version too.
3. Use super coarse polenta to add roughness and that crunch-under-the-tooth sensation.
4. Use buttermilk + baking soda + as little flour as possible to achieve a comforting level of softness as a contrast to the above.
5. For sweetness, texture, juiciness (and for experiencing Summer long into the Fall and Winter), use as much corn kernels as possible without overtaking the dish.
6. Minimize the use of sweeteners, just enough to round out the flavor while keeping it a savory dish. Hence only one teaspoon as you shall see.
7. Give it a fairly strong cheese kick. This is just personal.
8. Have enough browning happening on the bottom, sides, and top of the dish to bring out corn umami (toasted corn is the most umami-rich grain there is).
Time: 1 hour (25 min preparation + 25 min baking + 10 min cooling)
Servings: 20. Yes, this is a big batch and worth going extreme. You can eat two or three servings as a main dish and freeze the rest to pull out as you wish.
Mindset: Ritual of giving thanks.
Ingredients in order of use:
· 1/4 lb of bacon (or Veggie Bacon Strips by Morning Star Farms, widely available and the best vegetarian option, with 1/3 cup of grapeseed or corn oil)
· 1 ½ cups of very coarse polenta
· ½ cup white all-purpose flour
· 1 tsp salt
· 1 tsp baking soda
· 1 tsp of sugar, honey, maple syrup, or another sweetener equivalent
· 6 large eggs
· 2 cups of buttermilk
· 2 tsp of red wine vinegar
· 4 cups kernel corn kernels (fresh, defrosted, or can)
· 10 oz of aged white cheddar cheese coarsely grated
Directions: Feel the ground under your feet between each of the steps.
Step 1: Heat oven to 400 degrees with the oven rack in the middle of the oven
Step 2: In a pan in the oven at 300 degrees or in a skillet with medium heat, spread thin slices of bacon and ½ cup of water until water evaporates and bacon gets crisp (with Veggie Bacon and oil version, you don’t need water). After cooling it a bit, remove bacon and use all the bacon/oil drippings to grease a 9 x 13 inch pan.
Step 3: In a small bowl, beat the eggs briefly, buttermilk, vinegar, and sweetener. Stir to combine.
Step 4: In a larger bowl, combine and mix coarse polenta, flour, salt, and baking soda. Rinse, drain, and add kernel corn to the mixture and toss.
Step 5: Combine the batter and the dry mixture, and stir. Then stir in ¾ of the grated cheese.
Step 6: Pour half of the final mixture into the greased pan and spread evenly. Lay the bacon on the top evenly. Spread the other half of the batter over the bacon. Finish by sprinkling the remaining ¼ of cheese.
Step 7: Bake for 25 minutes or until an inserted tester comes out clean. If not golden, you can low-broil the top. Let it cool for at least 15 minutes.
Serve as a main dish with a side of salad, or with plain yogurt and radishes. Or, better, taste it and give yourself permission to create your own meal around this dish. If you are using it from the fridge, warm it up in mini toaster (microwave would do it too) enough for the fat to loosen and for the first hint of the scent to reach you.
Cut the amounts in half and use preheated cast iron. Cut down baking time by five minutes.
Use ½ cup olive oil and 2 tbsp of unsalted butter instead of bacon. Use some to grease the pan and mix the rest in the batter.
If you don’t have coarse polenta, use cornmeal.
Pour the final mixture into a cupcake tray instead and bake for 15 minutes or so. You can cut bacon in pieces and put them in the cupcake liners before you pour in the mixture and then add cheese on top.
Instead of kernels, use half of the same amount of creamed corn or corn tortilla torn into small pieces.
Change the cheese to parmesan and use more fine polenta. You might want to include some rosemary.
Play with green chiles.
Alter the recipe to reflect your story of gratitude for the land where the United States is a guest now.
Lay down flat on the ground and thank the earth for gifting you with life, holding you, and welcoming you back some fine day.