There is nothing more nostalgic than the smell of food from your childhood. Growing up, I had two favorite corn dishes, spoonbread and cornbread. Both are southern staples, but cornbread seems to be experiencing a real revival across American restaurant menus. I order it just about any time I see it, but none have been as overwhelmingly flavorful and evocative of dinners at my Grandma Nita’s house as the cornbread at Sean Brock’s restaurant Husk in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sean’s devotion to heirloom grains, seeds, produce and meat is something I truly admire. Although he’s been famous in the food world for some time now, I learned about him primarily through his stint as a host on my favorite television show, Mind of a Chef. Sean’s recipes are all about bringing back ingredients and traditions of the low country and his beautiful new cookbook, Heritage, celebrates that region’s diverse cooking styles with a reverence and level of research that’s rarely seen. What struck me most about Heritage, in addition to the delicious food, was how much work Sean puts into connecting the traditions we associate with southern cooks with their roots in Africa. To say that the reasons behind those connections are unfortunate would be a massive understatement, but Sean takes an honest look at the way the slave trade affected early food in the south and how those ingredients and cooking styles connect to our contemporary kitchens. Heritage is equal parts recipe and history book and I am so glad to see more southern chefs digging deeper into the roots behind the food we make and enjoy today. Speaking of enjoying, I’m thrilled to be sharing my favorite of Sean’s recipes, his cornbread, here on DS today. It is perfect for the holidays, but it is equally delicious at any other time, day or event. You just cannot beat the crispy edges and soft, pillowy corn center. xo, grace
Excerpted from Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards.
Makes one 9-inch round loaf
My favorite ball cap, made by Billy Reid, has a patch on the front that reads “Make Cornbread, Not War.” I’m drawn to it because cornbread is a sacred thing in the South, almost a way of life. But cornbread, like barbeque, can be the subject of great debate among Southerners. Flour or no flour? Sugar or no sugar? Is there an egg involved? All are legitimate questions.
When we opened Husk, I knew that we had to serve cornbread. I also knew that there is a lot of bad cornbread out there in the restaurant world, usually cooked before service and reheated, or held in a warming drawer. I won’t touch that stuff because, yes, I am a cornbread snob. My cornbread has no flour and no sugar. It has the tang of good buttermilk and a little smoke from Allan Benton’s smokehouse bacon. You’ve got to cook the cornbread just before you want to eat it, in a black skillet, with plenty of smoking-hot grease. That is the secret to a golden, crunchy exterior. Use very high heat, so hot that the batter screeches as it hits the pan. It’s a deceptively simple process, but practice makes perfect, which may be why many Southerners make cornbread every single day.
4 ounces bacon, preferably Benton’s
2 cups cornmeal, preferably Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Yellow Cornmeal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1½ cups whole-milk buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Put a 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to preheat for at least 10 minutes.
2. Run the bacon through a meat grinder or very finely mince it. Put the bacon in a skillet large enough to hold it in one layer and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t burn, until the fat is rendered and the bits of bacon are crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bits of bacon to a paper towel to drain, reserving the fat. You need 5 tablespoons bacon fat for this recipe.
3. Combine the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and bits of bacon in a medium bowl. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat and combine the remaining 4 tablespoons fat, the buttermilk, and egg in a small bowl. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just to combine; do not overmix.
4. Move the skillet from the oven to the stove, placing it over high heat. Add the reserved tablespoon of bacon fat and swirl to coat the skillet. Pour in the batter, distributing it evenly. It should sizzle.
5. Bake the cornbread for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm from the skillet.