Cornbread

Measuring out homemade cornmeal for cornbreadCornbread has developed a regional connotation in North America: the mere mention of the dish awakens borrowed images of the American south.  I resent this, because I know that my dad ate cornbread growing up in eastern Ontario.  They called it johnnycake, which is a very old, eastern North American term derived (we think) from “journey cake,” referring to the dry bread’s portability.[1]

The bulk of the transcendent cornmeal we made this fall was baked into cornbread and consumed with butter and maple syrup.  Below is my go-to recipe.  It makes a moist bread (mostly on account of the several types of fat in the recipe: full-fat milk and buttermilk, sour cream, canola oil…) with a fine texture and the characteristic cornbread crumble.  The subtle sweetness, distinct corn flavour, and flaky texture of the homemade cornmeal made this the single best loaf of cornbread that I’ve ever put in my face.

Cornbread

Ingredients

  • 165 g all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 135 g cornmeal
  • 40 g dark brown sugar, pressed through a mesh strainer to remove large clumps
  • 13 g baking powder
  • 3 g baking soda
  • 6 g salt
  • 115 g whole milk
  • 115 g full-fat buttermilk
  • 165 g sour cream
  • 100 g eggs (2 large eggs…)
  • 50 g neutral canola oil
Procedure
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter a loaf pan or terrine and line it with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  Combine the wet ingredients in another.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry.  Stir until all ingredients are combined.  Do not over-mix.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan.
  5. Bake until the centre of the cornbread is set (the toothpick test is pretty much infallible) and the top is lightly browned, 30-50 minutes, depending on the shape and weight of your cooking vessel.
  6. Let the cornbread cool before turning it out of the vessel.
  7. Consume with butter and maple syrup, as seen below.

A slice of cornbread with butter and maple syrup

 

1. Civitello, Linda.  Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition.  ©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Page 152.

Homemade Cornmeal

Dried cobs of cornMy bid for Bartlett’s: “Culinary invention has two mothers: scarcity and excess.”

I think everybody understands how scarcity can encourage adventurous eating.  We often say that the first man to eat a lobster, or an oyster, was a brave one, indeed.  But it’s when you find yourself with an overwhelming surfeit of food that you can start doing really interesting things.  The first person to press grapes to make wine must have had a lot of grapes, more than he could have eaten before they started rotting.  And the first person to distill wine to make brandy must have had an awful lot of awful wine.

I wrote earlier in the fall of our bountiful corn harvest, and of a few of the ways we prepared the fresh corn: grilled, creamed, and made into chowder.  We actually had so much corn that we were able to dry some. Lisa set the cobs on a rack in a low oven.  The kernels turned brownish, shrunk into their sockets, and started to look a bit like rows of teeth set in the jaws of an old man.

Dried kernels of corn, ready to be ground into cornmealOnce the cobs were dried through, the kernels popped off easily.  We ran them through a grain mill, and damned if we didn’t have the most flavourful cornmeal that’s ever been in our kitchen.  Between my nostalgia for eastern Ontario (where my dad grew up on cornbread, which they called “Johnnycakes”)  and my background as a line-cook (where I made polenta almost every week) I admit to going through more than my share of bland, industrially-processed cornmeal, so it’s a thrill to have this stuff around.

I once got in a polite argument with a chef I was working for.  He had polenta on his menu, and the recipe he had provided the prep cooks was from the Zuni Café Cookbook, a restaurant in San Francisco renowned for impeccable, fresh ingredients expertly but simply prepared.  The recipe had three ingredients: cornmeal, water, and butter.  I suppose there was salt, too.  Zuni Café no doubt was using the best corn grown in California, dried and freshly ground.  We were using Purity brand cornmeal from a large distributor.  Purity cornmeal tastes only vaguely of corn, and has the crunchy, siliceous texture of sand. It should only be used as a starchy conveyance for the warm, earthy flavours of stock, onions, garlic, melting cheese, butter, herbs, black pepper, and maybe a splash of vinegar.

Having now worked with our freshly milled cornmeal, I completely understand the Zuni recommendation for a light hand.  The flavour is amazing, sweet, and unmistakably corny.  It has an interesting texture, too: a little bit of the crunch you expect from cornmeal, but the grind has made it lighter, and flakier.  While Purity cornmeal needs an army of ingredients to make it flavourful, good cornmeal can definitely stand on its own.

This really was one of the most exciting things to happen in my kitchen this fall.  Stay tuned for a discussion on cornbread…

A fistful of homemade cornmeal

Peameal Bacon

Slices of homemade peameal baconIt’s always confused me that Americans call back bacon “Canadian bacon,” when it’s much more associated with Britain than Canada.  To my knowledge the only uniquely Canadian form of bacon is peameal bacon: cured pork loin rolled in ground split peas, which keeps the surface of the meat dry and inhibits microbial growth.  Sometime over the past century cornmeal has taken the place of peameal, but the name hasn’t changed.

This week I made two forms of peameal bacon: the contemporary favourite – lean, centre-cut pork loin, fat trimmed down, brined and rolled in cornmeal – and a rustic recontruction, inspired by the fantastic book The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.   I left an inch or two of fatty side meat on the loin, and after curing, rolled the meat in coarsely crushed yellow split peas.

In the end, the crushed split-peas were too coarse, making for a tooth-snapping bite.  The cornmeal had a better texture, but once the bacon had hung out in the fridge for a few days, the cornmeal absorbed moisture and lost its crispiness.

Use as you would back bacon.  Makes great sandwiches and bennies.  Below is a toasted English muffin, aged cheddar, peameal bacon, maple mustard, and poached egg:

Eggs St. Lawrence: English muffin, cheddar, peameal bacon, poached eggs, brown beans.