When I was growing up, I was often jealous of those around me who had "ethnic" backgrounds that gave them lots of unusual foods and celebrations. A Midwestern farm kid whose family had been in the US since as far back as the 18th century, our food seemed plain and ordinary at times. Oh, there were lots of summer garden meals with corn on the cob, tomatoes straight from the garden and big bowls of creamy mashed potatoes served alongside the chicken or beef that came from our very own farm animals. At Christmas, we made pfefferneuse, but these spicy German cookies were from a recipe shared by a good friend of my parents. When my sister married a Norwegian, we got to sample krumkake for the first time, and an Italian exchange student shared stories of what "real" pizza was like back in his home town.
Still, what "ethnic" food did we really have? I guess it took a move to the mountains of Virginia to start to understand that our cuisine really was a little bit unique. It didn't take very long to learn that stuffing (or dressing) at Thanksgiving could be very dry, with lots of cornbread and not at all like the much more moist recipe I had eaten all my life to that point.
And beans and cornbread? Ah, that is when I realized I really did still have some New England roots.
One evening, I invited a neighbor child to stay for dinner. What are you having was her first question, so I said we'd be having beans and cornbread. "My favorite," she squealed, so she called her mom and the permission was given.
Soon enough, we were sitting down to eat, and I brought the dark brown, molasses and mustard spiced beans out of the oven and placed the hot casserole next to the basket of still steaming yellow cornbread squares. As she gazed at the dishes before her, Marla's shoulders sagged and her expectant smile turned into a sad little face.
"I thought we were having beans and cornbread," she whispered.
"But we are," I explained, and then I stopped. I had been at another neighbor's home just a few days before and watched as she dumped pinto beans into a large pot and began cooking them for the evening meal. She stirred in some salt, but that was the extent of the seasoning she used. When I asked for the rest of the recipe, she said that was it; she hadn't had time to pick up any bacon or fatback to add to the beans, but this would be fine with the greens she was also cooking for the meal.
Then I thought back to some cornbread I had seen served at a restaurant near our home. It was flat and hard and "lily-livered" white, very different from the golden, sweet, and moist side I had enjoyed all my life.
Aha! The difference in regional cuisine couldn't have been illustrated more starkly. Marla gamely tried the dishes she was served and then, as I recall, we made some peanut butter sandwiches to make sure she didn't go home hungry. And though I have since learned to love pinto beans in their many (mostly Mexican) guises, I have not moved from my "classic" corn bread recipe--maybe the closest thing to an "ethnic food" I can summon up.
As presented below, this is virtually the same as the now stained recipe card from my high school home ec class. I now use stone-ground cornmeal exclusively, and I use either all butter, canola oil, or some combination of the two. I often substitute up to half of the flour with whole wheat flour, and I have discovered that the original four teaspoons of baking powder is really not necessary.
Following the main recipe is a variation using biscuit mix, making this an even quicker quick bread, and then, instructions for making a cast iron skillet cornbread that has a lovely crunchy crust even as the center is moist and rich with sweet corn flavor. (Sorry, friends from the south, but I just have to call this the "real" recipe.)
The "Real" Corn Bread
1 c yellow corn meal
1 c flour
¼ c sugar
1 T baking powder
½ t salt
1 c milk*
¼ c soft shortening
1. Sift dry ingredients together.
2 Add egg, milk, and shortening. Beat with egg beater till smooth, about 1 minute.
3. Pour into a well oiled 8 or 9 inch square pan.
4. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. (If a glass pan is used, reduce temperature to 400 degrees.)
*May substitute 1 cup water and 1/3 c nonfat dry milk powder. Mix the powder with the other dry ingredients.
Serve warm or cold, with butter and jam or honey, or as a wonderful side for chili.
This doubles easily--use a 9 X 13 pan.
Biscuit Mix Variation
1 ¼ c biscuit mix (Bisquick for example)
1 c cornmeal
¼ c sugar
1 c milk
Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread
Put about a tablespoon of the butter into a 9 or 10 inch cast iron skillet and put the skillet in the oven.
Turn the oven to 425 degrees and proceed to stirring up the cornbread.
When the oven has reached its full temperature, carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and swirl to be sure the butter covers the entire bottom of the pan.
Spread the batter into the hot pan and return it to the oven. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes.
One more thing--while you are mixing up a batch and have all the ingredients out for measuring, measure out the dry ingredients for another batch (or more) directly into a quart-sized freezer bag. (This is especially good using the dry milk variation, stirring in the powder with the other dry ingredients.) Use your hands to mix the ingredients in the bag and label with date and information on the liquid ingredients needed, and you will have a "mix" just as convenient at one of those little boxes you might buy in the store--without all the extra preservatives and at a lot better price! These can be kept on the shelf for a few weeks and in the refrigerator for even longer.
Note the following photo. If you get a few cracks in the top of your baked cornbread--don't worry! That is just the way this quick bread sometimes bakes. In fact, it just shows that you have baked this yourself, from scratch.