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Archive for October, 2019

The wrong cornbread.

If you have known me for more than 15 minutes you probably know that I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly and tall, or cakelike. Grandma’s cornbread was flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have ever found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe in The Joy of Cooking. The name just about nails it, but it’s not exactly right, either.

I have the written recipe—I was alert enough to ask Grandma for it before she died—but it has never turned out right for me, and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong. I should have carefully measured the ingredients she used, noted the brand of cornmeal, and stolen the pan she baked it in. What I do know is this: Her recipe began with softening two or three biscuits in hot water. She then stirred in cornmeal, salt, and milk. As the oven preheated, she put lard (or shortening) in a 10 X 7 pan and placed it in the oven to melt. Once it melted she took it out and added the batter, which baked in a hot oven until browned.

That recipe has never worked for me. I have many sheets of paper with different versions of Grandma’s recipe—with two biscuits, three biscuits, self-rising cornmeal, white cornmeal, yellow cornmeal, an egg, more hot water, less milk. And yes, I am keeping very careful notes each time I make it, in hopes that one day I’ll hit it right and have the magic formula. (One of these variations even has a note written next to it: “This may be it!” The next time I used those instructions to make cornbread, it didn’t work out at all.)

Several years ago, at my uncle’s funeral in eastern North Carolina, one of the many items brought to the house for the family was a plate of cornbread. It looked like Grandma’s. When I tasted it, it tasted like Grandma’s. “Who brought this cornbread?” I demanded. Word came back to me that it was from a neighbor and distant cousin by marriage. Not being the time or place, precisely, to order someone to bring me that recipe, I made more gentle inquiries later on. Evidently they were too gentle.

This winter while visiting my cousins and aunt, I decided it was time to try again. I said to my cousin Rob, “I want to try to get that cornbread recipe. I believe it’s made the same way as Grandma’s.”

Rob pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll ask her right now,” he said, and he sent a text message to the neighbor/cousin. Within minutes, he had it, and in a few more seconds, so did I. My euphoria was brief; the ingredients list included Jiffy cornbread mix and a can of corn. It had sugar in it. This was modern cornbread, and not the ancient version I craved.

Still, I figured what the hell? I might as well give it a shot. So I did, and the cornbread was delicious. But it was not Grandma’s.

Hopes dashed, I remembered hearing that Rob’s sister, my cousin Dianne, had also been interested in recreating Grandma’s cornbread. I figured it was time to join forces. I wrote to her by e-mail of my failures, my dreams, and my disappointment. She wrote back:

Well, if you are going to work at it you may as well have what I have.  We took Grandma’s recipe, Grandmama Lane’s recipe, and Mama on the phone and Chuck came up with a recipe.  His even has notes on what to do when there is no milk!  As I was going through the box, I found Miss Sybil’s too.  I don’t think we tried it.  Chuck’s is good.  It’s just not Grandma’s.  

Not only had Dianne sent her version of Grandma’s recipe, she had sent Miss Sybil’s, Chuck’s, and her Grandmama Lane’s. She also sent copies of recipes in Grandma’s handwriting for a number of other things: Apple Snack Cake, Brownies, Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Yellow Cake. It was like hitting the jackpot at a slot machine, and having jillions of coins come spilling out. I didn’t know whether to collect them all carefully in a bucket, or roll on the floor and let them rain down on me.

I tried following Dianne’s version of Grandma’s recipe, which differed from mine slightly, but not enough to make a difference in the finished product. Once again, I was out of luck. Dispirited, I vowed (again) never to try to make cornbread again, at least not in an attempt to make it like Grandma’s.

But of course I will. Because there’s always a moment, right before I taste the cornbread, when I feel like I might have it. It smells wonderful, and the top is dark golden brown, and the edges are brown and crispy. In that moment I feel as if the spell is broken, and this pan of bread is exactly what I have yearned for over so many years.

And frankly, that feeling is worth a lot.

So I know I will try again at some point, but in the meantime I’ve been making a more modern bread product: Keto Biscuits. I’m not sure where the original recipe came from, exactly, so I can’t credit the cook. But I have renamed it to bring it in line with my eastern North Carolina roots. Because the biscuits are made in a jumbo muffin tin and come out looking rather like low-rise muffins, I call them “muscuits.”

Muscuits
(makes 6)
1 ½ c. almond flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tblsp. baking powder
2 eggs
1/3 c. sour cream
4 tblsp. melted butter

Whisk the sour cream into the melted butter, then whisk in the eggs. Add dry ingredients and blend. Spoon batter into a jumbo muffin pan and bake at 400 degrees until brown (about 13 minutes).

Muscuits are good with muscadine jelly (naturally), but they are also delicious with sausage and yellow mustard, or ham, or with soups and stews. They are hearty, providing the strength and fortification needed to tackle any challenge—like a fresh attempt at making Grandma’s cornbread.

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