Certain dishes seem to have no middle ground. They’re either incredibly good or absolutely suck. This is not always true! While every prepared food certainly has great and bad versions, most can also have serviceable versions that do the job. Take the caesar salad. I’ve had a few out of this world caesar salads, like the tableside caesar at the Dal Rae in Pico Rivera. Wow. I’ve had a few terrible caesars, too, that no one should ever have to eat. Most caesars, though, fall somewhere pleasantly in the middle. Not the best but easy and enjoyable to eat. Cheeseburgers (not talking fast food here! stay away, people) are the same. They can be great, they can be bad but usually they’re pretty good. This is why we see certain foods on just about every menu. A cook might not be able to craft a brilliant version, but chances are the cook won’t blow it terribly.
Other dishes, though, don’t have that serviceable in-between version. Meatloaf comes to mind. It seems always to be either wonderful — moist, spicy, delicious — or completely inedible — dry, tasteless, yuck. I rarely order meatloaf. The odds are too great it won’t be good. Cake is another. Has anyone here ever had “cake in the middle”? It’s always at either extreme. When you get a slice of incredibly moist cake with a great frosting, there doesn’t seem to be much better on the planet. But most cake is awful. There’s a magic to making cake most people don’t seem to be able to create, myself included. (I tend to be a disaster when it comes to baking.) Perhaps worst of all is gnocci. I hated gnocchi most of my life and couldn’t understand why anyone ate it because any time I tried gnocchi it was gummy, pasty, gross. Gnocci? Seriously? Then one day I had an amazing gnocchi — off someone else’s plate of course, they made me try — and a light went off. Gnocci! Seriously!
Cornbread is the same, another food that has no middle ground. The cornbread you most often get in a restaurant or from the supermarket is terrible. It’s not so much inedible but rather makes you think, What’s the point? Particularly with so many other wonderful bread choices that abound. Why have dull, tasteless cornbread when I can have…. Why, indeed. If you’re lucky, though, you will once in a while run into a slice of cornbread that will make you suddenly understand.
While I’ve eaten some great cornbread in my time, I never became a huge cornbread nut until I tried the recipe below. It’s the best cornbread I have ever had and when I first tasted it, that light once again went off. Cornbread! Seriously! It’s from chef Suzanne Goin, one of the best chefs in the country, about whom I will devote an entire post in the near future. Her cooking and her cookbook, Sunday Suppers With Lucques, have had a huge influence on both my own cooking and my own eating. Sunday Suppers is a must buy for anyone who loves food or likes to cook. If you live in Los Angeles, another must is one of her three restaurants. Lucques is the flagship and is consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in the country. (It’s also not outrageously expensive and has a lovely, friendly, laid back vibe. You are well taken care of at Lucques.)
As for her cornbread: I guess anything that starts with a stick of butter better be great. It is. And worth every calorie. This cornbread is a sweeter version than some, given the honey, but not overly so, just a touch. It plumps up beautifully in a cast iron skillet and is incredibly moist. It also has a wonderful flavor: the buttermilk really works in this recipe, as does the browned butter. This batter is so good I’ve even had bites of it raw with a spoon, rare for a cornmeal batter. Even if you think you don’t like cornbread, this is worth a try. It’s wonderful with all kinds of food but I love it solo. I just eat it out of the pan. Goin griddles hers in butter to warm it. Oh my. I think she knows how to eat well as well as cook…
I’ve made this countless times and have done a couple of slight tweaks. I’m posting my revision but if you want to check her original version, it is here. I’ve cut down the butter, added some pepper, and added a few notes. I use an 10 inch cast iron skillet, pictured above, and it works perfectly.
PS: If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, please get one. If nothing else, you can can do a bang up job of home protection with it, cold-cocking a burglar over the head. But cast iron skillets are marvelous to cook with and very cheap. I have three… one for savory dishes, one for pies and cobblers and a huge one for roasting chicken and meats. My mother had one that was used solely for cornbread, she loved cornbread so much. You don’t need to go overboard. One will suffice and the 15 dollars is worth it for this cornbread alone:
SUZANNE GOIN’S CORNBREAD
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cups cornmeal
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 extra-large eggs
- 2½ cups buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons good quality honey
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Heat a 10-inch cast-iron pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter and cook 4 to 5 minutes, swirling the pan often, until the butter browns and smells nutty. Turn off the heat. This browned butter adds huge flavor to the cornbread.
Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. I also like to add black pepper.
Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and honey in another bowl. Pour the liquid into the well, and whisk until just combined. (Don’t overwork the batter.) Fold in the brown butter from the pan.
Pour the batter into the pan. Transfer the pan immediately to the oven, and bake 25 to 35 minutes, until golden brown and set. Stick the blade of a knife or a toothpick into the cornbread, in the middle. If it comes out wet, cook it a little more. Just watch it. If you think the top is browning too much before it is set, just drape a piece of foil over the top.
ONE MORE NOTE:
This cornbread works well with additions. My mom, for instance, made a terrific ‘Mexicali’ cornbread growing up that had fresh corn kernels, diced jalapenos, diced red peppers and cheese. You can do all sorts of versions with this one. I think most times, though, cornbread is doctored up to hide how bad it is. This one is terrific on it’s own.