With chili season upon us, my thoughts turn to a longtime passion—baking a decadent version of cornbread in my grandmother’s very old cast iron skillet. It’s so quickly made from scratch that I can’t find any reason to use a package mix, and incorporating ingredients like butter, heavy cream, and sharp cheddar cheese means you don’t want to cut any corners. A few years before I began writing cookbooks and developing recipes for a living, I snagged a blue ribbon at the State Fair of Texas with my trusty cornbread recipe. (See the recipe below.)
Chatting a few days ago with friend Homer Robertson, an award-winning chuckwagon cook, I found we agree on key elements for making great cornbread. We both prefer a savory taste over a sweet cornbread, and we believe great crust is essential for excellent cornbread. Key to curst is using a very hot cast-iron skillet.
“When I’m cooking on the chuckwagon, I’ll use my Dutch oven, and the iron skillet at home,” says Robertson, a resident of Granbury, where his family has lived for generations. “And to get that make-or-break good crust, the pan has to be heated in the oven or over coals. I’ll hit it with bacon grease or lard so the bread comes out with a crisp exterior.”
Robertson, an assistant chief for the Fort Worth Fire Department, learned scratch-cooking from his grandmother. Hanging around the station kitchen with firehouse cooks, however, he realized a lot of folks like the Jiffy brand of cornbread mix. “It’s pretty sweet and can be good as a crust on a savory casserole, but I don’t want it to taste like cake.”
Like me, Robertson leans toward yellow cornmeal but also sometimes opts for white corn meal. If he’s working on a Mexican-style menu, Robertson’s cornbread recipe can include butter, jalapeños, and whole kernel corn.
Cornbread also has fans beyond the chuckwagon and the firehouse. Consider the version made by Vincent Huynh, owner and culinary director at Indianola, a restaurant focusing on modern Texas food in Houston’s EaDo district. Huynh prefers freshly milled cornmeal, which is coarse and enhances the texture, whether the seasonal offering comes from yellow, white, red, or blue corn.
Using a perfectly seasoned 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet, he chooses ingredients by considering their scientific interaction in the recipe, using buttermilk for a little acidic tang, butter for a hint of sweetness.
“Cornbread has the ability to ride on that fine line between breakfast, dinner, or dessert at any moment,” Huynh says. “Some perennial favorites have been things like cultured crème fraîche with peach and chili chutney that gets its its roots from the block of cream cheese smothered in pepper jelly on my mom’s appetizer platter when company comes around; or the winter season’s bounty of satsuma oranges paired with spiced Steen’s Cane Syrup from Southern Louisiana, flavors that recall spiced rum and holiday citrus.”
Huynh is a fan of corn meal from Barton Springs Mills in Dripping Springs. I enjoy using those products, as well as those from Lamb’s Grist Mill in the South Texas town of Inez and from Homestead Gristmill in Waco. Just use the best you can find for the best cornbread ever.
Blue Ribbon Cornbread
I like serving a ladle of steaming-hot chili or beef stew atop a wedge of cornbread, fresh from the oven. And I love slathering butter over a warm slab of cornbread and eating that just as is.
Makes one 9-inch skillet
• 1/2 cup butter
• 1 cup yellow cornmeal
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3/4 cup heavy cream
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
• 3/4 cup freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese
• 1 to 2 jalapeños, stems and seeds removed, minced
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place butter in a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet (or Dutch oven) and place in oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until butter has melted. While butter is melting, combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix together with a whisk or fork in a bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add cream, egg, and red bell pepper. Remove skillet from oven and carefully tilt pan to make the butter coat the entire inside. Pour remaining melted butter from the skillet into the mixture and mix with whisk just until all ingredients are moistened. Spoon one-half of the batter into the skillet. Carefully spread the cheese over the batter and top with the minced jalapeños. Top with the remaining batter and bake for 20 minutes, or until the cornbread starts to brown on top. Turn out of pan right away and eat while hot.