But I think we can find room in our hearts for another cornbread, especially if it's in the name of making it more like that other thing we love: biscuits. (So I guess what I'm saying is: Bring it on?)
See, most cornbread recipes involve stirring together some dry ingredients, then stirring in some melted fat and other wet stuff. The batter is thin and pourable, and it bakes up nicely (and uniformly) in a hot cast iron skillet.
But, as I learned from Vera Obias, pastry chef and owner of Du Jour Bakery in Park Slope, Brooklyn, you can get even more craggy, buttery, crumbly texture in your cornbread -- with no more trouble -- if you cut in the fat cold (see also: biscuits, scones, pies). Your food processor will help.
I discovered Obias's magical cornbread when I staged at Dovetail in Manhattan, where it was my job to rotate her miniature loaves in and out of the warming oven all night, and also plate tiny, sensitive amuse bouches, all while snuggled next to two simmering stockpots so large I could have crawled into them. I considered it a couple times. The bright moments in my night were each time a little corn loaf would break and I had to eat it all, quickly, to hide that we were down a few.
When I tracked Obias down years later and made her recipe for myself, I realized where all that haunting goodness was coming from: she'd adapted the technique from a scone recipe, adding black pepper and aged white cheddar to skew it away from dessert. The same cold pockets of butter that make a scone crunch outside and billow through the middle work on cornbread too.
Here's how to make it -- don't tell Grammy:
First, pulse the dry ingredients (and I like that she considers aged cheddar a dry ingredient). Because the cheese is blended in thoroughly, its effect is subtle -- there are no cheesy pockets, just a warm, savory thrum.
Next, pulse in cold butter -- leave it chunky! -- and buttermilk. Your dough will be thick and look nothing like cornbread batter, but everything like a few other quick breads we know and love.
Then let it chill for an hour. This helps the butter get good and hard, so it will steam up handsomely in the oven instead of leaching out.
A last brush of cream for browning and adhering the salt and pepper top, and it bakes into a rolling panful of nubby corn.
If the sugar makes you disqualify this as cornbread, just remember the salty cheese and black pepper, or try this: sometimes at Du Jour, "it becomes a chorizo and pickled jalapeño scone," Obias told me.
You can make it into small loaves or free-form like Obias, but we liked it baked in a 9 by 9-inch pan, so we could cut big squares and wolf them down.
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom
The Genius Desserts cookbook is here! With more than 100 of the most beloved and talked-about desserts of our time (and the hidden gems soon to join their ranks) this book will make you a local legend, and a smarter baker to boot.
I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."