Long Reads

Vera Obias' Cheddar & Black Pepper Cornbread

May 14, 2014

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: How to make even better cornbread? Treat it more like a biscuit. 

Shop the Story

I know many of us expect our cornbread not to change -- we want it Southern-style and savory, or Northern and sweet; our grandma's recipe, or the one from the back of the box. No funny stuff. 

(When Sam Sifton tried to share his favorite recipe, from East Coast Grill in Boston, the New York Times published an infographic tallying the letters of complaint. Thirty percent, for example, disavowed sugar as a Yankee thing.) 

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?) 

More: 7 more reinvented cornbreads, including -- yes -- Avocado Cornbread.

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.

Vera Obias' Cheddar & Black Pepper Cornbread

Adapted from Vera Obias and Du Jour Bakery

Makes one 9x9-inch baking pan

3 cups (375 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 cups (166
grams) sugar
1 cup (144
grams) cornmeal, preferably coarse grind
1 tablespoon (12
grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (6
grams) baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons (10
grams) salt
1 1/2 cup (150
grams) grated aged white cheddar
8 ounces (240
grams) butter, cold and cubed
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
Cracked black pepper and Maldon (or other flaky) salt for finishing

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

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

Order Now

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.

Order Now

33 Comments

Loretta N. July 1, 2015
Definitely not my favorite cornbread recipe.
 
Terry J. May 1, 2015
absolutely delicious,great texture, etc. Cooked in a 10" cast-iron, it takes 55 minutes... not 25. I can't imagine it being done in anything but a cookie sheet in 25 minutes!
 
Maria February 14, 2015
Can this be made without a food processor; like maybe with a Kitchenaid mixer? Thanks!
 
mungo February 14, 2015
This reminds me a bit of Dorie Greenspan's maple and cornmeal drop biscuit recipe. Can't wait to try out this one!
 
Alice G. January 3, 2015
I'm a midwesterner, so I like both yankee and southern cornbread. That being said, I reduced the sugar to 1/4 cup because it was just too much sugar to add to cheesy/savory bread. I do like the idea I saw below about omitting the cheese and pepper and adding nutmeg. I think I'll try that next time and cut it into scones.
 
Caitlin November 24, 2014
This looks amazing! Can you make it in advance at all?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 24, 2014
Yes, you can definitely make it early in the day -- or the day before and plan on warming it in the oven to freshen it up. It's a great one!
 
Nicole O. September 30, 2014
I cannot even explain how amazing this stuff is! I am a cornbread freak and this one is the best I've ever had/made. Such a keeper!
 
DAVILCHICK June 1, 2014
Yesterday, a dinner party was cancelled on us so we decided to get together anyway and cook for ourselves. My friend made ribs, my hubby made his slaw so I tried this cornbread recipe. As I posted on Facebook, it barely made it into the oven because I tasted the dough and could have finished the entire bowl off right then and there. For those expecting 'traditional' cornbread, this is not for you but for those with an open mind about cornbread..do not miss. As suggested my hubby and I are enjoying it again this morning for breakfast with coffee. I highly recommend.
 
harelinefracture May 24, 2014
what type of cream do you brush on top
 
Vicky May 23, 2014
Four words.....savory scone with cornmeal. Done.
 
Cilantro &. May 17, 2014
I made this last night and it was fantastic! I broke up the butter cubes myself because my food processor is too small, and it turned out beautifully. It's very dense and savory-sweet.
 
Laura415 May 16, 2014
I'm neither Southerner or Northerner but a Westerner, which I guess means I can love any cornbread recipes as well as mess with them.<br />Ideas for changes:<br />Savory: no cheese and pepper/ take sugar down to 1/4 Cup with no change in the tenderness. Also added 1 Cup corn meal flour in place of 1 of the cups of regular flour for more corn taste. <br />Sweet no cheese: Take out cheese and pepper add nutmeg or cardamom if you like. <br />Again add some cornmeal flour to replace some of the regular flour. <br />When corn season arrives will make a savory bread with fresh corn kernels as well.
 
alia May 15, 2014
If anyone has a way to make this cornbread without the cheese, would appreciate the tips.<br />
 
DYL May 14, 2014
I'm going to try this without any sugar, and adjusting the flour/cornmeal ratio. I think it will be great. Who puts sugar in their biscuits anyway?
 
Nora May 14, 2014
I can make and love this, but let's not call it cornbread. My very southern female ancestors would refute me.
 
S M. May 14, 2014
Should've been 'don't tell meemaw', which is Southern for Granny!
 
eniacpx May 14, 2014
I am usually on board with the various "genius" recipes, but this just doesn't qualify. Genius recipes are about simplicity and elevating natural flavors. "Genius" cornbread has 6 ingredients: Cornmeal, Butter, Milk, Baking Powder, Egg, and Salt. Cornbread exists to highlight the natural buttery flavor of corn, this recipe is something else altogether. And as Zim pointed out, what is with all the flour??
 
Zim May 14, 2014
the fact that the ratio of flour to corn meal (3:1 really?) makes me question the corniness of this cornbread. Real honest to goodness cornbread has no flour. zip. zero. nada. 100% corn meal. My hillbilly great-grandma (born during reconstruction in the hill o' Tennessee) always looked down her nose at any cornbread recipe that contained flour.
 
biscuit May 14, 2014
Can you cut back on the sugar and make a more savory version? Sounds like a great idea, but can't bring myself to put that much sugar in cornbread!
 
LAYNE M. May 14, 2014
Yep!! Way too much sugar for me to call this 'cornbread'……..<br />
 
LAYNE M. May 14, 2014
Also - way too much flour!!<br />