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Today: How to make even better cornbread? Treat it more like a biscuit.
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?)
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.
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
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@example.com.
Photos by James Ransom