Southern

A Cheesy, Chive-y Bread So Soft, You Need a Spoon

by:
March 21, 2018

In America—thanks to Native American cooks—cornmeal is a part of our eternal culinary DNA. So if you even mention any of the alluring dishes we now make with the stuff—cornbread, hush puppies, shrimp and grits, tamales, hoecakes, and so on—the reaction you’ll often get is a reflexive mmmmmmm. This is especially true of the South, where we eat so much cornmeal that our local grocery store shelves are stocked floor-to-ceiling with different varieties, grinds, and mixes.

A wall of cornmeal at Horton’s Grocer in Galax, VA. Photo by Emily Nunn

So naturally, when I posted a photo of some spoonbread I’d just baked, I expected my Southern friends and relatives—at the very least—to know what it was. But no.

“What’s spoon bread?” wrote my own cousin Toni in the comments section of my Facebook page. We’d grown up together and she could easily have been by my side the first time I tasted it as a kid, at the stately Hotel Roanoke in Roanoke, Virginia, close to our hometown. The dish, which was the hotel’s signature back then, was so heavenly and unlike anything I’d ever had; despite its ephemerality, it permanently imprinted itself on me that night at dinner. I would later spend many hours trying to recreate (or just create) a recipe that matched my lovely, lingering memory.

The answer to her question: Spoonbread is a light, fluffy-but-somehow-gloriously-substantial, custardy concoction most often made with nothing more than cornmeal, eggs, and milk. It is, quite simply, the dreamiest of cornmeal-based dishes. It’s not as delicate as a soufflé but it’s nowhere near as hearty and heavy as cornbread or corn pudding, which is what it often gets unjustly confused with.

Bake this unicorn! Photo by Ty Mecham

You could call it a bit of a culinary unicorn—a lot of people who liked the pretty picture had heard of it, but many of them had never actually eaten it. It’s not exactly their fault, though: You won’t find the dish on many menus, even where it’s most popular—including in Virginia and South Carolina, where one of the first spoonbread recipes on record showed up in the in the 1847 Lowcountry cookbook The Carolina Housewife by Sarah Rutledge. When I tried to locate a few restaurants serving it, I turned up mostly blank, even at restaurants that had the word “spoonbread” in their very name.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Thank you for the spoonbread recipe. When I told my husband about your recipe, he asked if that could be a priority for dinner tonight- and so it shall.”
— Barb M.
Comment

There’s a good reason for that. Spoonbread is absolutely at its best served at home, brought to the table in a single large dish, served right after it comes out of the oven, hot enough to quickly melt the piles of butter diners tend to slather it with. And luckily for us home cooks, the tiny amount of extra effort required for spoonbread, as opposed to cornbread, is more than outweighed by the ethereal results. When you open the oven door and catch a sight of the lovely golden crust, it seems to say: On the inside, I am very tender.

You won’t find the dish on many menus [because] spoonbread is best served at home.

Spoonbread makes a fine partner with just about any entree, especially things that are juicy or saucy, or that take well to a drizzle of gravy or jus. It is also supremely adaptable, and takes well to additions of just about anything in the onion family and herbs and cheese–but just a hint. And of course, you can also serve it as a light main course, which is what my friends Wyler and Erica and I ended up doing recently when I adapted my standard version (featured in my book, The Comfort Food Diaries) for the two of them to try.

We hadn’t intended to, but we ended up making this cheese and chive version for supper, with nothing more than some fresh berries on the side. It would be equally wonderful with a big salad of dressed pale and bitter greens.

Tell us your spoonbread stories (or lack thereof), in the comments, below.

22 Comments

Cindi J. March 27, 2018
My husband remembers his mother making something similar to this, she called it Bread Pudding. They would have it for dessert, sprinkled with sugar and milk poured over it. I am going to try your recipe (minus the cheese and chives of course) to see if this is close to what he remembers. Sadly, none of his siblings ever got her recipe before she passed. Thanks for giving me hope!
 
Lynn C. March 27, 2018
Really enjoyed your book Emily. Although from the Midwest, bookmarked it to try. Something different!
 
Christina March 25, 2018
Oh how exciting to see this! My mother used to make what she called Cornmeal Soufflé and after she passed away I couldn’t find the recipe anywhere. I suspect her’s was nearish James Beard’s “heavy soufflé” as I’ve made this and it is very much as I remember making it with her. I’ve seen no mention of the way she served it though...lots of butter but also molasses!? Of course also with a green salad but molasses?? Has anyone else had it this way and have a clue from whence this twist comes?? Also, I’m living in the UK now and cornmeal is nowhere to be found, only polenta. Would it work? It’s ok for cornbread at Thanksgiving, but only just; the texture isn’t quite right.
 
Rose M. March 24, 2018
Plain is how my mother made it, the only thing we added would be butter after it was on our plate. Made a great side with fried fish and tomato slaw-leftovers for breakfast.<br />King Arthur Flour used to have a boxed Spoonbread mix that was to die for but sadly they discontinued.
 
Bob Q. March 23, 2018
Would using a can of creamed corn in place of 1/2 cup of milk work in this as an added flavor/texture 'boost'? Or how about adding q/2 cup of thawed corn kernals...like Ido to my corn bread/muffins sometimes?
 
NCdana March 23, 2018
Part of the joy of spoonbread is the very smooth and light texture. You could add corn, but that would be reminiscent of corn pudding. Think of it as something akin to a soufflé; smooth and creamy, and a bit fluffy from the eggs.
 
Author Comment
EmilyNunn March 23, 2018
If you want to add corn, just stir in a cup or so of fresh kernels before folding in the egg whites or if you have to use frozen use shoe-peg if you can find it. <br /><br />
 
Rona R. March 23, 2018
Boone Tavern, a historic restaurant in a green hotel in Berea, Kentucky, still greets each diner with fresh, warm spoonbread. Servers scoop the "heavy souffé" (James Beard's term for spoonbread) onto each person's plate from from a hot casserole dish. It is hard to make it in restaurants, but both Boone Tavern and Hotel Roanoke certainly figured it out, making thousands of diners happy.<br />
 
Jeanne G. March 23, 2018
My Grandmother (from Baltimore, MD) made spoon bread and it was always a treat. I have her recipe but have never made it myself. Might just make it this weekend.
 
Cynthia March 23, 2018
Thank you for this. As the author of a book on corn history (Midwest Maize), I'm always on the lookout for good corn-based recipes to try out, because everyone now expects me to show up with a corn dish when I'm invited to a pot luck. :)
 
Jeffy March 23, 2018
If you like Zpoon Bread, which sounds tasty as a side dish or appetizer or...<br /><br />For dessert you might really enjoy Indian Pudding.<br />It’s similar though sweeter. Howard-Johnson’s restaurants had it on its menu even in the ‘70s & ‘80s <br />It’s basically corn meal, milk & maple syrup (a full cup).<br />Served warm with a big scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream puts me somewhere past 7th heaven.
 
Barb M. March 23, 2018
You brought a big smile to my face this morning! I grew up in Roanoke. Special occasions were always at the Regency Room of the Hotel Roanoke, because they truly made the occasion special! Thank you for the spoonbread recipe. When I told my husband about your recipe, he asked if that could be a priority for dinner tonight- and so it shall.
 
Author Comment
EmilyNunn March 23, 2018
Barb, my memories of the Hotel Roanoke and having my first spoonbread there are wonderful. I tried their recipe but it kept separating so I created my own, using egg whites. I hope you like it. <br />
 
Ouida L. March 23, 2018
Would you check the link? It is not working and I cannot get the recipe. Thanks!
 
CarmaFrancie March 23, 2018
The Hotel Roanoke's spoonbread recipe was one of the first cards in my recipe box. I frequently include finely diced and sauteed sweet peppers and onion. Made "plain" it's a frugal protein source. Cold leftovers can be sliced up and fried like polenta.
 
70&holding March 24, 2018
Spent a lot of time in Oklahoma, as a child, with Grandma Olives Spoon Bread! If there were left overs, we had it fried with, fresh cream butter and, Grandpa Bob's honey. Leftovers never made it passed midnight!!!Thanx for sharing!raf
 
Sherry H. March 23, 2018
I’m from Alabama and have never met anyone who doesn’t know and love spoonbread. Of course, I’m old, so that could explain it!
 
Leslie March 23, 2018
How many people is this supposed to serve (for my recipe card)?
 
rebecca March 23, 2018
Reminds me of Piccadilly Cafeteria (where it was a staple favorite) growing up in East Tennessee. Thank you for posting...brings up good memories of warmth and comfort food!
 
Lawre March 23, 2018
This native Virginian, born in Charlottesville and now living in Blacksburg, loves Spoonbread... think I will make some for supper to prepare myself for yet another round of snow.. warm comfort food at its best..
 
Mlouise March 23, 2018
One of my favorite restaurants in Charlottesville, serves a great spoon bread with fried oysters, yummy!
 
Sally March 23, 2018
What restaurant in Charlottesville?