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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 1 1/3 cups cornmeal (I used Bob’s Red Mill Medium; you can use fine as well)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 5 large eggs, separated
- 1 1/2 cups finely grated, sharp cheddar cheese (buy something decent)
- 1/2 cup finely chopped chives (or more, to taste)
Tell us your spoonbread stories (or lack thereof), in the comments, below.