Cornbread is a modern take on a recipe as old as America. When the first European settlers arrived on the shore of the New World, they were introduced to corn, called “maize”. The Powhatan Indians cultivated corn and used it to produce a variety of dishes to sustain their families. Corn was so vital during that era that it was used as a form of currency.
Corn could be dried and stored for months. It was ground before cooking into a variety of dishes. One of the most humble among those was the hoe cake. By mixing ground corn, water, and salt, a thin pancake style bread could be made. These unleavened cakes were cooked on an iron pan set over the open fire. There are stories of slaves in the South griddling these humble cakes on the same hoe used in the fields, thus the name hoe cake.
During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides of the conflict were known to make corn pone. It was a simple dish that reminded them fondly of home. Hoe cake’s simple ingredients of ground corn, water, and salt, were cooked in a skillet that had been used to cook bacon or salt pork. The grease was left in the skillet and stirred into the corn mixture before cooking, adding flavor to the corn pone and making sure that nothing went to waste.
Corn pone’s humble beginnings eventually became the dish we would recognize as cornbread. By adding a bit of milk, a few eggs, and a leavening agent, the resulting dish was much lighter and more cake-like than the dense hoe cakes and corn pone of the past.
The history of corn and the cornbread we still love today is separated along the same lines that divided the country during the Civil War. Both the type of corn grown and the recipes created from the resulting corn varied greatly.
In the North, yellow corn was favored and cornbread included a bit of sweetener usually in the form of molasses which was more common in those days than granulated sugar. Cornbread was prepared in a baking pan more like a cake. Baking the mixture in a baking pan created a cornbread with a soft exterior.
In the South, white corn was more common and sweetener was not added to cornbread recipes. Southern cornbread usually included lard or other grease created from cooking meat for the table. Cornbread was cooked in the skillet with that fat, creating a crisp exterior with a bit of crunch. Cracklins were sometimes allowed to remain in the skillet and cooked directly into the bread.
I like for my cornbread to fall somewhere in between. I add a touch of sugar to the batter and brush honey butter on the warm bread as it cools. I always cook my cornbread in my cast iron skillet and include a bit of lard or bacon fat. I like the simplicity of baking it in the skillet and love the slightly crisp exterior.
This summer, I hope to grow enough corn in the garden to harvest, dry, and grind the cornmeal to make the cornbread to serve with our traditional New Year’s Day meal of black-eyed peas and greens. I love the thought of sitting down to a meal inspired by our nation’s history in our farmhouse which was built 20 years before the Civil War began.
I’ll keep you posted on our American history lesson growing in the garden this summer. In the meantime, I hope that you’ll make this cornbread for your family. You can decide to include a bit of sugar or not based on your preference. No matter what you choose, I hope that you’ll never forget about the history behind every delicious bite.
If you’d like to learn more about the tools and ingredients I use when making this recipe, you can find them right here:
Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread
Cornbread should be tender which can be made more difficult if you live North of the Mason Dixon line like I do. Our hard winter wheat has a higher protein content than the soft winter wheat grown and milled in the South. In order to mimic the properties of flour produced in the South, I substitute a bit of cornstarch for the All-purpose flour normally used in a cornbread recipe. I know from my experience creating a homemade cake flour substitute that this combination would work very well to create a light, airy cake batter.
I like my cornbread to have a hint of sweetness. If you prefer a traditional Southern preparation, you can omit the sugar from the batter. Molasses can be substituted for the honey when mixing up the softened butter to spread on top of the warm cornbread. Leftover cornbread keeps very well for several days at room temperature. A warm slice makes a delicious breakfast when paired with a hot cup of coffee or tea.
- 1 Tablespoons butter
- 6 Tablespoons butter , room temperature
- 2 Tablespoons lard or bacon fat , room temperature
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 eggs , room temperature
- ¾ cup All-purpose flour
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 1 cup cornmeal
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1 cup buttermilk
- ¼ cup sour cream
- 2 Tablespoons butter , room temperature
- 1 Tablespoon honey
Place 1 Tablespoon of butter in a 9 inch cast iron skillet before placing on an oven rack positioned in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit as you mix the batter.
In a large bowl, mix the butter, lard, and sugar until well combined. Add the eggs and stir to mix.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, cornmeal, salt, and baking powder. Use a whisk to combine. In a small bowl or cup, combine the butter milk and sour cream. Whisk or stir until smooth.
Add half of the dry ingredients to the sugar and egg mixture, stirring to fully combine. Add the buttermilk and sour cream and stir before adding the remaining dry ingredients and stir until smooth.
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and tilt the pan to fully coat the bottom of the skillet with the melted butter. Don’t worry if the butter has browned. Add the batter carefully to the hot skillet and spread evenly to the edges of the pan. Return the skillet to the hot oven and bake for 25 – 30 minutes until the edges begin to pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out cleanly or with small crumbs attached.
In a small bowl, combine the softened butter and honey. Spread the entire butter mixture over the top surface of the hot cornbread. Allow to cool slightly before slicing into wedges and serving warm.