There is a lot that divides us as a country. And I’m not talking about politics.
I write about food, which can be just as divisive. Ketchup with fries? Thick- or thin-crust pizza? Does avocado toast signal the end of times?Is a hot dog a sandwich???
Even when I’ve delved into what I thought were neutral topics — pound cake, cooking with apples and, uh, buckwheat waffles (really!) — the fists have come out. I don’t typically start writing a recipe or how-to guide expecting, much less angling for, a fight.
I am confident I am going to alienate about, oh, half of ya’ll here who like corn bread. The half of you who think that sugar has absolutely no place in corn bread. Sorry! (The topic has even divided the — very gracious, I’m sure — people at Southern Living.)
This is apparently how I like my corn bread, after trying it with and without sugar. My fellow tasters agreed, at least in my recent faceoff.
There have been some pretty interesting takes on how the line in the . . . sugar is drawn. And it’s not necessarily a North-South thing. As Kathleen Purvis explored in the Charlotte News & Observer a few years ago, there are racial divides just among Southern cooks alone.
The type of cornmeal most of us use seems to play a significant role, as Purvis explains. A lot of the grocery store cornmeal we have in our pantries is industrial-milled, yellow, fine-grained and lacking in corn flavor, unlike the coarser, white and, yes, sweeter stuff that used to be more common. Small producers such as Anson Mills specialize in that heritage type of cornmeal, which is why chefs who use it, such as Sean Brock, can get away with a classic sugar-free corn bread. But to say that everyone has easy access to a local mill or online ordering would be a stretch.
When I baked a “Southern” cast-iron skillet corn bread featuring typical store-bought cornmeal without sugar, not to mention flour, we found the flavor a bit dull and the texture too dry and crumbly. The sugar and flour version baked in a regular cake pan had a wonderful moist texture and tasted cornier, like a good sweet corn on the cob. It was well-rounded, not overly saccharine, especially since it was a fairly restrained 1/3 cup of sugar in the whole 8-inch bread. It would be a welcome addition to your Thanksgiving — or any other — table.
The quick and easy recipe comes from cookbook author Elinor Klivans, who has contributed some winning recipes to The Washington Post over the years. In my opinion, this one is as well. It might win over some of you sugar skeptics, but hey, as long as you’re making a homemade corn bread you love, I call that a win, too.
Make Ahead: The cooled corn bread can be tightly wrapped in plastic or stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a day. Reheat, covered with aluminum foil, in a 275-degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until warmed through. For long-term storage, tightly wrap in plastic, place in a zip-top bag and freeze for up to several months.
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick), melted
- 1 cup (5 ounces; 142 grams) flour
- 1⁄3 cup (2 3/4 ounces, 77 grams) sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup (4 1/2 ounces; 128 grams) yellow cornmeal
- 1 1⁄4 cups buttermilk (regular or low-fat)
- 1 large egg
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the tablespoon of unmelted butter in an 8-inch square metal pan or ceramic baking dish. About 2 minutes before you are ready to pour the batter into the pan, put the pan in the preheated oven to melt the butter.
Sift or whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. Whisk in the cornmeal.
Whisk together the buttermilk, egg and the 4 tablespoons of melted butter in a mixing bowl or large liquid measuring cup, until well incorporated. Pour the flour mixture over the buttermilk mixture, then stir slowly until just combined. You will see some small lumps in the batter; that’s okay.
Remove the pan from the oven and tilt it to coat the bottom and sides with its now-melted butter, which may be browned but should not be burned. Scrape the batter into the pan, smoothing the top and spreading it into the corners.
Bake (middle rack) for about 20 minutes, until the top feels firm when pressed and the golden-brown edges have pulled away from the sides of the pan a bit. A tester inserted into the center should come out clean.
Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then use a round-edged knife to loosen the edges, lift out the slab, cut into squares and serve warm.
Adapted from “Fast Breads: 50 Recipes for Easy, Delicious Bread” by Elinor Klivans (Chronicle Books, 2010).