I first fell in love with cornbread when I was a young child. My maternal grandmother would make cornbread in a cast-iron “pan” that was shaped like little cobs of corn. Being raised in New England, cornbread was not really considered a staple, however it could easily be called a standard, and for me, it was a real treat whenever it was served. (Hush-Puppies, too!) My Mom was renowned for what she did with leftover cornbread and biscuits. She would crumble them loosely into a small pan and then pour melted butter and maple syrup, mixed with a little cream, over the crumbles to coat them. She would sprinkle a little cinnamon and nutmeg on them and would then bake them in the oven for about 20 minutes. She called them “rag-a-muffins” and they were gooey and sweet and yummy.
My first wife’s mother, who was born and raised in Texas, would make the Southern traditional version. The batter ingredients were from scratch. She used melted butter in the recipe and melted bacon fat sprinkled with cornmeal in the cast-iron “spider” (skillet) to bake her cornbread. I never saw her make a bad batch. It was always perfectly cooked with that deep brown crispy bacony crust on the outside; steamy, moist, and delicious on the inside. (It’s a great technique for cornbread: three musts; 1) cast iron skillet only, 2) about 2-3 tablespoons of bacon grease must be melted in the pan in the oven and must be pretty hot, in order to, 3) foam the cornmeal in the bacon fat, about 2 teaspoons, sprinkled onto the hot bacon fat.)
Be it that wonderful “homey” nature of cornbread; or that textural thrill of crunching through the crust; or the nutritional and health benefits of corn; the history of corn having sustained centuries of civilization; or, that “I-just-plain-like-because-it-makes-me-feel-good-when-I-eat-it” thing, but, I consider cornbread to truly be one of those comfort foods that should be on the list of “The Top 10 Comfort Foods I Would Never Be Without”.
I first tasted this recipe at a well-attended backyard summer birthday party. Our hostesses had set out amazingly copious amounts of foods. There were large casseroles of au gratin potatoes, roasted veggies, peppers and onions, hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, and crock-pots brimming with sausages and ham. There were bowls and bowls of salads and baskets of bread and rolls; there was a lot of food served…all of it delicious and certainly plentiful. But, nestled in amongst all the goodies, was this aluminum 9 x 13 pan that held the concoction described below. After my first bite of this warm and rich, rustic and artisanal casserole, the aluminum pan that held it seemed to take on this angelic glow, showing me the way, so to speak; a beacon, a marker of comfort food goodness that would not be denied. Yup, I went back two more times to that casserole that night and did not leave the festivities until I had the recipe in hand.
I just had the chance to visit with my sister Jane not too long ago when she and her clan had come to Florida to visit for Easter. During one of those awesome “kitchen-table” conversations, she revealed to me that she makes this recipe at least a couple of times a month, considering it a staple in their family-meal repertoire, after having eaten some at a Thanksgiving dinner at my place several years earlier. I honestly can’t think of a nicer testimony to the value of this dish. It is one of those throw it all in a bowl to mix it up, dump it in a pan, bake it, eat it…pretty simple, amazingly delicious, and great comfort food.
I’m going to give this to you in two versions. I still have the original recipe card that my friend Kim gave me on the night of the birthday party. She called it “Johnnycakes” and it was a single recipe, about big enough for a 9 x 9 pan. I’ll include it at the end of this article. First, though, I’ll give you my rendition. It has, of course, been tweaked. It’s large enough to fill a 9 x 13 pan and can feed the whole crew; usually reserved for holiday dinners.
Corn Pudding Bread (I)
2 boxes of Jiffy Cornbread mix (or enough dry batter from scratch for two recipes)
2 regular sized cans of white kernel corn, drained
2 regular sized cans of creamed style corn
2 pints of sour cream
2 sticks (1/2 pound) of butter, melted
1 ½ cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (optional)
1 medium-sized jalapeno pepper, seeded, and minced (optional)
Preheat your oven to 350°F. In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the ingredients, except for ½ cup of the grated cheese, and mix to evenly distribute the ingredients; but, don’t over-stir, which can give you tougher bread. A few small lumps are OK. Spray a 9 x 13 baking pan (glass or otherwise) with some butter flavored cooking spray, or lightly coat with softened butter. Pour the batter into the pan and bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the top of the dish with the remaining ½ cup of grated cheese. Bake for an additional 20-30 minutes, or until firm and the cheese is crispy and the edges of the batter are browned and beginning to pull away from the edges of the baking pan. To keep things simple, I serve it right from the dish it bakes in and I simply put a spoon in it and let folks scoop out however much they’d like. This is a recipe that is best left alone. Leave out the cheese and jalapeno pepper, either individually, or collectively, and you will have a reasonable facsimile of the original (un-tweaked) recipe. Serves a bunch and can be halved easily.
Corn Pudding Bread (II)
One regular sized can of creamed corn
One regular sized can of whole kernel corn, drained
1 box Jiffy corn muffin mix
1 stick (1/4 lb.) melted butter
1 pint (8 oz.) sour cream
Mix all ingredients together. Bake in an 8 x 8, or 9 x 9 baking pan for 40 to 45 minutes at 375 degrees until firm. Cut into squares.