A few years ago my husband entered a bake-off with the cast and crew of Motown: The Musical when it was showing at the Oriental Theater in Chicago. Bless him, he wanted to enter my corn bread. I said, “Hey, it’s just the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook recipe. You know. The book with the red and white checks on the cover?”
Then he made a trial batch.
Turns out, it’s kind-of not their recipe after all. The differences are mostly about fiddly bits in the process which improve the crumb, the crust, and the flavor. Plus cream. Plus more butter.
And of course you must use a cast iron pan. High heat, cast iron pan, and blackened butter make that lovely lacy crispy buttery crust.
Put two raw eggs in the shell into a bowl of warm water at least 15 minutes before you use them.
Preheat oven to 450F.
Put a cast iron pan at least 9” diameter in the oven to preheat.
Melt 4 Tablespoons (half a stick) of butter in the pan. While this melts:
Mix dry ingredients together:
1 cup white flour
1 cup yellow corn meal
1/3 cup white sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
In a separate bowl, pour 1 cup (8 oz) cream, half’n’half, or whole milk. Richer is better. The cream (or wussy substitute) should be room-temperature.
Pour the melted butter from the pan into the cream. This cools the butter and further warms the cream.
Put the iron pan back in the oven with 2 Tablespoons more butter in it. (Don’t argue with me about the butter.) Let it burn nice and brown while you do the next steps. Don’t just melt it, BURN it! It’s buerre noir. You can trust that, it’s French.
In a separate bowl, beat your 2 large room-temperature eggs until light yellow and frothy. Add them to the cream and melted butter and mix thoroughly.
Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Mix with 6-10 very slow, gentle strokes, seeking only to moisten the dry ingredients. There will be bits of dry stuff here and there; that’s fine. The idea is to wet the dry ingredients so as to activate the baking powder, but prevent the bubbles that have been formed by that chemical reaction from popping, and also prevent gluten from forming in the wet flour. If there are a few bits of unmoistened flour mixture here and there, don’t worry, they’ll moisten by themselves in the pan.
Scrape the batter quickly and gently into the preheated, burnt-buttery cast iron pan. The batter should sizzle on contact with the pan. (This is what creates that awesome lacy brown crust, like a good pancake.) Bake at 450F for 10 to 15 minutes. (Shorter if in a convection oven, longer if in a conventional oven.) Try not to peek. If it starts smelling done, touch the top center of the cornbread. If it is dry and no longer white, and the edges of the bread are brown and pulling away from the pan sides, it’s done.
Cool your corn bread in the pan 10 minutes before cutting. Serve with very soft butter and/or honey.
Lagniappe: a quickie review of Motown: The Musical. This show is adorable, and what’s more, it has real music! I saw the invited dress rehearsal for the Chicago launch. The house was warm, that is, everyone in the audience had heard the music when it first hit the radio waves fifty-five years ago. We were singing, stomping, and clapping along. I really cannot overstate the importance of having real music in a musical. Tunes you can sing along to. Tunes you remember when you leave the building. Not just “the song that goes like this” (as they rightfully jeer in Spamalot). You will absolutely enjoy this one.
PS, my hubby’s cornbread was perfect, but it didn’t win the bake-off. It was still very, very tasty, and every bit of it got eaten.