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A Black Iron Haven

Queenie's Cornbread

Posted by Rick Mansfield

As most cast iron aficionados know, there's more to cast iron than cornbread. However, having said that, the ability to make good cornbread is essential—foundational—to any cast iron cook's repertoire. There are many different cornbread recipes out there, from basic to elaborate. Northern cornbread tends to be sweet, while Southern cornbread is not. I've often said I've never met a cornbread I didn't like, but I'll quickly admit that I don't want sweet cornbread in my bowl of purple hull peas!

Most cornbread recipes are fairly easy to make whether using a pre-made mix or making it from scratch. For folks just learning to cook, cornbread is something that can easily build confidence. It's difficult to mess up cornbread unless you burn it! And even overcooked cornbread can still taste good with a little butter or in a bowl of peas or beans as long as it's not too burnt.

While cornbread mixes are okay (I can't knock them too much because they usually taste pretty good), it doesn't take much more effort to prepare cornbread from scratch. I really encourage folks to find a cornbread recipe they like and use that instead of the mixes. And as mentioned a couple of posts back, any baking in the oven, including cornbread, is very "healthy" for your cast iron skillet's seasoning.

This particular recipe belonged to my grandmother on my mother's side, Queenie Pennington. We simply called her "Mammaw." The ingredients are fairly common, and she may have simply adapted a standard recipe over time. I have the advantage of not just having her cornbread recipe, but also having the skillet she used to make cornbread in on nearly a daily basis. I recall many wonderful meals at her house accompanied by her cornbread. When cooked in her pan, there is a particular texture to the outer crust which I cannot duplicate in any other cast iron I've tried. It's not that this particular texture of the crust is superior to other cornbreads; rather, its taste and feel in my mouth so strongly reminds me of my grandmother who died last year at the age of 88. This cornbread doesn't just taste good to me; it also has sentimental value. Every time I cook Mammaw's cornbread, it's like having her back again.

Greg from the "Black Iron Dude" blog recently identified my grandmother's skillet as a product of the Birmingham Stove and Range (BS&R) company. Her skillet is at least 70-years-old and may be older than that.


Above is a picture of my grandmother, Queenie Pennington, and me--probably
taken around 1970. Doesn't she look like someone who would be named Queenie?
Doesn't she look like someone you'd call Mammaw?
And doesn't she look like someone who could just naturally make good cornbread?

My grandmother's recipe below uses a combination of both cornmeal and flour, creating a light and moist cornbread. A basic trick for making any cornbread is to allow your cast iron pan to warm up in the oven while it preheats. I grease the skillet and place it in the oven before I set the temperature. That way it heats up with the oven itself. Then when pouring the batter, the hot iron immediately starts cooking the outer layer making a perfect crust.

If you try this recipe, you'll notice that it creates a very moist batter. Don't worry that's it's too moist. After twenty minutes in a 450° oven, it will be absolutely perfect. Of course some folks like their cornbread a bit more well done, and if that's you, simply keep it in the oven a little while longer.

In the recipe below, note the occasional footnotes. I'll add the notes to the bottom of the post.

QUEENIE'S CORNBREAD

Cast Iron Required:

  • 10.25" cast iron skillet1
Ingredients
  • 1 1/2 cups white corn meal2
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda3
  • 3 level tsp baking powder
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp bacon drippings4
Directions
Sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Add buttermilk and egg, stirring until combined. Grease skillet with shortening and preheat in 450 oven. Melt drippings and add to batter. Pour batter into very hot skillet and bake at 450 for 20 minutes.


My grandmother's cornbread in the same pan she used for well over six decades.


Notice how nicely the cornbread came out of the pan without sticking. This is testimony to a pan seasoned over decades of use. My mom says that when she was growing up, many times she saw my grandmother flip the cornbread straight from the pan into the air before putting it on a plate. I haven't been brave enough to try this yet.


And finally, the pièce de résistance--my grandmother's cornbread in a bowl of purple hull peas!


I have one more fond memory of my grandmother's cornbread. After we'd finished the wonderful meal she cooked, one or two slices of cornbread always remained. My grandfather would take a slice and submerge it in a glass of ice cold milk. This was essentially his dessert, or his way to cap off a good meal. When I was a boy, I tended to do everything he did when I was around him, so I'd take the other remaining piece of cornbread and ask for a glass of milk myself. I never liked this as much as he did, so I rarely finished the entire glass. But when I was young, a slice of cornbread in a glass of milk seemed like pretty exotic fare.

Notes

1If you prefer cornbread muffins, this recipe yields 12-14 muffins in a standard-sized muffin pan. I haven't experimented yet to see how many cornsticks the recipe will make. I'll determine this and update the post at a later date.

2 My mother wrote down the essential recipe when she was 18 and had just married. In the original draft, as dictated by my grandmother, it specifically says "Aunt Jemima" white cornmeal. We sometimes have difficulty finding this brand, so we often use something different. I haven't discovered any discernible difference in taste or quality.

3 The original recipe as dictated by my grandmother called for "3 pinches; 4 if buttermilk is old" in regard to the baking soda.

4 Kathy and I normally cook with olive oil and don't keep a whole lot of bacon grease around. However, I always use bacon grease for my grandmother's cornbread. I've learned through experience that cooking four slices of bacon yields about one tablespoon of grease. Cooked bacon keeps for a while, so fry up eight or so slices to use in sandwiches throughout the week.

MacGourmet users, click image to download recipe (or simply drag image to your MacGourmet recipe box).

Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at
rick@cookingincastiron.com.

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