Fine with me if someone puts a half teaspoon of sugar in her corn bread. As long as she calls it “cake,” not "corn bread.”
Southerners are particular—touchy, even—about their corn bread, at the southern food ways symposium, in Oxford, Mississippi, a tall woman collared Ted, shouting, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!” We’d recently published a recipe in the New York Times for corn bread and chestnut dressing which used—gasp!—yellow cornmeal. “You gotta use white meal if you’re gonna make real corn bread!” she hollered. Then, in a quieter voice: “Hi, I’m Mindy Merrell.”
For twelve years, Mindy worked in the test kitchen of the Nashville milling company Martha White. She’s made thousands of batches of corn bread, and she knows a lot about how southerners bake. As is often the case with folks who are zealous about their food, we became fast friends, and she told us she would bake us a proper corn bread the next time we were in Nashville. A year later we passed through Music City and took her up on the offer. Our expectations were high, and of course she exceeded them, and forever changed the way we cook corn bread.
Mindy’s version has an emphatic corn flavor and the textbook caramelized crust, but its genius lies in the way it manages to double the crispiness of the bread while remaining perfectly moist. And it has nothing to do with chemistry (or color of the meal) but everything to do with skillet size. Mindy bakes a single six-serving batch in a 12-inch skillet instead of a 9-incher, so the batter lies thinner in the pan. The bread bakes up only about a half-inch thick, which means the crust-to-crumb ratio is quite high. It’s a thin, elegant flatbread, and if you start baking it daily, you just might make up for all those thick, Sahara-dry corn-bread bricks you’ve eaten.
- 1 tablespoon lard or unsalted butter
- 1½ cups stone-ground cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1½ cups whole or low fat buttermilk (preferably whole)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Grease a 12-inch skillet with the lard, leaving any excess in the pan, and place it in the oven.
2. In a large bowl, sift the dry ingredients together. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg until frothy and then whisk in the buttermilk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones and mix thoroughly. Melt the butter in a small skillet over low heat, and whisk the butter into the batter.
3. When the fat in the large skillet is smoking, carefully remove the skillet from the oven and swirl the fat around to coat the bottom and sides evenly. Pour the batter into the skillet; it should sizzle alluringly. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the top of the bread is golden brown and the edge has pulled away from the side of the skillet. Remove from the oven.
4. Cut the corn bread into 6 wedges in the skillet and serve hot.