My Grandmother’s Spoonbread
The soft, ethereal cornbread known as “spoonbread,” used to be the souffle of the South. It was the most divine use of cornmeal, and no truly Southern cookbook was without a recipe for this bread to be served with a spoon. It was and still is the best example of how European culinary techniques married with native ingredients of the new world.
Although historians say the name has only been used to describe this bread since the end of the 19th Century, it is older and went by other names like “batter bread.” The Low Country, thanks to Sarah Rutledge in her 1847 The Carolina Housewife, has an “Owendaw” version, in which the cornmeal, butter, egg and milk batter is placed in a big pan with room to rise. She writes that it has the “delicacy of a baked custard.”
But of all the Southern states claiming to be spoonbread’s birthplace, Virginia is the most likely. Baked ham and spoonbread are woven in time, and in Virginia, spoonbread recipes took a decidedly French turn when the method of beating egg whites, and folding them into the cornmeal batter in a souffle-like method, created the high, puffy spoonbread we have grown to love.
Years ago, I studied spoonbread in great detail for Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I perfected a basic recipe, and then I went off in different directions to see if the recipe would allow cheese, shaved corn, shredded zucchini, and chopped ham to be incorporated. (The answer is yes.)
In my favorite spoonbread, white cornmeal is cooked with milk until very thick. I use no flour. Egg yolks are added for richness, and then egg whites are beaten into nearly stiff peaks and folded in carefully. No other leavening is needed.
It’s my grandmother’s recipe, and one that rested in her recipe box and now my recipe box and perhaps yours as I share it with you now.
MY GRANDMOTHER’S SPOONBREAD RECIPE:
Makes: 6 servings | Prep: 25 minutes | Cook: 40 to 45 minutes
Soft butter for greasing the pan
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup white cornmeal
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 large eggs
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 2-quart casserole or 8-cup souffle dish with the soft butter. Set aside.
In a large heavy saucepan, combine the milk and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and once boiling, slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, whisking, until the mixture is very thick, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the butter, sugar, nutmeg, and cayenne. Continue to whisk until the butter melts.
Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a small bowl and the whites in a large stainless steel or glass bowl with a pinch of salt.
Stir about a tablespoon of the cornmeal mixture into the egg yolks to raise their temperature. Repeat. Add the egg yolk mixture to the remaining cornmeal mixture and stir until smooth.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed until stiff but not dry, 2 to 3 minutes. Fold the beaten whites into the cornmeal mixture until nearly smooth. Transfer to the prepared casserole and smooth the top.
Bake until the spoonbread is golden brown and puffed, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve immediately.