Things just taste better in cast iron. Maybe it's the whole sitting-around-the-campfire-and-playing-harmonica-under-a-starry-sky-while-the-horse-is-tied-up-over-there aesthetic. Maybe it's the sound of batter hitting screaming hot iron, dough sizzling wildly in fat. Most likely it's the nearly-smoky charred crust that a nicely seasoned cast iron pan imparts to the foodstuffs cooked within it. As much as I love the cowboy aesthetic -- and I do love the cowboy aesthetic -- I love the crusty goodness even more.
Nothing develops a better cast-iron crust than corn bread. Corn bread's rustic, toothsome, delicious texture is an even match for the tasty patina of a cast iron skillet. The batter spatters along the edges when it's poured into the preheated pan. And I can easily see myself making cornbread at a campsite; the tied-up horse would snort deeply through his nostrils to let me know that he wants a piece, too. Corn bread embodies everything I love about cooking in cast iron. It would seem corn bread was made for cast iron.
This corn bread recipe comes from Magnolia's Southern Cuisine, the cookbook from the Charleston, South Carolina, restaurant of the same name. At the restaurant (and in the book), chef Donald Barickman serves up southern and low-country standards with delectable flair. Each summer when we visit Charleston, Magnolia's serves as a beacon -- an air-conditioned, delicious beacon -- for our weary, hot, tired selves. We wander into the restaurant from sweltering E. Bay St., perhaps order a mint julep or a cool beer. We enjoy a rich lunch that is much too heavy for the meteorological conditions beyond the picture windows. We do not care; the food is too good. By the time the check comes I am already anticipating next year's visit.
It's a memorable place, made even more special by the fact that it was the site of a perfect dinner Husband and I enjoyed not long after we began dating. You know those kinds of meals: they exist through a Barbara Walters-like soft filter of happy memories and exemplify that hopeful, fluttery feeling of young love. It's no wonder Husband bought me a copy of the Magnolia's cookbook.
Charleston nostalgia aside, this is one heck of a piece of corn bread. We ate ours tonight with sauteed chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. I plan on having a piece for breakfast, warmed and spread with a little bit of soft butter. Maybe even a teaspoon of strawberry jam spooned atop the sturdy crust.
Cast iron, I love you.
Adapted from Magnolia's Southern Cuisine, by Donald Barickman
Given how I've gone on and on about it, you might guess that this recipe is best when cooked in a well-seasoned cast iron pan. However, it can be made in a well-oiled 9" x 13" baking pan if you don't have cast iron. But if you don't have a cast iron pan, do yourself a favor and get one. They are inexpensive and will last well into the next millennium.
In response to a commenter (hi, Jen!), I thought it might be helpful to share a little cast iron maintenance advice here: All my cast iron cookware is Lodge -- you can find it almost anywhere, including hardware stores, and it is very inexpensive. My largest skillet was only $29, if I recall correctly. When you first get it home, go ahead and give it a quick wash with hot water and dishwashing liquid, then dry it off and coat the inside of the pan with vegetable oil or shortening. Place it in a 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, let it cool and then wipe out any excess oil with a paper towel. You can go ahead and do this a few more times if you like before using it, or you can start using it right away.
A good thing to remember is that cast iron is best used in high heat situations -- on a high flame on the stove or in a very hot oven. In between uses, just wipe it clean with a paper towel and rub it with a little more vegetable oil. For a little extra cleaning, you can also sprinkle the pan with kosher salt and use it as an abrasive. Just dump out the salt and wipe clean with a paper towel and you're done. The more you use it, the more seasoned and wonderful it becomes. Just try to refrain from using lots of soap and water to clean the pan -- it will just rust and ruin the good seasoning you've got going on.
I store all my cast iron in the oven, where it's out of the way of my other cookware. It gets a little bit of extra seasoning in there, too, because my oven temp even when it's off is about 100 degrees.
1 1/4 c. plus 2 T. all-purpose flour
1 T. plus 1 t. non-alum baking powder
1/2 t. kosher salt
5 T. sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 c. buttermilk
5 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 T. safflower or peanut oil, for oiling skillet
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the rack in the top third of the oven. If you are using a cast iron skillet, as soon as the oven reaches 425, place the skillet in the oven and let it preheat. This is what makes the wonderful brown crust.
In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Whisk the eggs into the buttermilk, then pour the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, stir gently to combine. Stir in the melted butter.
Carefully remove the skillet from the oven. Using a paper towel carefully oil the skillet with the safflower or peanut oil. Pour the corn bread batter into the skillet and enjoy the wonderful sizzling. (If using a 9" x 13" pan, do not preheat it. Just oil it and pour in the corn bread batter.)
Bake for 25 minutes or until the top is brown, the center is firm and a knife or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the corn bread from the oven and let it sit in the skillet for 8-10 minutes to cool slightly before cutting and serving.
Makes 12 nicely-proportioned wedges of corn bread.