Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Better for its scratches

I love a good workhorse. Especially a kitchen workhorse. Something that I can use over and over and over again in the service of good cooking or baking. Something that holds up well to years -- even decades -- of heavy use. Something utilitarian that looks good even when it's scratched. Something utilitarian that looks even better for its scratches. I'd give a wheelbarrow full of pristine All-Clad sauciers for one of my grandmother's pots. And I think there are few tangible wares more lovely than a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.


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.



++++++

CORN BREAD
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.

9 comments:

robert said...

so that's where my grandmothers skillet is. I want it back.

Dianne said...

I will give it back if you promise to cook only tofu in it.

robert said...

grandma is doing the proverbial rolling over just at the thought of something so vial being in her skillet.

Dianne said...

You're probably right about that!

The Blue Morpho said...

Hello Dianne! This is Jennifer (your sister in law :) I've been following your blog for quite a while now, but never commented until this fine moment right here. What are your recommendations for choosing and caring for a cast iron skillet? Because of my OCDs I'm sort of freaked out by dishes that don't go through the dishwasher. How do you season and maintain a skillet properly? Cheers!

Dianne said...

Hey Jennifer! So glad to see you here, and thanks for reading! I really appreciate it. Hope all is well with you and Andrew!

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.

Since you are concerned about dishes that don't go through the dishwasher, maybe use it the first few times to bake breads or cakes, moving on to other uses (like frying chicken) once you're comfortable with it. 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. I hope you decide to give it a try -- it really does impart a wonderful flavor to foods cooked within it, and it will last 100 years.

Oh and one other thing: a traditional cast iron skillet might be the best place for you to start, versus a cast iron grill pan, which tends to hold onto crusty food bits within its ridges and is more difficult to clean. The flat skillet surface is easier to maintain.

The Blue Morpho said...

Thanks for the detailed reply and great advice! I did, in fact, ruin my first cast iron skillet with too much washing. That was 18 years ago and I haven't had the guts to try again. But I think I might just have to give it another go. Cheers!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I have a few pieces of the Lodge preseasoned cast iron -- I love the head start it gives you.

Dianne said...

Jen, you're welcome. And good luck! By the way, I'm so sorry I won't be able to make it for Passover...I really hope to see you guys soon!

Lydia, I had no idea Lodge has preseasoned cast iron -- must check it out!