No matter how much fresh corn I put into my cornbread at this time of year, it always tastes more like bread than corn. Although I am able to get good corn flavor by using just-picked sweet corn and stone-ground yellow cornmeal, I miss the creamy richness that I get when I eat a spoonful of buttered kernels.
A survey of cornbread recipes led me to a regional specialty I had never tried. Spoon bread, a cross between classic cornbread and an eggy corn soufflé, promised a creamier, cornier result. It felt presumptuous for someone who has only crossed the Mason-Dixon Line to visit Disney World to attempt a Southern classic like this one, but that's what I did last month, with satisfying results.
For fellow Long Islanders who are as ignorant of Southern food ways as I generally am, here is what I learned about the history of this revered dish: Its name may derive from an American Indian word for corn porridge, suppawn. The addition of butter, milk and eggs was either the idea of British settlers, who had no choice but to employ local grain in their Old World pudding recipes, or came after the Civil War, as the Southern dairy industry expanded. Along with biscuits, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, and chicken and dumplings, it persists as a hallmark of Southern style. As part of an ongoing Southern food renaissance, noted chefs including Donald Link, Sean Brock, Edward Lee and Linton Hopkins have featured updated versions of it on their menus. The 19th Annual Spoon Bread Festival will be held in Berea, Kentucky, from Sept. 18-20, and will feature parades, clog dancing and beauty pageants, all celebrating "the richest, lightest and most delicious of all corn meal breads."
As with all classic recipes, there is absolutely no consensus on how to make the best spoon bread. Some recipes insist on canned creamed corn. Some don't include any corn at all. White corn meal seems to be favored, except in cases when yellow is called for. Some cooks insist that spoon bread requires whipped egg whites for lightness. Others raise their bread with baking soda or baking powder. You either love sugar in your spoon bread, or reject it as an incursion of Yankee taste.
Not bound by family tradition or community opinion, I developed my spoon bread recipe to my own personal taste and with convenience in mind. I didn't add sugar, because my corn was already so sweet. In fact, I decided to add a little sharp Cheddar cheese to balance this sweetness. To avoid washing another bowl, I used whole eggs, not egg whites, and added baking powder and baking soda for lift. White cornmeal can be difficult to find, so I used the yellow cornmeal I already had on hand. My spoon bread made a fine late summer side dish for grilled pork chops and chicken. And it is great for breakfast the next day, with extra butter and warmed maple syrup on the side.
SPOON BREAD WITH CHEDDAR CHEESE
2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 cups (from 2 small ears) fresh corn kernels
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup (about 4 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, combine the buttermilk, corn kernels, cornmeal, Cheddar cheese, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Stir in eggs until combined.
3. Place the butter in a 2-quart baking dish and place in the oven until butter is just melted. Remove dish from oven and tilt pan to coat bottom and sides with butter. Pour remaining butter into corn mixture and stir. Pour batter into dish, return to oven, and baking until bread is golden and set around edges but a little wobbly in the center, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes and then serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.