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Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Cornbread is ideal for experimentation

It's the perfect time to be pondering cornbread construction since it makes such a dynamic accompaniment to chili. And who isn't hankering for chili this month?
The editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine devoted five whole pages to turning out stellar batches of cornbread in their ambitious cookbook, "The Best Recipe," which just goes to show it's a controversial concept.
At the most basic level, they claim, Southerners like their cornbread on the crumbly, dry and flat side of the subject. Northerners lean toward a sweeter, lighter and more golden style.
My personal preference is moist, dense and flavorful. And I get especially excited when the character is achieved from interesting additions, such as honey, sauteed onions, bacon, shredded cheese, and sour cream or buttermilk.
If I want the cornbread to turn out particularly crusty, then I'll opt for my iron skillet, which I'll preheat in the oven, along with a dollop of butter so that when I pour the batter in it sizzles and smokes.
The kind of corn meal you use is another way to affect the outcome. Stone-ground cornmeal is usually a bit coarser than cornmeal processed through steel rollers and produces a texture that is in my estimation, more interesting.
But most important of all, I think, is to have a sort of free-wheeling attitude for the entire process. Don't be afraid to experiment. After all, eating such failures is definitely a part of the fun.
This first cornbread leans toward moist and light, with a rich corn flavor. Use stone-ground yellow cornmeal for the most appealing taste and texture. Stone-ground cornmeal can be recognized by its light and dark flecks.
Golden cornbread
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus extra softened butter for greasing the pan

Adjust oven rack to the center position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square metal pan.
Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Push the dry ingredients up the side of the bowl to form a well.
Crack the eggs into the well and whisk lightly. Then whisk in the buttermilk and milk. Finally, stir the wet and dry ingredients together quickly until barely combined (do not over-mix). Add the melted butter, stirring just until it is combined (without over-mixing).
Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake about 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown and lightly cracked. The edges will be pulling away from the side of the pan. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool slightly on a wire rack. Cut into squares and serve warm.
Makes 9 servings.
Cheddar cheese variation: After adding the butter, quickly fold in 1 cup (2 1/2 ounces) shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese.
Chiles variation: After adding butter, quickly fold in 1 small jalapeno that has been stemmed, seeded, and minced. For a fiery flavor, use up to two jalapenos and don't leave out the seeds.
Bacon variation: After adding butter, quickly fold in 1/2 cup of crumbled bacon bits. To end up with the 1/2 cup of bacon needed for this recipe, cut 8 ounces of sliced bacon into small dice, then fry in a large skillet until well-browned and crisp; drain, cool, then set aside until ready to fold into batter.
Sauteed onion variation: Saute 2 cups of chopped yellow onions in 1 tablespoon of butter (or canola oil, or bacon grease) until very soft and translucent. Let cool. Then, when preparing the cornbread, fold in the onions right after you have added the butter.
Combo variation: Consider variations on the variations above! You decide what will make it perfect.
Adapted from "The Best Recipe," by the Editors of Cook's Illustrated

Chef Mark Miller brings a unique twist to a classic. The corn cakes can be served alone for breakfast, or as an appetizer (topped with sour cream and green onions), or even with fowl such as duck and quail.
Coyote Cafe corn cakes
1 cup corn kernels (OK to use frozen corn)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup stoneground cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 egg, beaten
2 green onions, chopped
Puree 1/2 cup of the corn and then combine it with the remaining 1/2 cup of whole kernels; set aside.
Place the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a bowl and mix together. In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and melted butter, then whisk in the egg. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the liquid ingredients and whisk until thoroughly incorporated. Fold in the whole and pureed corn, along with the chopped green onions. If necessary, add additional buttermilk to thin the mixture.
Using a nonstick pan over medium heat, ladle the corn cake batter and form 3-inch cakes. Cook until golden brown (about 2 1/2 minutes on each side). Keep the prepared corn cakes on a warm platter in a warm oven until all of the batter has been used.
Makes about 20 corn cakes.
Recipe adapted from "Coyote Cafe" by Mark Miller

Wedges of this hot amber bread, mottled with local blueberries (fresh or frozen) and lavished with creamy butter and warm honey, are hard to match for down-home goodness. Other berries can be substituted, especially raspberries, which are marvelous against earthy cornmeal.
Blueberry cornbread
3/4 cup (1 1/2 cubes) butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Grease a 9- or 10-inch square baking pan.
Combine the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, cream together until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the eggs until thoroughly blended, then beat in the cornmeal.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Alternately, mix the dry ingredients and the milk into the creamed ingredients, ending with milk. Gently fold in the blueberries.
Turn the mixture into the prepared pan. Place in the oven and bake until lightly browned and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool slightly on a wire rack before serving.
Recipe adapted from "Oregon's Cuisine of the Rain," by Karen Brooks

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
Story tags » Cooking

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