The topic of cornbread is a loaded one here in the land of liberty. Cornbread is really quite a simple comfort food, but for something so unassuming, people tend to be as culty about it as they are barbecue or pizza crust or foie gras. Showing up on dinner tables since pre-colonial times and made with as few as three ingredients, this baked yellow corn cake nonetheless carries weight as one of the historic North-South debates in the United States, up there with slavery, abortion and Donald Trump.
As a Yankee born, London-based ex-pat turned Angeleno transplant, I think I can help us all get along. Clearly I have no loyalties, so this recipe steals the best from each side, and throws in a neutral party – cardamom – to help turn this cakebread into the Civil War peace treaty we never had.
The great cornbread debate centers largely on two ingredients: sugar and wheat flour. The southern version calls for little to none of either, the northern for a lot of both. In the south it’s cooked in a skillet and cut into wedges, in the north a baking pan and cut into squares. In the south – buttermilk, in the north – sweet milk. Above all, in the south cornbread is considered a savory bread side, in the north it’s a sweet cake. There is rarely compromise from either side on these rules. In fact, they are devotedly defended by their proponents.
On one thing the two sides agree – corn. Like many staples in our diet, corn has been around since before the arrival of the Europeans. The crop originated in the South Americas, harvested by the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs, before making it’s way up north where it was eventually cultivated by American Indians. At this time cornbread was made of water, cooking fat and coarse cornmeal ground using shallow bowls carved into the top of large boulders and a stone as a pestle. Today, cornmeal comes in a lot of varieties – fine, medium or coarse, stone or steel ground, blue, white or yellow. I like it coarse and stone-ground, which means it’s ground with the germ in tact, making it a whole grain and retaining it’s fiber, vitamins and minerals, as well as a nice crunch.
This recipe has equal parts stone ground cornmeal and flour, with only just amounts of sweetness, using honey to help lighten the sugar load. And of course there’s cardamom. This bright and perfumey spice – traditionally used in savory and Indian dishes like curries – brings a lovely complexity to an otherwise straightforward flavor palate. Subtly sweet, herbally floral with a tinge of anise, cardamom’s flavor is hard to pinpoint. People say you either love it or hate it, but used in moderation (think chai tea if too dominant), it has the potential to elevate the flavor of a simple recipe to become distinct and memorable, and to bring along the haters too.
The most authentic cardamom flavor can be found in the whole pods. These little capsules are an aromatic wonder and much more potent than the pre-ground spice (often cheaper, too). Lightly toast the pods, peel back the shell to reveal a delicate bundle of black seeds, and grind them to a powder (a spice grinder makes this a lot easier, but mortar and pestle will do). When I did this my house exploded with this bright and flowery scent.
Along with the cardamom, a dash of cayenne, though barely noticeable, gives a gentle boost to the other ingredients. The result is a moist, slightly sweet and crunchy golden cake with a lingering flavor intrigue that makes you pay attention to what you’re putting in your mouth.
Being the moderate that it is, this dish swings both ways when it comes to sweet and savory. Brush on some salted honey butter (recipe below) to make a sweet snack, or serve alongside a warm, hearty soup or stew, like this spiced coconut lentil soup.
This is the beauty of a dish like cornbread. It’s great versatility makes it conceivable in so many ways – with jalapeño, bacon, or scallions, blueberries, chocolate or nuts mixed in – and for so many purposes – cubed into croutons for salad or stuffing, baked into french toast, dried and crumbled into breadcrumbs, or submerged in cream for bread pudding. For something so delicious, surely we all can get along.
SPICED CARDAMOM CORNBREAD
1 cup coarse, stone-ground cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup organic cane sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp ground cayenne
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp butter, melted
3 tbsp raw honey
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup almond milk
3/4 cup greek yogurt
butter for pan
Preheat oven to 400°F and put 10- or 12- inch cast iron skillet in oven to warm.
In a large mixing bowl, stir the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom and salt.
In a separate mixing bowl, use an electric mixer to combine vegetable oil, honey, beaten eggs, almond milk and yogurt and stir just until incorporated. Add melted butter on a low speed. Fold dry mix into wet, stirring until just combined.
Once it’s as hot as possible, remove the skillet from the oven and swirl around a nob of butter until all surfaces are covered. Pour the batter directly into the skillet. The sides of the batter will sizzle and begin to brown.
Bake in 400°F oven for 20-25 minutes, checking for doneness. Watch the cornbread towards the end, you want it to be golden brown and starting to show some cracks. Remove from oven once done, let cool for 5 minutes, and for 5 more on a cooling rack.
SALTED HONEY BUTTER
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 tbsp raw honey
1 tbsp coarse sea salt
Using a hand or standing mixer, whip butter and honey together until smooth and fluffy. You can also do this with a fork if you don’t have a mixer handy. Gently fold salt in a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Serve at room temperature with an extra drizzle of honey and a few extra grains of salt on top.