Bacon drippings and buttermilk: How to make cornbread (and cornbread croutons) like a true Southerner

Though they are native Texans, my kids haven’t quite taken to cornbread. They usually think it’s too sweet (even if there’s very little sugar) or too crumbly. But, that just means more cornbread for me.

This spinach salad from “Southern from Scratch” by Ashley English has been slighted wilted with the residual heat of a bacon vinaigrette. Contributed by Johnny Autry.

You won’t find sugar in Ashley English’s cornbread. She’s the author of “Southern from Scratch: Pantry Essentials and Down-Home Recipes” (Roost Books, $35), an excellent primer on all things Southern food, especially all those pickles and vinegars and side dishes that help define the cuisine.

Here is English’s go-to cornbread recipes, as well as a wilted spinach salad that uses cornbread croutons and a bacon vinaigrette. It’s an ideal dish for people who love both greens and cornbread, but skip the homemade croutons if you don’t feel like baking.

Homemade Cornbread

First, some history about cornbread: Versions of hot, corn-based breads were being baked on the continent well before European colonists arrived. “Suppone” and “pone” are but two names that Native Americans gave to their cornbreads, which consisted of ground cornmeal and liquid, typically water. Since then, additional ingredients have been introduced to lighten and leaven the bread, including fats (butter, bacon grease, vegetable oils), eggs, milk or buttermilk, and baking soda and baking powder.

I am deeply picky about cornbread. According to my standards, a properly prepared pan should possess no added sugar, have a moist interior and crumby exterior, and be simultaneously smoky, salty, and naturally sweet. It needs to be baked with bacon drippings and butter, and contain no trace of processed vegetable oils. While I welcome white or yellow cornmeal equally, so long as my other criteria are met, I do tend to gravitate toward yellow cornbread, as that is the kind I grew up eating.

Essentially, what I’m describing is my grandmother’s cornbread, the kind she baked regularly, having learned from her own mother, my Mamaw. I would rather have no cornbread at all than one that is too sweet, or baked with vegetable oil, or so light and fluffy and devoid of exterior crunch that it might as well be a slice of cake. I tell you, when it comes to cornbread, I am Goldilocks. The side eye I give most cornbread would make a grown man cry. What I offer here is a version my ancestors would applaud.

— Ashley English

6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons bacon drippings
1 1/4 cup yellow medium-grind cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, room temperature
3 eggs, room temperature

Turn the oven to 400 degrees. Place the butter and bacon grease in a 9-inch cast iron skillet or pie pan. Put the pan in the oven, allowing the fats to melt and the pan to heat while you prepare the batter.

Sift together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium mixing bowl.

Whisk together the buttermilk and eggs in a large bowl. Remove the heated pan from the oven, and carefully pour all but several teaspoons of the melted fat into the bowl. Whisk until fully combined.

Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet, combining just until the batter is free of lumps.

Pour the batter into the heated pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the sides of the cornbread begin to pull away from the edges of the pan. Cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

Kilt Spinach Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette & Cornbread Croutons

Croutons are a great way to use up leftover cornbread — you could also crumble it to use as a crust for fish or instead of breadcrumbs in meatballs — and they add a wonderful texture to this kilt spinach salad, which gets its name from the Southern Appalachian term for wilted. The addition of the hot fat on the spinach wilts it slightly, so let the dressing cool longer if you want the spinach to retain its fresh texture.

— Addie Broyles

For the croutons:
1 batch cornbread, cut into bite-size cubes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
For the spinach:
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
3 pieces bacon, cooked until lightly crisped and crumbled
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
10 ounces fresh spinach leaves

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the cornbread cubes evenly on a large rimmed baking sheet, with some space in between each cube.

Drizzle the cornbread with the olive oil, and then sprinkle evenly with the salt. Toss gently to coat and then spread out the cubes again on the baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, gently flip the cubes, and bake for 8 minutes longer until crispy and golden. Remove the pan from the oven and set the croutons aside to cool while you prepare the spinach.

Warm the olive oil over low heat in a medium saucepan. Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute, and then remove the garlic from the pan.

Stir in the crumbled bacon, brown sugar, salt and several grinds of pepper until fully incorporated, then turn off the heat. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 minutes and then carefully (it may splatter a little) stir in the vinegar.

Place the spinach in a medium heatproof bowl. Pour the dressing over the greens. Using salad tongs, toss the spinach with the dressing and serve immediately, topped with the cornbread croutons. Serves 4.

— From “Southern from Scratch: Pantry Essentials and Down-Home Recipes” by Ashley English (Roost Books, $35)

 


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