Spoon bread, the cold weather comfort food of my southern American childhood, is one of those classic, everyday family recipes that spools out into almost endless variations – all delicious, and all having their place at the table.
Made with cornmeal (polenta), milk/buttermilk, eggs, salt, butter (plus baking powder or soda in some recipes) and so soft it’s cut with a spoon rather than a knife, spoon bread falls under “Cereals and Grains” in my 1965 edition of the Fanny Farmer cookbook; under “Grains and Pates (pasta)” in James Beard’s “American Cookery” (1972); while Patricia Lousada lists it under “Main Dishes and Accompaniments” in her “American Sampler” Sainsbury Cookbook (1985).
The great southern American cook Edna Lewis adds a spoonful of sugar to her white cornmeal/buttermilk mix in “Taste of Country Cooking” (1976) suggesting spring onions cooked in butter as the perfect accompaniment to her creamy, pudding-like “bread”. It is perfect, too, as an accompaniment to roast chicken, sliced country ham or even breakfast sausages.
The look, taste and consistency changes with the choice of cornmeal/polenta. White or fine yellow cornmeal/polenta gives a crisp crust and soft soufflé-ish interior. A coarser yellow or stoneground cornmeal gives a moist, but more even texture throughout.
If you drop one egg from the classic recipe and increase the oven time to 40-50 minutes (instead of 25-30), what you get is a dense, moist cornbread, best cut with a knife, with the benefit of being gluten free. On the other hand, separating the eggs, beating the whites to soft peaks, then folding them in (as in a souffle) gives an even lighter, more delicate, spoony texture. Every recipe gives slightly different results, all good in my view.
Add cheddar cheese and/or fresh/frozen/tinned corn kernels (or cooked rice), and you have a hearty, satisfying lunch or supper dish.
More recently, recipes on line and in newer cook books focus on inventive brunch/lunch/supper dish variations (with spring onions, with chopped red or green peppers, with pumpkin puree, etc.) rather than the simple classic, although Martha Stewart’s website provides an excellent version.
I love the pared down, no nonsense recipe from “The Blue Grass Cookbook” first published in 1904, filled with family recipes from Kentucky and Virginia, including those by the African American cooks who worked in the “big house” at the beginning of the 20th century.” Republished by The University of Kentucky Press in 2005, it gives a wonderful picture of everyday cooking of the time.
Spoon Corn Bread, "The Blue Grass Cookbook"
nearly a quart of buttermilk
1 teacup sweet milk
a light teaspoonful of soda
lard the size of a walnut
4 or 5 large spoonfuls of corn meal (after it has been sifted)
Bake in an earthen dish for an hour. Serve with a spoon.
The simplest, plain spoon bread is the one I make most often, sometimes replacing the ordinary or sweet milk with buttermilk – or possibly just adding a squeeze of lemon or a few drops of white or cider vinegar to the milk in the fridge to give that slight acidity. I frequently use full fat yoghurt or sour cream instead of milk in my cornbread for extra moistness, but have not yet tried either for spoon bread.
This is how I make simple spoon bread:
ALL YOU NEED IS:
A one quart/litre casserole, buttered and kept warm
Preheat oven to 400F – 200C
Put in a pan:
2 cups boiling water
1 cup milk/buttermilk
Heat to a simmer
Pour in slowly, stirring constantly
1 cup fine ground cornmeal/polenta
½ teaspoon salt
Cook, stirring, for a few minutes until like smooth, thick cream
Remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons butter, beating well
Whisk in 4 large, well beaten eggs
Pour into warm, buttered casserole and bake at 400F-200C for 25-30 minutes until top is lightly browned. Interior should be soft and creamy like a soufflé.
Eat with a spoon