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Saturday, June 06, 2009

skillet cornbread


Farmer Boy

I’m reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy to Meredith again. She’s only four years old (well, almost five) and this is the third time I’m reading it to her. You might assume this is because Meredith loves it so. You’d be right… but the more salient reason is because I love it so. Somehow I grew up without reading this book! I read all of the other Laura Ingalls Wilder books, starting with Little House in the Big Woods (which I think is my favorite, actually), but somehow missed this one, the story of Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood in upstate New York. When I read it to Meredith the first time, I was utterly captivated… and as with all books I love dearly, I felt quite bereft at the end. Luckily I have a willing audience for repeat readings, and having just finished it for the second time a couple of weeks ago, we started all over again at the beginning.

Since the Farmers Market is just starting up in earnest, it’s an especially good time to be reading this book. It’s the story of all the work 10-year-old Almanzo can already do, and what he aspires to do, on his father’s farm…  milking the cows, feeding the stock, breaking his team of young calves to the yoke, helping cut ice for the ice house, collecting sap and boiling maple syrup, driving the plow horses to harrow the fields, planting the crops, shearing sheep, weeding the vegetables, picking berries, harvesting the crops, threshing the wheat, and hauling wood from the wood lot.

This vast amount of constantly changing and physically demanding work makes for very big appetites, and Almanzo’s mother is an amazing cook! (I add here, that in addition to all the cooking and baking for her family, she cheerfully does all the other work expected of a farm wife: spinning and knitting and weaving their sheeps’ wool into wonderfully warm and durable cloth, sewing all the family’s clothes and linens, doing the washing and cleaning, making soap, candles, and butter, storing the vegetables, and so on.)  Anyway, every day, with the help of Almanzo’s two sisters, Almanzo’s mother puts three huge and fantastic meals on the table. These meals are often described in mouth-watering detail, and these sections are Meredith’s and my particular favorites.  Meredith will often say after an account of a particularly wonderful meal, “I wish I was Almanzo!” So do I! Here are a few of our favorite sections (and these aren’t even the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners!).

Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie. [from “Winter Evening”]

[Almanzo and his older brother, Royal] worked so hard [packing ice with sawdust in the icehouse] that the exercise kept them warm, but long before noon Almanzo was hungrier than wolves. He couldn’t stop work long enough to run into the house for a doughnut. All of his middle was hollow, with a gnawing inside it.
He knelt on the ice, pushing sawdust into the cracks with his mittened hands, and pounding it down with a stick as fast as he could, and he asked Royal:
“What would you like best to eat?”
They talked about spareribs, and turkey with dressing, and baked beans, and crackling cornbread, and other good things. But Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples’n’onions.
When, at last, they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew what he liked best, and she had cooked it for him.
Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples’n’onions fried together. He ate roast beef and brown gravy, and mashed potatoes and creamed carrots and boiled turnips, and countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly.
“It takes a good deal to feed a growing boy,” Mother said. And she put a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding on his bare plate, and handed him the pitcher of sweetened cream specked with nutmeg. Almanzo poured the heavy cream over the apples nested in the fluffy crust. The syrupy brown juice curled up around the edges of the cream. Almanzo took up his spoon and ate every bit.
[from “Filling the Ice House”]

When Almanzo trudged into the kitchen next morning with two brimming milk-pails, Mother was making stacked pancakes because this was Sunday.
The big blue platter on the stove’s hearth was full of plump sausage cakes; Eliza Jane was cutting apples pies and Alice was dishing up oatmeal, as usual. But the little blue platter stood hot on the back of the stove, and ten stacks of pancakes rose in tall towers on it.
Ten pancakes cooked on the smoking griddle, and as fast as they were done, Mother added another cake to each stack and buttered it lavishly and covered it with maple sugar. Butter and sugar melted together and soaked the fluffy pancakes and dripped all down their crisp edges.
That was stacked pancakes. Almanzo liked them better than any other kind of pancakes.
Mother kept on frying them till the others had eaten their oatmeal. She could never make too many stacked pancakes. They all ate pile after pile of them…
[from “Sunday”]

So… I tried to think of something that I make that is like Almanzo’s mother’s wonderful meals..  I surely don’t have a farm family to feed, and while I don’t make cornbread as often as Almanzo’s mother does (and she makes it so often she just tosses the ingredients together in a bowl, never needing to measure them), I do love it! I hope you enjoy it, too.

If you haven’t already read Farmer Boy I hope you’ll check it out; it’s inspiring and heart-warming and wonderful. And then I hope you’ll take the time to visit a farmers market in your neighborhood! I’ll bet the wonderfully fresh produce will inspire you to cook and eat wonderful meals with your loved ones!


skillet cornbread

This recipe is based on one from a long-ago issue of Cooks Illustrated. I love this cornbread—it doesn’t call for any grain but cornmeal (no wheat flour), so it’s got GREAT corn flavor and a fantastic dense, moist texture with a crispy crust that you will love. It’s not sweet, cakey, or fluffy, though—so if you like that kind of cornbread, you should stick with your regular recipe. The other reason I love this cornbread so much is because years ago, my mom gave me her grain grinder attachment for her KitchenAid Mixer (when she stopped making her own bread). So I can use absolutely freshly-ground cornmeal. I’ve read that it makes a difference to use freshly-ground corn, since cornmeal goes rancid quite quickly, and that gives it a bitter flavor. So…  if you don’t have your own grain grinder, try to get the freshest cornmeal you can, and store it in the freezer, maybe—and use it up as quick as ever you can!

The original recipe calls for a cast-iron skillet, but I just use a regular 8-inch oven-proof skillet. When I want to make a bigger batch of cornbread, I make a double batch and bake it in my biggest skillet—it’s 11 inches across.

1 tablespoon melted butter and 1 teaspoon olive oil (or, substitute all olive oil)
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably freshly-ground or stone-ground
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup water (rapidly boiling)
3/4 cup buttermilk (or substitute half plain yogurt, half milk)
1 large egg , beaten lightly

1. Heat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Measure 1/3 cup cornmeal into medium bowl. Mix remaining cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in small bowl; set aside.
3. Pour boiling water all at once into the 1/3 cup cornmeal; stir to make a smooth, slightly thick mush. Add more boiling water if necessary to make a mush, rather than a stiff chunk. Whisk in buttermilk gradually, breaking up lumps until smooth, then whisk in egg.
4. When oven is preheated, set 8-inch oven-proof skillet with butter and olive oil in heating oven. Let it heat for 5 or 10 minutes, until very hot and butter is completely melted.
5. Stir dry ingredients into cornmeal mush mixture until just moistened. Carefully remove skillet from oven. Pour hot fat from the skillet into the batter and stir to incorporate, then quickly pour batter into heated skillet. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and instantly turn cornbread onto wire rack; cool for 5 minutes, then serve immediately.


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