Ah, the great cornbread debate: Is cornbread supposed to be sweet or not? Southern style cornbread is often unsweetened, while it's northern counterpart usually adds a bit of sugar. After 30 years growing up eating my Virginia-born Grandfather's cornbread recipe, I'm strongly of the opinion that what passes for cornbread in northern states is just a tea cake by another name, and that real cornbread should be cooked in a hot cast iron skillet until crisp on the bottom and still almost creamy in the middle, with the only sweetness contributed by the cornmeal and whatever you choose to pile on top of your slice(s). I'll allow that sweeter varieties can be tasty and have their place, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are not, in fact, cornbread.
If I sound unyielding in my cornbread opinions, well, I am, at least in theory. You see, I am also a giant hypocrite because I added sweetness to this cornbread in the form of maple syrup, which, according to my claims above, is nothing short of cornbread heresy. But Melissa Clark told me to do it and so I did, as she has never steered me wrong in the past and her's was the only recipe I found that in any way resembled my Grandfather's.
My Grandfather's recipe is as simple as you can get. It uses a self-rising cornmeal mix and self-rising flour, and all you add is an egg, buttermilk, and a healthy amount of crisco. And of course, no sugar. Melissa's recipe was a little different, calling for a mix of two types of flours and browned butter. But she called for buttermilk. She had the right technique for heating the pan and melting the fat, then stirring that hot fat into the batter, then pouring the batter back into the hot, greased pan so that it sizzles upon contact and after baking you end up with the darkest, crispiest crust encasing a fluffy, almost creamy middle. If she was also telling me to use butter instead of crisco and to add a hit of maple syrup too, well, I wasn't going to argue, because butter always tastes better and I did want a little sweetness to balance out the spicy jalapeno butter I planned to spread on after baking.
Finally, there was also the very real issue that I am out of that cornmeal mix required for my Grandfather's recipe. With TSA lines being what they are, the next time I fly back from Virginia I don't really want to have to take the time to explain to the nice man peering suspiciously at my suitcase that it's really just flour and not cocaine.
So you see, it was really out of practical considerations that I committed this heinous crime against cornbread.
Skillet Cornbread with Jalapeno Butter
Adapted from Melissa Clark, I reduced the maple syrup amount on principle and the recipe as a whole.
- 8 tbs unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 1 1/3 cup buttermilk + 2 tbs
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 1/3 cup white whole wheat flour
- 1/3 cup all purpose flour
- 1 tbs baking powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/3 tsp baking soda
- 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
- 1 small jalapeno, diced
- pinch salt
- Make the jalapeno butter: In a bowl, combine all ingredients until well incorporated. If not using right away, roll into a log using parchment paper or plastic wrap, and chill until firm.
- Make the cornbread: Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Pour melted butter into a mixing bowl and then place the cast iron skillet into to the oven to heat while you make the batter. Do not wipe clean.
- To the butter, add in the maple syrup and the milk and whisk until combined. Make sure the liquid mixture is cool, then whisk in the eggs, then the dry ingredients.
- Pour the batter into the heated skillet and bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden. Cool 10 minutes in pan and then serve with the jalapeno butter, if using.