Today was a snow day, a sew day, followed by a cold, cold night. Our supper was one we have frequently in this weather – vegetable soup and bread. Sometimes the bread is a crusty loaf we can dip in olive oil, sometimes it’s soft yeast rolls with butter. This night it was a southern favorite, cornbread.
Cornbread baked in my mother’s cast iron skillet. That skillet holds more memories than grease molecules. My mother baked cornbread in it every single weekday of my memory. No matter what the menu, no matter how hot the kitchen would be in the summertime, the oven and pan were preheated to 400℉. Meanwhile, a simple mixture of self-rising cornmeal, egg, and whole milk was stirred together. When the pan was hot, bacon drippings were poured in, then the batter, then it cooked until done.
The round pone was always inverted on a plate, cut into eight wedges, and set on the corner of the table next to Daddy’s plate. I don’t recall Mama ever eating any, but Daddy ate it at lunchtime, and again sometimes at supper. Sometimes his supper was simply a wedge of cornbread (room temperature, never reheated) and a glass of milk.
Aunt Nellie, my mother’s maternal aunt, preferred hoecakes; thin cornmeal cakes cooked on top of the stove. From her comments, I inferred that Mama’s recipe was one from Daddy’s family and that she adopted it for our meals.
We ate plenty of leftovers at our house, but never leftover cornbread. Even if only one wedge was eaten at lunchtime, the remainder was discarded and a new pone cooked the next day. I don’t know why.
In my adult life, I’ve tried many cornbread recipes, many pans, and many other options. The alternatives are all good; we enjoy jalapeño cheddar cornbread occasionally, hoecakes are served at our favorite local restaurant, and once I discovered Tasha Tudor’s cornbread recipe, that complex sweet concoction sometimes finds its way to our table. Tasha advised that hot cornbread is better with a bit of butter and honey or blackberry jam on it. I agree!
I’ve baked cornbread in square pans, long pans, muffin pans; some glass, some stainless steel, some cast iron. But nothing gives the crust like Mama’s old cast iron skillet. But the cornbread will stick to that pan if I use any lubricant other than bacon grease. So I’ve learned to cook bacon for breakfast if I’m planning to cook cornbread later in the day.
A nice rubdown afterwards with a paper towel is the only cleaning my skillet gets. No water, no soap. A childhood memory more than 50 years ago is of Mama and Aunt Nellie building a fire outside and “burning off” their cast iron cookware. Then they seasoned them with grease of some kind and put them in the oven. This skillet was one of those.
Mama’s Cornbread Recipe was: 1 cup self-rising cornmeal, 1 egg, 2/3 cup whole milk. Mix ingredients. Preheat oven to 400℉ with iron skillet inside. Pour 1 tablespoon bacon drippings into pan, swirl around bottom and sides of pan, then pour in batter. Bake 20 minutes. (All quantities are my approximations, she didn’t measure anything.)
As for the vegetable soup recipe, it varies depending on what’s on hand. Tonight’s version started with a leftover rump roast, potatoes, carrots, onions, portobello mushrooms, corn, some frozen butterbeans, diced tomatoes. Cooked slowly, tasted, seasoned, simmered some more…