Saturday, May 14, 2011

Soul food

Cornbread is something I associate with my childhood. Strange right, for a girl who grew up in Penang and not ... Texas? You see,  my parents used to buy corn bread from a bakery called the Snowhill Bakery which used to be located along Waterfall Road in Penang. This was some 30 years ago and the small family-run bakery is not there anymore.  I haven't been able to find a cornbread so delicious since I left Penang many, many years ago.

So, I've been nursing this corn-bread craving for over 20 years. The craving gets worse if I see cornbread being eaten on TV or if I read about it in a book. Reading Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was particularly hard. 

Set in America during the Great Depression, the book tells the story of the Joads who like many American tenant farmers were tractor-ed out of their homes (the drought made farming close to impossible and landowners (i.e the banks) decided a tractor could do more work than a family of four, hence forcing them off) and travel to California (which they regarded as the 'promised land") to look for work. Unfortunately they find themselves in competition with hundreds of other migrant farmers and end up being exploited. 

OK, this is sounding dangerously like a literary assignment but I need to put this in context. The Joads are unbelievably poor and have to live on scraps and whatever they can afford. Mostly the meals comprise of cornbread with bacon grease, cracklin', beans and milk. Gosh, this is going to make me sound real bad but the food made me salivate. I did empathize with them, but Ma Joad (the matriach) ... she cooked some tasty meals even from the scraps they could barely afford.  

The power of food eh? 

Cornbread is a staple in America, particularly in the South, and is often regarded as "soul food". We can hardly (if at all) find cornbread here. Sure Kenny Rogers Roasters had (or still has, I don't know) some corn muffins that are all right but those muffins are sure as rain not cornbread. They're too sweet. 

Cornbread isn't hard to make. The most important ingredient in cornbread is cornmeal (ground corn) and it is very important to use the "right" cornmeal. I made a batch of cornbread some time ago which didn't turn out very well. The problem was with the cornmeal I used: too coarse, not refined. 

This time, I was determined to use good quality cornmeal, and not the unlabeled bag of yellow grain I bought the last time. This time, I went of stone-ground cornmeal: real fine, real nice. Now there are different grinds of cornmeal available: medium ground (where you can actually see the grainy texture of the ground corn) and fine ground (which looks like a pale yellow powder). Stone-ground cornmeal is superfine and I like it. 

Be careful though. Stone-ground cornmeal is sometimes labelled as "corn flour". Don't mix this up with corn starch which is also labeled corn flour. Corn starch is a thickening agent in pies, cakes, sauces or gravy. 

Cornbread is often cooked in a cast-iron skillet or pan to get a lovely moist bread with a crispy, browned crust. I used a regular loaf pan and it turned out pretty well. Nice crust (just a little singed on top, albeit) and a tender inside. Nice. 

I added some chillies to the batter (roasted on an open flame, de-seeded and chopped fine) which added a nice, quiet fire to the bread. Usually, whole corn kernels are also added but I omitted these because I like my corn on the cob: grilled, doused with butter and seasoned with salt and pepper. I try to keep them out of my bread, cakes, muffins, whatever.

Enjoy the cornbread on its own, or with some gravy. I like mine with melted butter and honey. Or just plain.

Corn bread
40g butter, softened and cut into cubes

180g cornmeal
70 g high protein/bread flour
31/2 tsp baking powder
11/2 tbsp Castor sugar
1 tsp salt
60g butter, melted
2 cups milk
3 eggs
3 red chillies, roasted, de-seeded and chopped

Heat the oven to 220C.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, melted butter and milk till incorporated. Add the chillies. Keep aside.

Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. 

Now add the dry ingredients to the batter and stir till combined. Don't overmix or you will end up with a tough and dry cornbread.

Put the 30g cubes of butter in your baking pan and pop it into the oven for about 3 mins. Take it out )your butter should be melted and bubbling just a bit) and pour the batter in. 

Bake for about 25 mins or until its nice and golden and the sides start pulling away from the tin. 

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