As cold temperatures settle in, and along with it cravings for comfort food, we can safely declare it chili season.
Some people spend years cultivating the perfect chili recipe, but I recycle the same one every time. In my kitchen, chili is just a vehicle for cornbread.
I grew up with the small blue-and-white box of Jiffy mix as a cornbread barometer. It was fine, but wasn't going to change the world. It wasn't until I started traveling and tasting more that I realized cornbread could be so much more — and, that when it comes to cornbread, people have strong opinions.
There are purists (no chile peppers or green onions), the adventurous (throw in everything and anything) and somewhere in between is the cautious (a little cheese might be OK). Some like it sweet, others think adding sugar is sacrilege.
That's something chef Kelly Fields, author of the fabulous "The Good Book of Southern Baking" and owner of Willa Jean's bakery and restaurant in New Orleans, knows all about.
"Some folks believe that cornbread is just cake if you add sugar to it," she said in her cookbook, which heralds the revival of biscuits, cake and cornbread. "Folks in the South are real serious about their position on this. I can tell you that I've debated it a hundred times over (and often with the same folks over and over again), and I will stand behind and defend my stance: I like a little sugar in my cornbread. But in truth, I believe there is room in this world for all the cornbreads."
And so in her book she offers a game plan for cornbread lovers of all stripes. Want a great cornbread recipe? Check. In the mood for something new? Try cornbread madeleines, fritters or bread pudding. Really, anything goes. And if you're not in the mood to bake at all? Fields offers more than a dozen ways to doctor up a box of Jiffy cornbread mix.
A humble beginning
If it seems Jiffy cornbread has been around for as long as you can remember, it's because it has. It first appeared on shelves in 1930 and, according to its website, was the first prepared mix sold to the public. Its purpose: to make a cheap, simple mix that would give cooks consistent results. Jiffy hasn't strayed from its original mission: A box still costs just 50 cents, and it turns out the same every time.
"Growing up, boxed cornbread was all I knew," Fields told Epicurious. "If someone is looking for a quick and economical way to feed themselves and their families, I think it's a great option. It's also a fun, easy way to experiment with baking and build some baking confidence by altering the mix."
So Fields encourages just that in her book.
Whether you're in the sweet or savory camp, cornbread variations abound. Start with a prepared box of Jiffy cornbread, and try one of these variations from Fields:
• Add an additional egg to the batter and stir in a 15-ounce can of pure pumpkin purée, along with ½ teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and nutmeg and ¼ teaspoon each of ground cloves and cardamom.
• Before preparing the batter, stir 1 teaspoon of cinnamon into the dry mix.
• When preparing the batter, replace ⅔ cup of milk with buttermilk for a more tender and tangy version.
• Toss two peeled peaches (cut into thin slices) with 2 tablespoons of light brown sugar and fold them into the batter. Sprinkle the top with raw sugar for a little crunch.
• Heat things up by stirring in 1 cup of roasted chopped jalapeños, or 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, into the batter.
You get the idea. Cornbread's versatility is limited only by your imagination. But if your idea of the perfect cornbread is just a slab of butter, that's just fine, too.
As Fields says in her book, "At the end of the day, I think the real jewel is the cornbread that you can and will eat all by itself for breakfast, lunch or dinner."
Willa Jean Cornbread
Makes 1 (10-inch) round or 1 (9- by 5-inch) loaf.
Note: The trick to this perfect cornbread is letting the cornmeal, corn flour and buttermilk sit overnight; this allows the corn flour to fully hydrate, while the acid from the buttermilk tenderizes the cornmeal, helping to create a tender, almost cakey bread that still retains that slightly gritty texture you expect. The beauty of this cornbread is that you can leave the fully prepared batter in the refrigerator for 2 days before baking it. From "The Good Book of Southern Baking," by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings (2020, Lorena Jones Books).
• 3⁄4 c. corn flour, such as Bob's Red Mill
• 3⁄4 c. coarse cornmeal
• 2 1⁄3 c. buttermilk, at room temperature
• 3 tbsp. plus 1 1⁄2 tsp. unsalted butter, melted, divided
• 2 1⁄3 c. all-purpose flour
• 4 tsp. baking powder
• 1⁄4 tsp. baking soda
• 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. granulated sugar
• 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. dark brown sugar
• 4 eggs, at room temperature
• 2 1⁄2 tbsp. honey
• 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. kosher salt
• Butter for serving
• Cane syrup for serving, optional
In a medium bowl, using a wooden spoon, stir the corn flour and cornmeal with the buttermilk until there are no dry pockets remaining. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or for as little as 1 hour).
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or 9- by 5-inch loaf pan with the 1 1⁄2 teaspoons butter. In another medium bowl, whisk the all-purpose flour with the baking powder and baking soda. In a large bowl, whisk the granulated sugar and brown sugar with the eggs, honey and salt. Whisk in the cornmeal mixture until well combined. Add the flour mixture, stirring just until combined, and then stir in the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter.
Pour the batter into the prepared skillet or pan. Bake for about 35 minutes, if using a skillet, or 50 to 55 minutes if using a loaf pan, rotating the skillet or pan after 25 minutes, until the cornbread is golden and irresistible and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Slather with butter and cane syrup, if using, cut, and serve immediately. Store leftovers loosely wrapped in foil at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Makes 36 madeleines.
Note: Madeleines are small French butter cakes, distinguished by the scalloped shape of the molds in which they're baked. With a cornbread twist, this recipe is obviously the most Southern-inspired madeleine. These are fantastic on their own, but are also great alongside custards or puddings, or with fresh seasonal fruit. They require a madeleine pan, available in most kitchen stores. This recipe works very well with the 1 1⁄2- by 3-inch madeleine molds, using about 1 tablespoon of batter per mold. Nonstick pans are recommended, but it's still best to butter and flour the molds before baking. If fresh corn is out of season, substitute 3/4 cup of frozen corn, thawed and drained. From "The Good Book of Southern Baking," by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings (2020, Lorena Jones Books).
• 1 c. flour, plus more for dusting
• 1 c. fine cornmeal
• 3⁄4 c. coarse cornmeal
• 1⁄4 c. plus 1 tbsp. sugar
• 1 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
• 1 tsp. kosher salt
• 3 eggs, at room temperature
• 2 1⁄2 c. heavy cream, at room temperature
• 1 tbsp. cane syrup
• Grated zest of 1 orange
• 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
• 1⁄2 c. plus 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for greasing the pan
• 1 ear fresh corn, kernels cut from the cob (see Note)
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, fine cornmeal, coarse cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, cream, cane syrup, orange zest and vanilla paste to combine. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients in two portions; mix with a spoon just until combined. Gradually stream in the melted butter and stir to combine. Stir in the corn kernels. Place the batter in the refrigerator to rest for about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Liberally butter and flour a large madeleine pan. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of batter into each madeleine mold. Bake for 14 to 18 minutes, rotating the pan after 7 minutes, until the madeleines are golden brown and the middles puff. Let cool in the pan for 3 minutes before carefully removing the madeleines from the pan and transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. (Or skip the cooling, because these are so danged good straight from the oven.)
Once the pan is cool enough, liberally butter and flour it again, refill, and bake; repeat until all the batter is used (it'll be three rounds of baking total).
Madeleines really should be eaten right after they come out of the oven (or within the hour they are baked). I do not recommend storing these, but if you insist, you can pop them in a resealable bag and store at room temperature.
If you love cornbread (or corn muffins) but aren't in the baking mood, try the offerings at these six places:
Angelea's Soul Food Kitchen, 7800 Zane Av. N., Brooklyn Park, 763-432-5642, angeleassoulfoodkitchen.com
Brasa, 600 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-379-3030; 777 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-224-1302; and 812 W. 46th St., Mpls., 612-315-3395, brasa.us
Soul Bowl, 520 N. 4th St., Mpls., 612-567-7044, soulbowlmn.com
RCK Soul Food Restaurant, 7500 Bass Lake Road, New Hope, 763-710-9693, realcookskitchen.com
Revival, 525 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-340-2355, and 4257 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-4516, revivalrestaurants.com
Sift Gluten Free, 4557 Bloomington Av. S., Mpls., 612-503-5300, siftglutenfree.com