Spoon bread is one of those old-timey favorites, so easy, quick and forgiving that it’s become my go-to winter dish. A cross between the classic cornbread and Yorkshire pudding, its edges are crispy and golden and encase a soft, tender inside.
Savory and just a tad sweet, the creamy concoction puffs up like a soufflé as it’s pulled from the oven. It’s dramatic enough for a casual dinner party, yet you can whip it up for dinner tonight. Serve it with a tossed salad in a sharp vinaigrette. Leftovers are great sizzled in a butter-slicked skillet for a quick lunch. With the holidays upon us, spoon bread makes the perfect vegetarian option on the holiday table alongside the honeyed ham or smoked turkey that often appears on the holiday buffet.
It’s often called a Southern dish, but I’ve found it on the menus of quaint inns throughout New England and in small family restaurants along our North Shore. Because it’s based on cornmeal, and contains no flour, spoon bread is appropriate for gluten-free dining.
As the name implies, the puddinglike “bread” is soft enough to eat with a spoon. Food historians trace its origins to cornmeal mush, served at meals instead of bread, when wheat was scarce and considered a luxury.
Because cornmeal is the key ingredient, it should be of top-notch quality for success. I’ve found that Sunrise Flour Mill’s organic, coarse-ground cornmeal to be a great choice. The coarse grind gives the spoon bread’s silky texture just enough nubby corny grit. Plus, it’s local, shipped within days of grinding, and so fresh that when you open the bag, you get a whiff of real corn. Whole Grain Milling Co. and Bob’s Red Mill are also great choices. The difference between good-quality cornmeal and the commercial varieties is staggering in both flavor and texture.
You can play around with this recipe, swapping out the Cheddar cheese, but choose one that will melt into mixture such as Gruyère, Havarti, or Swiss. (Feta, blue and hard aged cheeses might overwhelm the flavors of other ingredients.) Try stirring in a handful of sautéed onions or mushrooms, corn kernels or chopped fresh herbs. If you prefer, add a little crumbled cooked sausage or diced ham before it goes into the oven.
There’s good reason spoon bread has stood the test of time. It’s a low-stress, high-impact recipe that calls for the most ordinary ingredients, yet it tastes far more complicated than it actually is.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.