For the second stop on our virtual world culinary tour, the kids in my "food appreciation" classes traveled to the Appalachian region of western North Carolina.
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between Appalachian fare and what we loosely refer to as Southern Food. Sometimes the two intertwine. Corn is a staple of both and corn meal--the basis for hearty corn bread--in ubiquitous in this part of the country. Think grits, hush puppies, spoon bread--we could devote a whole book to this one particular grain and how it permeated the soul of America's one true cuisine.
My go-to reference for Southern baked goods is the classic Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, by Bill Neal. Originally from South Carolina, Bill Neal made a name for himself as a restaurateur in Chapel Hill, NC, with his wife Moreton Neal, then went on to become something of a scholar where Southern food is concerned before he died too young at the age of 41 from AIDS. Neal included no less than seven recipes for corn bread in Biscuits, Spoonbread. What they all have in common is corn meal, of course, and an iron skillet in which to bake the bread. Frequently, the recipe also calls for buttermilk and a chemical rising agent, such as baking soda and sometimes baking powder.
These are the essentials of true, Southern corn bread, not the cakey, overly sweet stuff you so often see in cafeteria lines.
A corn bread souffleed with beaten egg whites would be the kind of thing you'd put out when company came for dinner. (In fact, this is a variation on something Bill Neal called "Company Corn Bread.") Mainly, what I wanted the kids in our "food appreciation" classes to appreciate is the role rustic corn meal plays in our food culture and how it can be manipulated with a few simple ingredients into something ethereally delicious.
In some Southern households, it was customary to have at least one heavy iron skillet on hand devoted to making corn bread. From frequent use, the skillet would become well-seasoned and non-stick. You may not have an iron skillet devoted to making corn bread. If you don't have an iron skillet at all, can I suggest getting one? It is a great kitchen tool, something we use all the time.
1 1/2 cup white cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, separated
3/4 cup creamed-style canned corn
3 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a large measuring cup, mix buttermilk, egg yolks, creamed corn and melted butter. (I melt the butter in the iron skillet in the oven, which has the added virtue of greasing the skillet. Simply pour the butter, once melted, into the measuring cup with the other wet ingredients, then put the skillet back in the oven to heat up again.)
In a separate mixing bowl, beat eggs whites to stiff peaks.
Meanwhile, pour wet ingredients from measuring cup into dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated. Then fold in the beaten egg whites. Pour the mixture into the hot skillet. If the batter bubbles around the edges, you know you are on the right track. Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the top of the corn bread is lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
You could serve this bread with your favorite barbecue, with a bowl of Southern greens or beans, a salad or just an afternoon snack. If possible, serve it warm, perhaps with a drizzle of melted creamery butter or some local honey.