August 20, 1997


Grains of tradition

Saluting the many faces of corn bread, that quintessentially American creation


Elizabeth Riely,
Globe Correspondent

In the past we Americans have tended to look down on our indigenous cooking.  Now that polenta and tortillas have become so popular, we should take a fresh look at some of our own breads made from corn, the New World's greatest gift to the Old.

Corn bread is the American bread.  It is made from maize that is dried, ground, moistened with liquid, mixed with other ingredients, and cooked by any of several methods.  American Indians showed the colonists how to make corn bread, a technique the Europeans took home and then introduced to other parts of the world.  "Indian" bread remains the prototypical bread of this country.

Cataloging the many different types of corn bread isn't easy.  In general they are made from stone-ground or industrially milled cornmeal -- yellow or white meal with identical cooking properties (white is usually preferred in the South and Midwest).  In every region, plain down-home kinds of corn bread were eaten by family, while variations made with eggs, butter, milk, and leavening were reserved for company.

Corn bread is baked in a pan or skillet and cut into squares or wedges, but can easily be shaped individually into fingers or muffins. Southerners prefer theirs without sugar or wheat flour.  Corn pone, from the Algonquian word for "baked," is plain corn bread without leavening, eggs, milk, or fat that is sometimes shaped in small ovals.

Fritters, puffs, zephyrs, and dodgers are dumplings of cornmeal lightened with eggs or egg whites and deep-fried.  Oysters, shaped into ovals with two spoons, are basically the same thing and often include fresh corn kernels.  Hush puppies were supposedly fed to the dogs to keep them quiet.

Indian pudding is what the English colonists named their familiar pudding made with eggs and milk, using New World cornmeal and molasses instead of wheat flour or refined sugar.  Spoon bread and batter bread are savory and moist cornmeal puddings, and Awendaw is the old South Carolinian Low Country name for the same thing.

Anadama is cornmeal bread sweetened with molasses and leavened with yeast, originally from GloucesterRhode Island johnnycakes, like hoecakes, are plain cornmeal pancakes baked in the hearth on a griddle.  Similarly, cornmeal mush can be fried in pancakes or baked in squares.  Although the name "mush" may not sound as chic as the word "polenta," polenta to Italians is just as much peasant food as cornmeal mush is authentically down-home American.

Here are a few of the enormous variety of American corn breads, from skillet breads to cornmeal cakes to muffins.


With both cornmeal and flour and sweetened with sugar, this corn bread is typically Northern, not Southern. Buttermilk lightens its crumb, and eggs and butter enrich it.  To turn this batter into muffins or cornsticks, liberally grease muffin or cornstick pans and heat them empty in the hot oven; fill them two-thirds full and bake for about 15 minutes.

                1   cup                      yellow cornmeal

                1   cup                      flour

                4   Tablespoons       sugar

                2   Tablespoons       baking powder

                1   teaspoon             baking soda

                1   teaspoon             salt

                2                              eggs, lightly beaten

          1 1/4   cups                    buttermilk

                4   Tablespoons       butter, melted and cooled to room temperature

1.   Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square pan, such as a Pyrex pan.

2.   In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

3.   In another bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the buttermilk, and finally the butter.  Stir them into the dry mixture just enough to combine them; do not overwork.

4.   Spoon the batter into the pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the corn bread tests done (insert a knife tip into the middle; if it comes out dry, it's done).

5.   Let the corn bread cool and cut into squares.

Makes 16 squares.


This recipe for Southern corn bread comes directly from "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking," by John Martin Taylor (Bantam, 1992). Taylor lives in South Carolina, but his corn bread, with no wheat flour or sugar, is typical all over the South.  "To reproduce this
corn bread, you will need a 9- or 10-inch well-seasoned, never-washed cast-iron skillet to obtain a golden brown crust," he says.  "Serve with fish stews, pilaus, gumbos, and greens.  My family reaches for the sorghum syrup when corn bread is served."

                1   large                    egg

                2   cups                    buttermilk

          1 3/4   cups                    cornmeal

   1 1/2 to 2   teaspoons           strained bacon grease

                1   scant teaspoon   baking powder

                1   scant teaspoon   salt

                1   scant teaspoon   baking soda


1.   Mix the egg into the buttermilk, then add the cornmeal and beat it well into the batter, which should be thin. 

2.   Put enough bacon grease in the skillet to coat the bottom and sides with a thin film, then put it in a cold oven and begin preheating the oven to 450 degrees. When the oven has reached 450 degrees, the bacon grease should be just at the point of smoking. 

3.   Add the baking powder, salt, and baking soda to the batter, beat well, and pour the batter all at once into the hot pan. 

4.   Return to the oven to bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the top just begins to brown. 

5.   Turn the loaf out on a plate and serve with lots of the freshest butter you can get your hands on.

Makes about 8 servings.


This recipe is adapted from Richard Sax's ''Classic Home Desserts'' (Chapters, 1994). That printed recipe is adapted from one by Pat Tillinghast, who owns New Rivers restaurant in Providence with her husband, Bruce.

                1   cup                      cornmeal (sift first if using stone-ground meal)

             1/2   cup                      all-purpose flour

          1 1/2   teaspoons           baking powder

             1/4   teaspoon             salt

                1   cup                      unsalted butter, softened  (2 sticks)

                1   cup                      sugar

                4   large                    eggs

             1/2   cup                      low-fat plain yogurt or buttermilk

                                                grated zest of 2 lemons

                1   Tablespoon         fresh lemon juice, strained

                                                fresh berries and whipped cream, for serving (optional)

1.   Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.   Line a 9- to 10-inch round cake pan with a circle of parchment or wax paper cut to fit. Butter the paper and sides of the pan and sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the cornmeal over the bottom and sides; tap out any excess.

3.   Sift the remaining 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cornmeal with the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

4.   In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until light.  Gradually add the sugar and beat until light.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time, but don't overbeat. Add the yogurt or buttermilk, lemon zest, and juice. 

5.   Gradually fold in the dry ingredients a little at a time.  Blend well, but don't overmix

6.   Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake until the cake is golden and springs back when pressed lightly, about 50 minutes.

7.   Cool the cake briefly in the pan on a wire rack. 

8.   Run the tip of a knife around the sides of the cake to loosen it from the pan.  Invert the cake, carefully peel off the paper, and turn it right side up.  Cool completely. 

9.   Cut the cake into wedges and serve it at room temperature with fresh berries and whipped cream, if you like.

If you are not serving the cake immediately, tightly wrap the cooled uncut cake.  It keeps well for about three days.

Makes one 9- to 10-inch single-layer cake; serves 10.


This recipe is genuine backwoods Southern, from my friend Barry Girten.  His grandmother Lillie Mae learned to cook these growing up in the foothills of western Tennessee.  They are quick, tasty, both crisp- and creamy-textured and wonderful with soup or stew.

                2   cups                    cornmeal

                1   teaspoon             salt

                3   cups                    boiling water (more or less)

                                                bacon or other grease for frying


1.   Mix together the cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Pour in the hot water in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly with a large spoon.  Add enough water to give the mixture the consistency of thick mush. 

2.   Heat a large frying pan, preferably a cast- iron skillet filmed with bacon grease, and drop spoonfuls of the hot mush into the hot fat.  Fry the cakes for a few minutes, turning once, until the outside is brown and crisp but the inside still has a tender, creamy texture. 

3.   Serve at once, since these cakes do not reheat well.


Makes about 8 cakes.


From "Crazy for Corn," by Betty Fussell  (HarperCollins, 1995).

          1 1/4   cups                    freshly ground blue cornmeal, medium grind

                1   cup                      all-purpose flour

                1   Tablespoon         baking powder

             1/2   teaspoon             salt

             1/4   teaspoon             baking soda

                2   Tablespoons       sugar

             1/2   cup                      seeded and diced roasted sweet red pepper

                2                              jalapeno peppers, roasted, seeded, and minced

             1/2   cup                      toasted sunflower seeds

             1/2   cup                      sultana raisins

             1/4   cup                      pine nuts or pumpkin seeds

             1/4   cup                      vegetable shortening, melted

                4   Tablespoons       butter, melted

                1   cup                      buttermilk

                2   large                    eggs, beaten


1.   Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare muffin tins by greasing the cups thoroughly or using paper inserts.

2.   Sift the first 6 ingredients together in a large bowl.  Mix in the prepared sweet pepper, jalapeno peppers, sunflower seeds, raisins, and pine nuts or pumpkin seeds.

3.   In a separate bowl, mix together the melted shortening, butter, buttermilk, and beaten eggs. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and stir lightly until barely mixed.

4.   Spoon the batter quickly into each of the cups and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are crusty and lightly browned.

Makes 12 muffins.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 08/20/97.
Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.