"Hot Water Cornbread" - Back to the Basics
Some recent experiements with an old favorite (and perhaps most plebian of
fare) hot water cornbread have led to mixed results.
The basics, a mixture of corn meal, preferably "stone ground" or otherwise
coarsely milled, with a little salt - 1 cup meal to 1/2 tps salt +/- (and
less to none depending upon the saltiness of the grease).
A lifelong advocate of white corn meal, I must admit to no real ability,
only traditional cultural preference, to discriminate between the products
of white and yellow meals.
Many recipes call for a little (very little) sugar, and amounts greater than
a teaspoon per cup of meal can be tasted, rendering the product to that same
"Reject" bin occupied by literally dozens of currently popular
over-sweetened products, especially "Barbecue Sause", another word for nasty
treacle. In a small amount, 1/2 tps or less per cup, it may be imaginary,
but I've some sense that the product actually does rise a little (if
primitive unleavened breads rise).
How much (boiling) water to add? Take no recipe as factual or determinate!
Depending upon the cornmeal itself, type of corn, miller, age, type of
package, moisture content, local temperature and humidity, Hell, maybe even
time of day, the amount of boiling liquid needed may vary widely (and some
cooks recommend adding a little hot fat with the boiling water).
The debate over "cooking the mush" among hot water cornbread fans continues,
as many older Southerners claim that too slowly heat and precook to mush for
five minutes or so, stirring constantly and allowing heat bubbles to
percolate up through the mush, makes for a "lighter" final product. While I
suspect that most hot water cornbread was made by folks in a hurry, often
without the luxury of time for slow stirring, this method does provide a
couple of benefits.....the finished product absorbs less fat in the skillet
and there seems (with most corn meals) to be a definite "rise".
The result should be a mush thick enough to cling to a spoon, yet puddle and
flatten of its own accord when placed into a skillet with no more than an
1/8 of an inch or so of medium hot fat (in ancient lore from sowbelly/hog
jowl/salt pork, but even modern bacon provides a reasonable "frying up"
medium, as does lard. Crisco (also known as Dixie Face Cream, Alabama Hand
Lotion, Dixie Preparation H, etc.) functions well, as do almost any of the
liquid vegetable oils except olive.....too much flavor and not usually
blending well with corn...and corn oil which seemed to be more readily
absorbed, making for a greasier product.
This is not a dish for the faint hearted, the weak-toothed or the
fat-conscious (Cornmeal absorbs fat about like eggplant does). Topped with
cane or sorghum syrup (or the optimal, wild plum jelly or any of a dozen
other traditional toppings from mayhaws, chokecherries, Indian peaches,
guava - ahh, now there's jelly, quince, etc.) and maybe a little butter in
good times, it makes a grand dessert, elevates bacon to undreamed of status,
and makes the most effective shovel for wet food ever developed - sticking
together even in pot likker.
Thank God the puir Scots, wizened runts with a culinary history of naught
but oatcakes, could rise to stature adequate to leap the Applalachians and
tame the Great Plains, living on cornmeal and, having kilt off the buffler
and assorted inconvenient Indians, hoping for the luxury of flour biscuits
in their well-earned retirement. As for the legends of baking bread wrapped
about a rifle's or musket's ramrod.....an awful lot of rifles had wooden
ramrods (so as not to scratch and scar the rifling), not optimal for baking
over open fires (for a chareed and broken ramrod might cost livelihood and
life, spare ramrods being thin on the ground) , and try as I might, getting
cornmeal "dough" to wrap about a simulated ramrod - the couple I own being
to valuable for silly experiments - proved impossible. It works with wheat
flour, but had I or any hardy frontiersman a bag of wheat flour, we wouldn't
waste it on dough twisted about a ramrod, but would trade it to damsels,
harridans or dowagers met along the trail in exchange for a gentle word and
a bit of cooze.
Pa: "Ma, where the Hell did you get the flour for this here pie crust?"
Ma (still picking hay out of her hair): "There was this traveling man who
stopped at the cabin and left us a free sample
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