I was delighted last month when I posted a recipe for Crescent Dragonwagon's out-of-this-world cornbread, because Crescent herself came by and commented! I've since made the cornbread several more times, and it's a no-fail favorite around here. I tend to have buttermilk in the house these days, but it seems to work just as well with the Saco buttermilk powder I used that first time.
The reason I have so much buttermilk on hand lately is that Crescent subsequently asked her marketing person at Workman Publishing to send me a copy of her latest cookbook, The Cornbread Gospels, to review! It's a good thing she emailed me rather than phoned me, because I would have screamed "YES!" so loudly I might have shattered her eardrum.
This is such a terrific book. Even before I started digging into the 200+ recipes, I really learned a lot. For starters, the differences between Southern and Northern cornbread, which can be summed up as follows:
- The South: "passionate about proper cornbread ingredients and technique to the point of near-fanaticism"
- The North: "also cornbread-loving but far more open to variations on a theme"
For instance, Southern cornbread nearly always contains buttermilk and no flour or sugar, whereas Northern cornbread usually calls for regular milk, a mixture of half flour and half cornmeal, and plenty of sugar. The author traces the roots of these differences back hundreds of years. For one thing, cornbread was subsistence food in the South and appeared, until recently, on every table at every meal; Northerners, in contrast, have always considered cornbread more of an occasional treat. (The exceptions to the South's "rules" tend to fall in Virginia and among descendants of former slaves, while the sole exception in the North seems to be found exclusively in Rhode Island.)
We also learn about how cornmeal is used around the world, including Mexico (tortillas), Italy (polenta), South America (arepas), Portugal (broa), Greece (bobota), and even India (makki ki roti) and South Africa (mealiebrod).
Speaking of cornmeal, I have to confess that I had been buying mediocre cornmeal (the mass-produced "enriched and degerminated" stuff in the cardboard cannister), never bothering to wonder about it. Now I know that stone-ground is a zillion times better than the cheap steel-ground kind, which has lost most of its flavor, texture, and nutritive value to processing. I am now a convert to stone-ground cornmeal and will use the cheap stuff only for its "ball bearing" effect when sliding bread or pizza off the peel.
The book contains a dizzying array of recipes for just plain (and, in many cases, not-so-plain) cornbread, plus muffins, pancakes, fritters, spoonbreads, and more, but there are also many other goodies to be made with leftover cornbread. Leftover cornbread? Not likely, at least around these parts! Yes, you will have to make extra just so you can have enough left over to try the likes of cornbread stuffing and cornbread pudding. There's even a chapter full of recipes for "great cornbread go-withs," such as slow-cooked collard greens, frijoles, baked beans, and lentil soup. The Cornbread Gospels is a pure delight from start to finish, owing to Crescent Dragonwagon's knack for delivering information in a fascinating, entertaining way. She is obviously a terrific cook, but she's also one heck of a writer.
Rosemary Corn Crackers
½ cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, finely minced
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp very finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp + 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp butter, melted
Combine the buttermilk and rosemary in a small bowl and let stand for 1 hour. (I mistimed this, so it got to sit only about 15 minutes. No matter!)
Heat oven to 350°. Position rack in middle of oven.
Sift together flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Stir in Parm, oil (all of it), and butter, then the buttermilk-rosemary mixture, making a dough that is tender and moist but not too wet to roll out.
Portion the dough into 2 large balls. Spray two rimless 12x18" baking sheets with nonstick spray. Allow the dough balls to rest for a few minutes to relax the gluten and make them easier to roll out.
Place one ball of dough on one of the oiled sheets and press down to flatten it into a thickish oval or circle. Cover the dough with wax paper and start rolling the dough out gently, making an effort to keep the dough of even thickness all over, between 1/8" and 1/16" thick. (This was hard for me, so I had a few underdone and a few overdone crackers, but all were devoured with equal enjoyment.) Remove the wax paper and repeat with the second ball of dough on the second sheet.
Score the rolled-out dough, on its sheet, into crackers. I used a pizza wheel and made 1" squares. Be sure not to press down so hard that you cut all the way through the dough and scratch your baking sheet. (If you don't have rimless baking sheets, I imagine you could do this on parchment and then just carefully lift the parchment and dough onto rimmed sheets.)
Bake the first sheet until firmed up but not quite done and just slightly colored around the edges, 5–10 minutes. Remove the sheet from the oven and replace it with the second sheet. Let the first batch cool on its sheet while the second batch is baking; just before it's due to come out of the oven, carefully break apart the crackers of the first batch along the score lines, pulling the crackers apart but leaving them on the sheet. Fun!
Return batch one to the oven and bake crackers for another 5 minutes or so, being vigilant so they don't burn. They should be golden—not dark—brown.
Repeat the procedure with the second sheet. Let the crackers cool on the baking sheets, and serve, warm or not. I dare you to eat just one. Or two. Or ten....