Cornbread has become synonymous with traditional American fare, and is one of the few foods that spans both northern and southern American cooking; it sits on the table of virtually every Thanksgiving table in the country. But the use of corn in Native American cooking long predated the arrival of European settlers, and it was those Native Americans who taught the pilgrims how to make cornbread.
Native Americans would combine the cornmeal with water and animal fat and cook the mixture on rocks or garden hoes positioned near fires, which lent the corn patties their name: ‘hoe cakes’. As time passed, and wealth and facilities increased, additions were made through butters and sugars, enriching and sweetening the cornbread, turning it into a lusher, cakier product. The final part of cornbread’s journey came when chemical leavenings began to be used in American kitchens – baking powder and bicarbonate of soda – allowing the breads to rise without needing to prove, vastly shortening their preparation time.
Cornbread is the most comforting of dishes: warm, cakey, sweet and salty, baked until golden, puffed and proud, served with pools of butter. It is also one of the first things I ever learned to cook, and was one of the successes that paved firmer ground for my tentative baking steps. It was so simple to make: just a matter of pouring wet ingredients into dry and stirring. It was ready in half an hour and was a glorious, sunflower yellow, rich from the eggs and oil, but tender from the buttermilk. I crowed at my newly-found kitchen skills, and there is a photo of me, looking flushed with success, holding my freshly baked cornbread.
My recipe is a little different now to the one I used then, a hotchpotch of recipes I’ve tried and loved and collected. I like it not too sweet, so I’ve reduced the sugar, but spoon honey butter on while the bread is from the oven, so it pools around the edges and sinks ever so slightly into the crust. And my recipe still bears the marks of the first time I made it and couldn’t get hold of creamed corn, so blithely used normal tinned sweetcorn instead, which turned out to be an unexpected delight. It goes like this…
Jalapeño cornbread with honey butter
Makes: 16 squares
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 20-25 minutes
150g cornmeal or polenta
150g plain flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
50g light brown sugar
2 large eggs
240 ml buttermilk
4 tbsp vegetable oil
200g tinned sweetcorn
A handful of jalapeño peppers, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of runny honey
1. Preheat your oven to 180°C. This cornbread can be baked in a 20cm square baking tin, a large enamel dish or a large, oven-safe iron skillet. The exact size of your vessel will determine depth and baking time.
2. Sift all dry ingredients (cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar) together into a large bowl.
3. Beat the eggs, buttermilk and olive oil together in another mixing bowl.
4. Pour this wet mixture into the dry ingredients and mix together until just combined. Fold through the sweetcorn and jalapeños.
5. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Depending on your oven, you may need to cover with foil during the latter stages of cooking if it’s starting to look a bit toasty.
6. As soon as you’ve taken the cornbread out of the oven, melt the honey and the butter together in a small pan and drizzle over the still warm cornbread. Serve immediately.