And while we’re on the subject of proper Southern cornbread — no sugar, cooked in a skillet that has often been swirled with bacon drippings — you know, I have tried to find love for it many times. I made a batch in January that all of my Southern friends (and their visiting parents) heartily approved of. It had crisp edges. It went great with the barbecue dinner. It was a cinch to make.
But I didn’t like it at all and that was when I decided to make peace with this fact: I am a Yankee, born in New Jersey, living in New York City — a damned Yankee. I like a little sugar (just a touch) in my cornbread. I like to add things that are sacrilegious south of the Mason-Dixon line. I don’t think that bacon grease is the be-all end-all of cornbread cookery.
Since I’ve made peace with my predilection for Yankee cornbread, wonderful things have happened. I saw a photo of cornbread that looking like it had browned bits of onions all over the top, only to find that those bits were bacon — I persevered and added caramelized, brown-edged onions to mine and loved it. While I was being blasphemous, really at the point of Respectable Southern Cornbread no-return, I threw in some goat cheese. And it was the best cornbread I’ve ever made. It was perfect. Oh, and maybe they were just being nice but my friends ate it with their Carolina barbecue and everything. But I promised not to tell anyone.
Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Cornbread
This is an incredibly moist nontraditional cornbread with a great flavor and mild sweetness. The goat cheese doesn’t particularly stand out in here, but it adds a subtle tang that we liked.
1 cup (6 ounces) coarse cornmeal (also packaged as “polenta”) but regular old cornmeal will also work.
2 cups (16 ounces) buttermilk
1 to 2 tablespoons oil, butter or a combination thereof
1 cup onion in a 3/4-inch dice (I think you could also go up to 2 cups, if you’re really into the caramelized onion thing)
1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons (.75 ounce) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon (.05 ounce) baking soda
1 teaspoon (.25 ounce) salt
6 ounce log of goat cheese, at room temperature for a good while, so it’s very soft
2 tablespoons (1.5 ounces) honey
1/4 cup (2 ounces) granulated sugar
3 large (5 ounces) eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, mleted
2 1/2 cups (16 ounces) fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) bacon fat, vegetable oil or butter
The night before baking the cornbread, soak the cornmeal in the buttermilk. Cover and leave at room temperature overnight. [Though this step is optional, you might appreciate it if you use coarse cornmeal or if you often find cornbread on the gritty side.] If you don’t do this in advance, mix them in before you start the next step.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
The next day, prepare the onions. Heat a large saute pan to medium and coat the bottom with 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil, butter or a combination thereof. Add the onions and cook them until they’re well-caramelized with browned edges. Season with salt and set aside.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the goat cheese until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time and scraping down the bowl between each. (It may look a little curdly at this point, don’t worry. It all comes back together in the oven.) Add the melted butter, honey, sugar and cornmeal/buttermilk mixture and mix until smooth. Add the flour mixture and stir until combined and then gently stir in the corn kernels, mixing them until the ingredients are evenly distributed.
Place two tablespoons of bacon fat, vegetable oil or butter in a 10 inch round cake pan (you can also use a cast-iron skillet, 9 by 13-inch baking pan or a 12-inch square pan). Place the pan in the oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until the fat gets very hot. With good pot holders, remove the pan and tilt it to grease the corners and sides. Pour in the batter, spreading it evenly and sprinkle the caramelized onion evenly over the top.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cornbread is firm and springing (the baking time will depend on the size and type of pan) and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Allow the bread to cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before slicing it into squares or wedges. Serve immediately.