Friday, February 15, 2008

The Cornbread Gospels Review and Almond-Herb Biscuits

I’ve never been a big fan of the single-subject cookbook. That is probably because I’ve never encountered one that totally charmed me like The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon, author of Passionate Vegetarian. What makes great single-subject cookbooks is a passion – or more accurately, an obsession – with your subject. If you can transfer that passion to your readers, you’re well on your way to a successful cookbook.

Dragonwagon makes such a case for cornbread and the people who make it, I wondered why I was never aware of its “specialness” before. Cornbread tells the story of America beginning with Native Americans who viewed corn as the foundation of life. It also tells the story of how people lived in different regions of the country, especially the Northeast and the South.

Dragonwagon spins the histories of cornbread with an engaging tone and unravels the associations and references to cornbread in folklore, music and literature. She also does an excellent job of setting things straight, like the differences – sometimes absolute, often with shades of gray – between northern and southern cornbread. In the south, cornbread was and often still is a “daily bread,” simple and healthful enough to eat regularly. And traditional southern cornbread isn’t sweet, while in the northeast, cornbread was a specialty baked good or a “sometime food,” as they’d say on Sesame Street.

The book is organized in a way that I’ve never had trouble finding the types of recipes I’m looking for. The first three chapters are on basic cornbreads by region: Southern, Northern and Southwestern. Next is an intriguing chapter on Global Cornbreads covering arepas, roti and other variations from Africa, Greece and more. Then there are several chapters on the other types of cornmeal-based foods: Babycakes includes muffins (I can't wait to try DK's Banana-Ginger Corn Muffins and High Desert Blue Corn Muffins with Sage and Toasted Pine Nuts), biscuits and other little things; Yeasted Cornbreads includes recipes for Herb-Scented Whole Wheat Cornbread and Glazed Maple Cornmeal Rolls; Soulful Spoonbreads is all about puddings and soufflé-type dishes; Both Sides Now is mostly pancakes and other griddled goodies like George Washington’s Favorite Corn Cakes, “Last Rows of Summer” Waffles and Newport County-Style Thin and Lacy Jonnycakes; finally, Crisped Cornbreads covers fried things like Hush Puppies and Fritters.

Every recipe has an introduction that not only describes very adequately what type – indulgent, healthy, heavy, light – of cornbread you're going to get, but reveals the source or history of the recipe, often in very personal terms. A good chunk of the recipes in the book were handed to or dictated to the author from friends and acquaintances who were only to happy to share “their cornbread.” The Southern chapter, for instance, has many recipes named after their source. Many of these recipes are similar save for a small but often critical variation; cornbread is such simple food that a small change like adding a tablespoon of sugar makes a difference.

Simplicity also requires good technique. Truman Capote’s Family’s Cornbread suffered from my lapse in common sense. It took no time to assemble the recipe, and while I was waiting for my oven to heat, my eggs must have separated from the other wet ingredients; not giving them a good whisk before combining with the wet ingredients resulted in a funky layer of egg in my cornbread. Having learned my lesson, Ronni’s Appalachian Cornbread, very similar to Truman's and basic – no flour, no sugar, 1 egg – was perfect right out of the oven, the ideal daily bread.

From the Global chapter, I tried Pan de Elote or Real Mexican Pan Cornbread, a very light, savory bread that formed a custardy layer on the bottom of the pie pan—delicious.

Dragonwagon’s recipes are easy to follow and don't skimp on useful details. She takes the pressure off by letting you know what substitutions work and which ones are not okay. She’s adamant about using stone ground cornmeal for its truer flavor and natural quality as opposed to “enriched” (read: heavily processed) versions that you’ll find in any supermarket. I am able to find a lot of “southern” ingredients in Florida, but my grocery store only had processed cornmeal - sad. Luckily, a natural food store like Whole Foods has plenty of natural options.

The last recipe I tried was sort of “fancy:” Savory Almond Herb Biscuits. I absolutely loved these – simple drop biscuits full of flavor from toasted almonds, sautéed onion and garlic and fresh herbs. There are so many recipes I’ve bookmarked, and I haven’t even gotten to the extensive section of Great Cornbread Go-Withs, full of vegetable dishes, beans and soups that make a happy pairing with cornbread; not the mention the Sweet Somethings with recipes that will please fans of bread pudding. One final note: if you’re set on buying this cookbook, make sure you have a cast iron skillet to prepare all those fabulous southern cornbreads as they were meant to be.

Savory Almond Herb Biscuits
Adapted from The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon
You can use all AP flour instead of the whole wheat pastry flour. Lacking buttermilk, I used Dragonwagon’s suggestion for a substitution: thin some all-natural plain yogurt with water until it’s the consistency of thick buttermilk. It worked perfectly.

Makes 12

1/2 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted in a heavy skillet (toasting is essential) and coarsely chopped
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, divided use
1 small onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup stone ground cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4 cup buttermilk or thinned plain yogurt
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
1 generous tablespoon assorted fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary or sage (I used mostly rosemary)

Preaheat oven to 450 degrees. Line one or two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Heat a heavy skillet (same one you toasted the almonds in) to medium. Add a scant tablespoon of the butter, then add the onion, season with salt and pepper to taste and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, cook for 2 minutes more and set aside.

Combine the cornmeal, flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Cut the remaining butter into the flour mixture or quickly blend with your hands until the mixture is all shaggy bits and fine crumbs.

Scrape all the onion and garlic into the flour mixture. Add the buttermilk and stir just to combine, stopping when there are still a few dry clumps. Stir in the almonds and herbs, seeing that all the dry bits are moistened.

Drop the batter by scant 1/4-cupfuls onto the baking sheet. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden on the bottom. Serve right away with butter.

I received this book as a review copy.


Susan from Food Blogga said...

That book sounds like a hoot!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

When I was growing up, cornbread was cornbread -- a soggy, square, sweet thing that we got in diners. This book looks great -- fun and funny. Will have to look around for it.

Sophie said...

I normally avoid them too but you're right, there's something about the level of obsession that goes into single-subject books that can make them really compelling.

I thought the one that I have on muffins was fairly specialised but just cornbreads sounds like a very focused book!

The biscuits look really tasty - glad to hear in the other post that they freeze well

Boston Chef said...

Awesome - I wish we had read this book before making our latest skillet cornbread... we would have known we were mistakenly making a Southern cornbread recipe!

We're used to the sweet, dense, cakey Northern cornbread...

Those biscuits look great!

Rosiecat said...

Oh, how I love this book! It is truly a joy to read it and even more fun to cook from it.

We must have similar tastes in muffins! I tried the banana and the sage/pine nut varieties that you mentioned and loved them both. I'll have to give the almond-herb biscuits a try. I think my kitchen sees far too few biscuits emerge from the oven...