Arepas, the signature corn cake of Columbia and Venezuela

Before us anglos brought big love for wheat to the Americas, corn was the undisputed king of the cereals, (the grass family grains like wheat, corn, rice, millet, rye and a raft of others.) So it may surprise Norte Americanos to learn that corn still rules. While American wheat cultivation is less than 8% of world production, we grow slightly over 37% of the world’s corn – Far more than than all of South America. When it comes to cooking delicious things with corn however, (and despite our contributions of corn bread and hush puppies), Mexico and South America got it all over us for the tastiest goods – From tortillas and tamales to gorditas and pupusas, there’s a bunch of wonderful stuff down there. Today, we’ll take a look at arepas, the signature corn cake of Columbia and Venezuela.

Arepas are plump little corn cakes that might be baked, fried, grilled, steamed, or boiled. They’re eaten plain or loaded with various fillings, depending on which meal they’re accompanying – Anything from beans to eggs and shrimp. They’re an old food, certainly pre-Spanish invasion – Archeologists have found the tools used to make them all over Columbia and Venezuela. The name Arepa most likely derived from the Caracas word erepa, meaning maize (corn). Their antiquity and tastiness makes them vitally important to the cuisines of both countries, and there’s serious rivalry as to where they might have originated. It’s a sad fact that, for the last few years, Venezuelans have been largely denied this staple of their diet due to the country’s serious economic woes.

Ridiculously simple in ingredients and construction, arepas are nothing more than corn flour, salt, a little oil, and water, mixed by hand and then cooked – That’s it. The only caveat is the kind of corn flour used. Trust me when I tell you that corn meal or plain old masa will not work. What you need is called masarepa, (or masa de arepa, harina precocida, or masa al instante). This is precooked corn flour, meant to make a delicious handful of regional dishes like arepas, hallacas, bollos, tamales, empanadas and chicha. As such, you’ll find it predominantly from makers in Columbia and Venezuela. Think of it like Wondra flour and you get the picture. 

For real arepas, ya gotta use masarepa

Traditional arepa flour was prepared by lengthy soaking of dried corn. The resulting mash was then pounded to remove the germ and shell. That stuff was subsequently boiled, ground finer, and made into arepas. The one major change in arepa making in the modern age is the industrialization of that whole process, (thank the Corn Gods). Masarepa is what you absolutely need to make these guys, and it’s widely available from your local Latin food store, or online. The brands Harina PAN, Goya, and Harina Juana all come from Venezuela, and Areparina from Columbia. Arepas are freakin’ seriously delicious, and the flour is not pricy – You’ll want this stuff in your pantry.

As mentioned, there are a bunch of ways these guys are made, but I’ll steer you to a dual process of frying and baking that’ll give you delicious, consistent results with a minimum of fuss. As you’ll see, the entire construction process is done by hand, as it’s always been done, and should be.

Quite a few online recipes recommend mixing white and yellow masarepa, which folks seem to feel provides a lighter texture and a more pleasant taste profile, but frankly, I’m not buying the claims – It appears almost all that sentiment stems from one restaurant that makes great deep fried arepas and shared their recipe – I don’t deep fry, and I like yellow just fine, so that’s what I use – you do what floats your boat. Our recipe isn’t really Venezuelan or Columbian, (although it leans toward the latter, which in general has far less fat than the former), but it will make a tasty arepa simply and quickly. You can research the traditional methods of each country on your own and explore later.

 

Arepas de UrbanMonique – Makes 6-8

2 Cups Water (warm to the touch, about 90° F)

2 Cups Yellow Masarepa

3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil 

1 packed teaspoon Salt

 

Preheat oven to 450° F and set a rack in the middle position. Make sure your oven is fully preheated before you load arepas into it.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, oil, and salt, and whisk to thoroughly dissolve the salt.

Hand mixing arepas

Add about 1/8 cup of masarepa to the salt and water and stir it in by hand – You’ll clearly feel the masarepa incorporate.

Hand mixing arepas

Continue gradually adding masarepa and kneading – When you get to roughly half way, the dough will morph from very liquid to something more substantial – this is when you want to slow down and allow the masarepa to fully absorb water. Continue until you’ve got almost or all the masarepa in the mix – you want a dough that feels quite moist, almost wet, but is easy to work with and will not stick to your bare hands. If your dough feels dry, add a little water and work it into the mix – And vice versa for adding more masarepa if it’s too wet. When the dough is right, it should not feel grainy, and it will ball up nicely.

Arepa dough should feel almost wet, but form a ball easily without sticking to your hands

Once you’ve reached that consistency, cover the bowl with a clean, dry kitchen towel and let it rest for 5 minutes.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, with 2 ounces or so of avocado oil therein.

After the rest, grab a handful of dough and roll it into a ball, then use your palms to form it into a patty roughly 1/2” and about 4” in diameter. Keep forming arepas until you’re out of dough.

Fry arepas for about 3 minutes a side before baking

When the skillet and oil are heated, add two or three arepas and fry them until they form a nice, golden crust – About 3 to 4 minutes per side.

Set the fried arepas on the lined baking sheet and slide them into the oven.

Bake for 12 – 15 minutes, until the arepas have risen slightly, and are a bit darker. When you think they’re done, slide the rack out and tap one in the center – If they sound kind of hollow, they’re done – I set my timer for 10 minutes to check, then let them go a bit longer as needed.

Tap baked arepas to see if they’re done

Transfer arepas to a cooling rack and let them rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing and going wild.

Almost anything is fair game for toppings, making arepas great for clearing out the fridge – Scrambled eggs, diced ham, pork, chicken, beans, cheese, tomato, onion, chiles, avocado, whatever floats your boat. For vegetarian and vegan folk, jack fruit done up with taco seasoning makes a killer meat substitute. that said, try one hot, with nothing at all, or maybe just a little butter. There’s a pure corn taste, a very satisfying chew, that really hits home.

Arepas have a delightfully pure taste and texture

If you have a good Latin market nearby, look for queso guayanes, paisa, or duro – If those aren’t available, queso cotija or fresco will work just fine.

If you want to prepare arepas and cook them later, they can hang in the fridge for a day or two and be OK – More than that and they’ll dry out. They can be frozen, uncooked, for up to 3 months as well.

Weighing In on Great Cookies

T’is the season for cookies, right? If you’ve got favorites or old family recipes that you love, I say cherish them, and certainly don’t mess with them – share them, and pass them on to your kids. If, on the other hand, you’ve tried other recipes and been sorely vexed and/or disappointed by the results, there’s a good chance you’re not to blame. Why is that? Most likely, it’s then that ratio thing – The thing that’s so vital to cooking, and especially to baking. Done right, cookies are easy as 1, 2, 3 – But not everyone follows the rules – It’s time to weigh in on that.

Which means we’re talking about that ratio thing – it’s 1, 2, 3, as in one part sugar, to two parts fat, to three parts flour. Subscribe to that, and the cookies world’s your oyster. Violation of this ratio, on the other hand, will likely not yield good results, and therein lies the problem with a lot of the recipes you find online, or in poorly researched cookbooks.

It would be fair to ask, how do I know this to be true? Well, let me say this about that. I got an idea for a dried cherry/chocolate/almond cookie, but was short on time and not thinking very clearly. I grabbed something off the net that was kinda close, and subbed my stuff for theirs – equal amounts of dried fruit and nuts, (albeit theirs used cranberries and walnuts). What I got was a very tasty cookie out of the oven, although they were a bit wetter and flatter than I wanted. The next day, they fell apart. Just sitting in a storage box, they fell apart – a box of somewhat gooey cookie crumbs. I grabbed that original recipe and took a closer look. Their ratio was somewhere around 3-3-2, flour to fat to sugar, and that would explain my less than stellar results. My bad, and lesson reinforced. If you know the ratio, it’s easier to start from scratch than it is to trust a recipe from somewhere else.

The first bake - The absolutely wrong ratio The first bake – The absolutely wrong ratio

The other major contributor to epic baking fails is the use of volume measurements in recipes, instead of weight. Most professional bakers around the globe weigh rather than measure, for very sound reasons. Weighing ingredients is far, far more reliable, because you get much more accurate ratios. Fundamentally, a gram is a gram the world around, but a cup most definitely is not. ‘1 Cup’ can mean anything from .85 to 1.20 of a US Cup, and that’s a wide enough margin to cause issues. It all adds up to the fact that, if you want to learn to bake really well, you’re going to need to start weighing ingredients. 

That’ll require a decent digital kitchen scale, which are cheap and readily available. Get one that has a generous bowl for doing the deed, and portioning out ingredients for most home recipes is a breeze. Is it worth twenty bucks and a very simple learning curve to become a better home baker? Yeah, it is.

The very cool thing about all this is that it opens up the world of design-your-own recipes, rather than relying on someone else’s. The next thing you know, you’ll be using cookbooks for inspiration or reference, or for the love of what the author did, not because you need them to follow recipes.

Alright, so, if we’re committed, then let us examine ingredients a bit more, then a few thoughts on technique.

Flour. What type we use matters – unbleached white pastry or all purpose are the preferred options for cookies. Pastry flour has less protein than AP, (but more than cake flour), so it strikes a great balance of flaky and tender. Bleached is a no no, as the bleaching process messes with proteins, leading to reduced gluten production, (AKA cookies that don’t hold together well). Combining flours may be a thing you’ll want to do, depending on what you’re after. The classic Scottish shortbread recipe calls for unbleached all purpose white and rice flour, for instance. Whole grain flours add a denser, nuttier end result. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 30% of those in your mix, (which doesn’t discount those who do a bunch more – to each their own.) Varied flour ratios lead to different results, of course. A higher proportion of flour versus the liquid contained in your chosen fat and eggs leads to a more tender crumb, (and a more delicate cookie.) A lower proportion generally produces a chewier texture. Note – if you do use a recipe that simply calls for flour, they mean unbleached white all purpose.

Sweeteners. Sugar isn’t the only thing you can or should use in a cookie recipe, but it’s far and away the most popular. In addition to its sweetening power, sugar helps cookies brown, (caramelization), and contributes to crispiness by sucking up some moisture from the dough. Sugar also helps cookies spread out as they bake, (and if the ratio’s off, as it was in my first go round, then oh boy, do they.) There are a bunch of sugars out there. Some folks think that pure cane tastes better than stuff made from sugar beets. There’s bakers sugar, which is a pure cane sugar that’s ground finer than the regular stuff – it does everything a bit more efficiently. Brown sugar adds a bit of moisture to the mix by virtue of added or retained molasses – That contributes to a softer, chewier texture.

Speaking of molasses, that and a bunch of other things, like corn syrup (uggh!), maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar and good old honey can also be used. I recommend keeping maple syrup to the adjunct column, (it’s strongly flavored and expensive). Honey and agave nectar are popular substitutions these days, and for good reason – They add flavor notes plain old sugar can’t, and have far greater sweetening power. Due to the latter consideration, there are adjustments that must be made when using them – Honey is roughly twice as potent as sugar, and agave nectar around 3/4 more, so sweetener volume, and overall moisture, must be tweaked accordingly. Both are also somewhat acidic, so you’ll want baking soda in your recipe to balance that out. Both should be added and blended with fat prior to adding flour, just as you would with sugar. Finally, it’s a good rule of thumb to reduce your baking temperature by 25° F, because both agave and honey brown faster than sugar.

Fats. Butter is far and away the most common version used, although there are far more options out there – shortening, lard, ghee, cream cheese, heavy cream, various cooking oils, or combinations thereof can and are used in baking. Using any of those will give you differing results, of course – While most of what’s listed above won’t make a huge difference in color or texture, they will in terms of flavor, so be prepared to experiment. That said, fats don’t just add calories, they impact every aspect of a recipe, from overall consistency, to how they bake. For instance, butter has a notably lower melting point than many of the others noted herein, so if you see a recipe calling for half butter and half shortening or lard, what the maker was likely after was a cookie that wouldn’t end up as thin and crispy as a pure butter version would. When and if you use butter, use unsalted, because salted varies widely in how much salt is onboard.

Not all cookie recipes contain eggs, but most do, and for darn good reasons – they contribute significantly to the whole shebang. Eggs act as the largely unsung framework upon which everything else in a dough depends. They add moisture, lecithin (an emulsifier that helps disparate constituents get together), fat, and of course, protein. They help gluten do its thing, and contribute appreciably to flavor, texture, and mouth feel.

Leavening of some kind is present in the vast majority of cookie recipes. Baking soda helps cookies rise, and as mentioned, can neutralize acids like sugar and honey which, left unchecked, can mess with browning. Baking powder will also give a lift, and contribute to a lighter texture as well. Both add lift by generating CO2. Baking soda is pure bicarbonate of soda, while baking powder is that plus cream of tartar (an acidifier) and starch, used as a drying agent. If you’ve never noticed, there are single and double acting baking powders – Single means it needs moisture to activate and must be baked right away – Double means some gas gets generated right away, but most does not until baking begins, so it can hang for a time without negative effects.

Salt may be a minor ingredient, but it’s a critical one. Its unique ability to enhance flavor, separating molecules and making them available to our noses, is unmatched. It also helps strengthen the proteins within a dough, contributing to a nice chewy cookie. There’s a bunch of salts out there, and we’ve covered a lot about them here, (including our recent post on plastics in sea salts). In addition to a whole raft of varieties, these days you can also readily find different grinds. Used to be you’d need to find pickling or canning salt for a fine grind – now that’s widely available, and that’s what you want for baking – it disperses and blends much better than the coarser stuff.

Alright, let’s discuss technique. This may seem fussy, but in the end run, if you’re after making more than just a good cookie, it matters.

It is a best practice to have all your ingredients at room temperature when you’re ready to make a dough. One of the key things we need to accomplish when we do that, is to allow combined ingredients to form an emulsion that will trap and hold a fair amount of air – that’s what expands when we bake, yielding a light, fluffy cookie. Having your fat and eggs at room temperature lets a creamed mixture do exactly that – cold ingredients will impede that process.

Next, sift your dry ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter, run them through a ingle mesh strainer into a mixing bowl. Sifted flour, leavening, chocolate, what have you, is lighter, and incorporates better than non.

Creaming is what it’s called when we perform the most critical step in great cookie making – combing the fat and sugars and whisking them into a smooth, fluffy emulsion. This uniform, air injected blend is critical – Leavening agents produce CO2, yes, but they won’t do it well if they don’t have the trapped air, combined with a well mixed emulsion to hold it all in.

Once you’ve added the dry ingredients to the wet and have them uniformly mixed, stop messing with the dough – Excessive handling leads to tough cookies. 

Bake in the lower middle section of your oven, bake one sheet of cookies at a time, and spin the sheet 180° half way through the bake – All those little things add up to greater consistency and better goodies. If you really want to get after it, calibrate your oven with an external thermometer, so you know what yours really bakes at, (At work, we get right down to zone temps in our deck and rack ovens, so we know precisely where the hot and cold spots are.)

Here then is my correct recipe for chocolate, almond and cherry cookies. This will make 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on how big you portion. And yeah, it’s in grams – That’s how the rest of the world works, so we might as well get with the program. And yeah, I did give you volume cheats, too, just in case you chicken out – using those will still make a pretty good cookie.

The second bake - The right ratio - Yes, please! The second bake – The right ratio – Yes, please!

Chocolate, Almond & Cherry Cookies (2-3 dozen)

380 grams All Purpose Flour (3 Cups)

230 grams Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)

100 grams Bakers Sugar (1/2 Cup)

80 grams Dark Brown Sugar (1/2 Cup)

115 grams dried Bing Cherries (1/2 Cup)

115 grams slivered Almonds (1/2 Cup)

340 grams semi-sweet Chocolate chunks (12 ounce bag)

2 large Eggs

10 grams Vanilla Bean paste, (extract is fine too – 2 teaspoons)

4 grams Baking Soda (1 teaspoon)

4 grams fine Salt (1/2 teaspoon)

Have your eggs and butter at room temperature before proceeding.

In a cast iron skillet over medium heat, toast the almonds, stirring regularly and keeping a close eye that they don’t scorch. Remove from heat when they’re golden brown and fragrant.

When the almonds have cooled sufficiently, chop them into roughly 1/4” pieces, and set aside.

Chop cherries into roughly pea sized pieces, and set aside.

Run flour and baking soda through a sifter or single mesh strainer, into a large mixing bowl.

For the lions share of the process, a stand mixer is preferred, but if you don’t have one, you can hand whisk – Just be forewarned, it’s going to be a bit of a workout.

In a stand mixer bowl set up with a paddle, add the butter and mix on low until it’s smooth and even – about 2 minutes. 

Stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the butter down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add the sugars and salt and mix on low until the blend is smooth, about 1-2 minutes.

Again, stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the creamed mixture down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add an egg and the vanilla paste to the creamed mixture and mix on low until fully incorporated – No more than 30 seconds. Repeat the process with the second egg, and again, 15 to 30 seconds tops – You don’t want to over-beat the eggs.

With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture, and mix until fully incorporated – Stop as soon as that’s achieved.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add chocolate, cherries, and almonds, and incorporate with a spatula, until evenly mixed.

Now that it’s mixed, you can chill your dough – for at least an hour, if you want a taller, lighter cookie. If you prefer things a bit flatter and crunchier, go ahead and bake. That said, if you’ve got a really warm kitchen, it’s a good idea to chill the dough for at least a half hour before baking, just to make sure things don’t get too loose.

If you don’t plan to bake right away, just transfer the dough onto parchment paper, and roll it into a log about 1 1/2” thick, then add a layer of aluminum foil. That’ll hold in the fridge for a week, no problem. It’ll also freeze well for up to a month – Just let the dough thaw for 15-30 minutes before cutting off 1/3” to 1/2” thick slices, and then bake away.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350° F, and position a rack in the lower middle section.

Line a baking sheet with parchment, or use a silicone baking mat.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the sheet, about 2” to 3” apart.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, spinning the sheet 180° at about 6 minutes in.

Remove the sheet from oven, and slide the parchment or silicone onto a cutting board, cooling rack, etc.

Let them cool for 10 minutes or so before you dig in, and for at least a half hour before you store them – an airtight glass container is best.

Great Post on Cherries

From my Sis, Ann Lovejoy – Including a reveal of one of Washington State’s most jealously guarded cherry secrets, the Rainier.

I write it every time I share one of her posts, and I’ll do so again – If you’re not following her on the Log House Plants website, you should be!

Here’s the post, now go check it out!

Hey, Sandbakkels! You’ve got A Way With Words!

Well, I’ve already heard from some folks this morning that our little blog just became a bit more popular, and for that, I’ve got A Way With Words to thank, so let me flesh out that explanation a bit. If you’re not familiar with this wonderful show/podcast, I encourage you to become so. It’s the NPR ‘show about language and the way we use it,’ hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and it’s a genuine treat for word nerds like me. Folks call in with questions about words, word origins, slang terms, etymology, regional dialects, and much, much more – It’s delightful and fascinating stuff. So, to all y’all who have journeyed here for the first time after hearing this week’s episode, welcome! If this post wasn’t waiting for you when you got here, my apologies – This is a journey that began way back in late March, so it’s required a bit of juggling to get things coordinated. but hey, you’re here now, and for that we offer Big Thanks and a hearty welcome – Please do subscribe and enjoy!

Anyway, here’s how it all started. While researching the subject of today’s post, a Norwegian cookie called the Sanbakkel, Monica came across the ingredient, Caster Sugar. Now, I knew what that was from many recipes over time, but it was new to M. For the record, Caster (and sometimes caster) sugar is the British term for what we call baker’s sugar on this side of the Big Pond – It’s granulated sugar that’s notably finer than table sugar. It blends, dissolves, and integrates far better than regular old sugar, and as such, bakers and chefs dig it. 

What I didn’t know is why it’s called caster sugar – A bit of research really didn’t give a lot of info, albeit it did reveal that the stuff used to be held in a sugar caster, (basically, a fancy shaker placed at table in the old days, where folks could cast it onto whatever the liked). The caster versus castor variant also piqued my interest, and there was virtually nothing I could find to explain that, so naturally, I called A Way With Words, and as fate would have it, I ended up on the show that was broadcast today. Rather than go too far into that rabbit hole, I’ll simply say, listen to the episode, and you’ll not only get a great fleshing out of the term caster, but you’ll hear yours truly as well –  A win-win if ever there was one.

So I ended up on the show, and had an absolute gas. For the record, while I noted that we live on Lummi Bay, in the northwest corner of Washington State, I recorded my part on a bus headed from downtown New Orleans to the airport. Along the way, Martha and Grant were kind enough to ask the name of the blog, and, well – Here we are! Now, as I write, a batch of fresh sandbakkel are wending their way southward to the gang at A Way With Words with our fondest thanks – Therefore, on to those cookies, yeah?

Sandbakkels with fresh fruit and crème fraiche
Sandbakkels with fresh fruit and crème fraiche

Monica has a healthy dose of Norwegian heritage from her maternal side, so a cookie that reflected that is what we were looking for when we landed on Sandbakkels. These lovely, light little sugar cookies are also sometimes called sandbakelse, or sandkaker – The sand theme running though this speaks to the shortbread-like consistency of the finished product – Sand tarts, if you will. They’re a simple sugar cookie that yields best results when the ingredients are as fresh as you can get.

Sandbakkels are traditionally a Christmas season treat, but for my mind, they’re good, if not better, in the spring and summer time – More on that thought in a bit. In their purest form, Sandbakkel contain flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. Common additions include almonds or almond extract, vanilla bean or extract, and cardamom. For the latter while virtually no recipes I found specified what variant of cardamom gets used, I’d bet on it being green, freshly ground, as it’s the sweetest version, (versus black or Madagascar). 

The coolest aspect of Sandbakkels, for my mind, is the use of small fluted or patterned molds used to bake the cookies – This leaves you with a wafer thin, delicate little treat that is wonderful all by its lonely, and for my mind, spectacular with fresh fruit, nuts, etc, (even if some Norwegians consider such additions blasphemous).

The first published recipes for Sandbakkel show up in mid 19th century Norwegian cookbooks, which indicates pretty strongly that they’d been around for a while prior – A point that A Way With Words often makes about stuff showing up in print. When Norwegians packed up to emigrate, they brought their Sandbakkel molds with them, and a delicious old country traditional was maintained. Such was the case for Monica’s Gramma, Palma Hoover (née Solvang), who came to the western side of Washington State and homesteaded in the Carnation Valley, back in 1907 – Palma was just six month old at the time, one of eleven siblings. There is some discussion about where and how Sandbakkels took hold back in Norway, but nothing definitive – They are, in all likelihood, a simple treat that spread because they’re pretty, fun to make, and delicious – All the reason any of us need to dig in, right?

Sandbakkels are quite simple, and as such, quality and freshness of ingredients is paramount. What I’m getting at is this – If I’m doing these for an event, then I’ll likely make butter from very fresh, local cream, and grind flour from fresh wheat – Now, you might call that extreme, and it may indeed be somewhat, but if you’re looking to produce your best, that’s kinda the level we go to. That said, making sure that the flour and butter you use is as fresh and good quality as you can get your paws on will do the trick.

So, find the freshest butter you can for starters. Then there’s the flour question. Most stores these days will offer bread and all purpose flours, and many will also have cake or pastry flours hiding somewhere. Keep in mind that as you descend through that list, what changes is the protein level they contain – Bread relies on good gluten development to be successful, and so the protein level in that flour is relatively high, as much as 14%. Down at the other end of the spectrum, pastry flour will have protein levels as low as 8% – What that means to us from a practical standpoint is this – If you want gluten development and chewy stuff like bread, you use bread flour, and if you want something delicate and flaky like a Sandbakkel, you’ll use pastry flour. Now, that said, if what you’ve got in your pantry is All Purpose Flour, don’t fret- AP usually weighs in around 9% to 11% protein, which means it’ll do just fine, if that’s what you’ve got – After all, we’re here to have fun and chow down, si? NOTE: check out our Flour Power post for more than you probably want to know about such stuff.

Now for the catch – Yeah, it’s those little Sandbakkel molds. If you’re doing these right, you need them. Fortunately, they’re cheap and widely available online, so grab a set – They pay back the minimal expense with lovely finished product, so it’s a worthwhile thing. When you get your molds, they’ll need to be seasoned once prior to use. 

Seasoning Sandbakkel Molds.

Wash your molds with soap and water, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry.

Preheat your oven to 350° F.

Lightly grease your molds with leaf lard, then arrange in a baking sheet.

Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, then remove and allow to cool to room temperature. Wipe excess lard off the molds, and you’re good to go – The molds will provide a long life of easy releases thereafter.

So, on to the goods. This recipe will make about 4 dozen cookies. You can, if any survive, freeze them if you wish. Although they won’t be quite as yummy, of course.

Sandbakkels

4 Cups Pastry Flour (AP is just fine too)

1 1/2 Cups Unsalted Butter (If you use salted butter, just omit the additional salt listed below)

1 Cup Bakers Sugar

1 large Egg

1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

Allow all ingredients to come to room temperature before proceeding.

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, add the butter and hand whisk for 2 minutes – You’re preparing the butter to accept sugar and go through the creaming process, so take the full time allotted, (And you certainly can use a hand mixer to do this work if you wish.)

Add sugar and salt to the butter and whisk to combine thoroughly, about 2 minutes. This is ‘creaming,’ wherein you’re introducing a bit of air to the dough, and helping the sugar to disperse thoroughly and evenly.

Add the egg and whisk to incorporate thoroughly – About 1 minute.

Add flour a cup at a time, whisking as long as you can, then switching to a kitchen spoon to finish the job. The dough should not stick to the bowl or your fingers when you’re done mixing, so adjust flour a pinch or two at a time, if needed.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough or 1 hour. 

Preheat oven to 340° F, and set a rack in the middle position.

Even though your molds have been seasoned, it’s never a bad idea to grease them a bit more. Let a very little bit of butter melt onto your fingers, and wipe a light layer around each mold.

Rolling 2 teaspoon balls of Sandbakkel dough can help with portioning
Rolling 2 teaspoon balls of Sandbakkel dough can help with portioning

Pull off about 2 teaspoons of dough, (and if you have issues with portioning, feel free to roll out little 2 teaspoon balls before filling the molds), and press the dough evenly into the molds – Watch your thickness, as you want things nice and even – Avoid thick bottoms and thin sides, and don’t let any dough extend beyond the rim of the mold. And by the way, this is a gas for kids – Our Granddaughters dig it big time, and I’ll bet you’re will too.

Fill Sandbakkel molds evenly as possible
Fill Sandbakkel molds evenly as possible

Place molds evenly spaced on a baking sheet – Ideally, you want an inch or so of free space around each mold, so you will likely need to do multiple sheets or batches, (unless of course you’ve got a way sexier oven set up than I do, and if so, I salute you!)

Bake cookies at 340° F for about 10 minutes, then have a quick look – The upper edges of the cookies should be firm and light golden brown.

Sandbakkels, fresh from baking
Sandbakkels, fresh from baking

Remove sheets from oven and, using a hot glove or mitt, gently turn each mold upside down and place it on a cooling rack.

Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes, then carefully pick up a mold, still upside down, and place it just barely above the cooling rack – tap lightly on the bottom of the mold and the cookie will drop onto the rack.

Allow unmolded cookies to cool to room temperature. And yes, at this very point, the cookies will be warm and vulnerable – It’s entirely likely that several will lose their fragile lives right there and then – So be it…

Now, for a last bit of pure joy, consider this – As mentioned, I have Norwegian friends who absolutely consider anything, (and I mean anything), added to a fresh Sandbakkel as an act of sheer blasphemy. For the record, I am not Norwegian, (Scots, Welsh, and Dutch), and Monica has German and Cherokee blood as well – So, yes Virginia, we add stuff to ours, and we think you should too. This is why, point of fact, I think that these little gems were meant to be enjoyed when fresh, local fruit is abundant – A Sandbakkel filled with such stuff is an unbelievably delicious treat.

Sandbakkel blaspheme? I don’t think so...
Sandbakkel blaspheme? I don’t think so…

This also means that you might want to whip up a bit of crème fraiche, or perhaps whipped or pastry cream, as a bed for that lovely fruit to sit on. If the cream seems a bit heavy to you, then a lovely, light fruit glaze might be a nice option.

a simple fruit glaze is a nice touch
a simple fruit glaze is a nice touch

Fresh Fruit Glaze

3/4 Cup fresh Fruit Juice, (literally, whatever you like – Orange, grapefruit, apple, grape, etc)

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (honey is fine too, or bakers sugar, for that matter)

2 Tablespoons crushed Fruit, (whatever you’re filling the Sandbakkels with)

1 Tablespoon Arrowroot, (Cornstarch will do just fine, too)

2 teaspoons Citrus Rind, (lemon, lime, orange, as you see fit)

In a small, unheated sauce pan, combine fruit juice and arrowroot until thoroughly mixed.

Put the pan on the stove over medium heat, and add the agave and crushed fruit, whisk to incorporate.

Heat through, stirring steadily. Reduce heat to low and continue whisking until the sauce thickens notably, (it should evenly coat a spoon when quickly dipped in the glaze.)

Allow the glaze to cool to room temp, then drizzle or brush onto the fruit after arranged.

Chow down with relative abandon.

Pão de Queijo – Brazilian cheese bread

Just got home from a brief biz trip to New Orleans. It was in the 70s and 80s, mostly sunny, humidity not too bad. And here, well… Let’s just say that the Great Pacific Northwet is living up to its name – It’s 44° F, raining heavily, and the next week’s forecast is for more of the same. As M headed for work, she gave me the lowdown, “There’s crack ham in the fridge, (AKA, honey baked – She worked there for a time back when, and she’s right – it is), so if you want to make split pea soup, go for it.” I do, and I am, but this kinda weather calls for serious comfort food reinforcements – In this case, Pão de Queijo – Brazilian cheese bread.

Our Split Pea soup
Our Split Pea soup

How I ended up here is lovely serendipity. I planned on making either biscuits or corn bread, but was plowing through some social media food groups I belong to, and in of all places, my favorite Vietnamese cooking group, somebody mentioned having made Brazilian cheese bread. One of the many reasons I love this group is that stuff like this shows up all the time – They’re incredibly talented Vietnamese cooks, but fearless and curious in any and every other cuisine that floats their boats. I was introduced to Pão de Queijo years ago at a churascaria down in Texas, and hadn’t thought of or made them in quite a while, so this was a pleasant reminder.

Pão de Queijo is part of a truly delicious branch of cheese breads fueled by cassava (AKA yuca) flour, rather than wheat. As we outlined pretty thoroughly in our post about Guarani Cuñapes, cassava is a dominant starch down south, and for good reason – It’s abundant, works well in place of wheat flour, and tastes great – For gluten intolerant folks, it’s a champ.

Påo de Quiejo - Brazilian Cheese Bread
Påo de Quiejo – Brazilian Cheese Bread

The Pão variant differs from Cuñapes in recipe and construction. While they’re similar, the texture and flavored each is unique, so it’s genuinely worth adding both to your arsenal. To me, the pão de queijo is denser and chewier than a cuñape – More like Yorkshire pudding, for my mind. Best of all, they’re super easy to make – Maybe thirty minutes from start to finish, so they lend themselves to last minute inspiration, as any good side should.

I’ll share the simplest method of many for making these little gems. Like all signature foods, everybody’s Mom makes them, and their way is always best, naturally. Some folks use potato starch in lieu of yuca, and you can get very nice results that way. I’ve also seen these done up with the French pâte a choux method – They were delicious indeed, but really, those are gougères rather than pão de queijo. The method I’ll share is far less fussy and time consuming than that, especially in light of the cassava flour – That stuff behaves quite differently when employing the pâte method, and can be a handful if you’re not ready for it – It’s extremely fine, almost powdery, and when mixed with liquids, its, well, seriously glutinous stuff. Truth be told, my Brazilian cooking pals tell me that what I’ll share with y’all is the way they do it most of the time, because it strikes a perfect balance between taste, texture, and ease of preparation.

Påo de Quiejo - It’s a glutinous batter, even if it’s gluten free
Påo de Quiejo – It’s a glutinous batter, even if it’s gluten free

Finally, we must discuss cheese as well, sim? Down south, the traditional choice is either a quiejo de Canastra, or a quiejo de Minas. Canastra is a yellowish, cows milk cheese, fairly soft when it’s fresh and ripening to semi-hard. It has a buttery base flavor with a nice acidic tang – Very much like high quality Monterey Jack. Quiejo de Minas is also a cows milk cheese. When fresh, (Minas Frescal), it’s soft and very subtle, like a queso blanco, and lends itself well to adding fresh herbs into the mix. Once it’s aged into a Minas Curado, it’s a whole ‘nother world – rich and subtle like a good Asiago. While the vast majority of pão de quiejo recipes you find use Parmesan, for my two cents worth, a good Jack or Asiago will fit the bill much better, in both authenticity and flavor. Down the line, you can and should experiment not only with cheese, but with herbs as well. Cilantro, fennel, spring onion, parsley, and dried chiles are all delicious and opções muito autênticas, (very authentic options).

This recipe is fairly large, for good reason. The batter is stable and stores well, so you can use half tonight, refrigerate the rest, and it’ll be good for a week or so in a clean, airtight container. If you prefer to let ‘er rip, you can make the whole shebang and refrigerate or freeze whatever you don’t eat right away, (but be forewarned – They’re addictive little beasties, and you’ll easily be tricked into chowing down.) The recipe will make about 16 muffins.

NOTES: It’s best to have your milk and eggs at or near room temperature, so plan ahead accordingly. You’ll also need a muffin pan or two – They come in various sizes, but you’ll fare much better with ‘mini’ sizes, (muffin or loaf), as these guys will come out very dense indeed if you use regular size pans.

Påo de Quiejo - Brazilian Cheese Bread
Påo de Quiejo – Brazilian Cheese Bread

Påo de Quiejo, Brazilian Cheese Bread

3 Cups Cassava Flour
1 well packed Cup Monterey Jack or Asiago Cheese
1 1/2 Cups Whole Milk
1/2 Cup Avocado Oil
2 Eggs
2 teaspoons Sea Salt

Set a rack into a middle position and preheat your oven to 400° F.

Wet a paper towel with avocado oil and lightly wipe the insides of each muffin cup.

Add all ingredients to a blender or processor vessel, (either truly works fine, so use what you’re most comfortable with.)

Pulse the batter until it’s smooth and consistent, scraping batter down into the mix as needed. Allow plenty of mixing time, until you’ve got a consistent smooth batter – This also allows some air to get integrated into the mix, which is important for helping these unleavened breads rise.

Fill muffin cups to roughly 1/4” from the top.

Bake, undisturbed for about 20 minutes, until the muffin tops have visibly risen and are light golden brown. There’s no leavening agent, so steam plays a roll here – Opening the oven will screw with that, so don’t!

Påo de Quiejo - Perfect accompaniment to soups and stews
Påo de Quiejo – Perfect accompaniment to soups and stews

Remove muffins from oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes, then chow down.

Apreciar!

Morning Glory Muffins

I grew up on Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1960s. Yeah, that Concord – Old North Bridge, Shot heard ‘round the world – you know the place. What I’ll bet you don’t know about, unless you too lived there, was the Concord Bowlarena, one of my favorite local haunts. I spent many a happy Saturday morning there, enjoying a true New England pastime. I live out west now, and unless you hail from my birthplace, you’re probably not familiar with the kind of bowling I’m referencing – It’s called Candlepin, and it was invented in 1880 in Worcester, Mass, (that’s pronounced Woostah, by the way). And yeah, I know the title of this is Morning Glory Muffins – Trust me, I’ll get there.

The Bowlarena, gone but not forgotten
The Bowlarena, gone but not forgotten

Candlepin is notably different beast from the Tenpin bowling most of us are accustomed to. The Pins are skinnier, taller, and well, look kinda like candles. And the balls, well, that’s where things really get interesting – Where a tenpin ball is around 8 1/2”, weigh up to 16 pounds, and requires holes in them to be able to even grasp, a candlepin ball weighs no more than 2 pounds 7 ounces, and has a diameter no larger than 4 1/2” inches. This means that, even when relatively young, you can hold a candlepin ball in your palm and throw it, in the local parlance, wicked hahd, (very fast).

Candlepin bowling - A New England thing
Candlepin bowling – A New England thing

Sadly. the Concord Bowlarena is long gone, but it certainly isn’t forgotten. There was also food at the Bowlarena – a genuine ‘Luncheon Counter’ – and pretty dang good food at that, much of it scratch made. Run by the Smethurst family, and headed by Chet Smethurst, the alley was a fun, safe, and tasty place to go.

There’s a page on Facebook dedicated to those of us who grew up there, and somebody recently started a thread about the bowling alley. And with that, someone mentioned Morning Glory muffins – Now, those folks are younger than I am, and I’d moved away before these showed up on the Bowlarena menu. But the effusive praise for the muffin got me poking around, and is it turns out, the Morning Glory muffin is a New England original.

Nantucket’s Old South Wharf
Nantucket’s Old South Wharf

The muffin in question was first whipped up by Pam McKinstry, the Chef/Owner of the namesake Morning Glory Cafe, in business from 1978 to 1994, the old south wharf of Nantucket. This was the late 70s, when granola and healthy stuff like bran muffins was in its heyday. Legend has it that Gourmet magazine published the recipe in 1991, and 10 years later, listed it as one of their all time top 25 favorites, but I wasn’t able to find attribution to verify that last fact – Nonetheless, it’s a great muffin and worth a bake in your kitchen.

Morning Glory Muffins, a New England original
Morning Glory Muffins, a New England original

Just as the original recipe made it to the Concord Bowlarena, it made it to a bunch of kitchens, so count on the fact that there are plenty of alternative version out there – Try a batch, and then turn it into your own – Here’s our swing at it.

Morning Glory Muffins

2 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups grated fresh Carrot
1 Cup Avocado Oil
3/4 Cup Bakers Sugar
1/2 Cup Honey
3 large Eggs
1 Cup crushed Pineapple
1 Honey Crisp Apple
1/2 Cup Raisins
1/2 Cup shredded Coconut
1/2 Cup chopped Pecans
1 Tablespoon ground Cinnamon
2 teaspoons Baking Soda
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Position a rack in the middle slot of your oven and preheat to 350° F.

Line 16 muffin cups with liners, (or grease lightly with butter).

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda and salt – whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Peel and grate apple.

Add carrots, apple, raisins, and pecans to the dry mix and stir to combine thoroughly.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine eggs, oil, honey, and vanilla extract – Whisk to incorporate thoroughly.

Add the wet mix to the dry and stir with a spoon until just combined.

Spoon equal measures of batter into the muffin cups.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin pulls out cleanly.

Remove from oven and transfer muffin pan to a wire rack to cool for at least 15-20 minutes.

Try not to eat them all right away, (with, as Julia Child would say, lots and lots of butter!)

Boston Brown Bread

If you’re from New England, and specifically Boston, you know all about Boston Brown Bread – Pared with Boston baked beans and fresh cole slaw, it’s graced many a Saturday night supper throughout New England.

The B&M company, not to be confused with the huge British food conglomerate, has been making baked beans and brown bread for over 150 years, and there’s a reason they’re still around doing just that .

A lot of folks, even locals, think that B&M is a Massachusetts based enterprise, but it ain’t so. Way back in 1867, George Burnham, started a canning business, was then joined by Charles Morrill, and Burnham & Morrill was born. B&M has been a fixture in Portland, Maine at One Bean Pot Circle, ever since.

Their rightfully famous beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and their brown bread is the one, as far as I’m concerned. Their cans are filled with batter and the bread is baked in the cans, and that’s just how you do it.

In the 19th Century, Brown Bread was poverty food throughout the British Empire, although it eventually gained cache for the health benefits of the mixed flour used to make it. Brown Bread crossed the big pond, and became a staple for the colonists, then a sentimental favorite – Keep in kind, once upon a time, lobster was considered ‘poverty food,’ so there’s no stigma attached to liking brown bread.

Boston Brown Bread is a great recipe for folks who are nervous about bread baking – It’s easy, fast, and almost foolproof – Brown Bread is steamed, rather than baked, and requires very little prep time.

If you’ve never tried it, do. Served hot with fresh butter, ham, baked beans, and cole slaw, you got that legendary Saturday Night Suppah – And it’s great the next morning, too.

 

Boston Brown Bread

1 Cup Whole Milk

1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour

1/2 Cup Rye Flour

1/2 Cup Corn Meal

1/3 Cup Dark Molasses

1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder

1 teaspoon Vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon Allspice

1/2 teaspoon Orange Zest

1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 Tablespoon Butter for greasing cans

NOTE: there are folks, (even B&M), who make this with raisins or currants within – I’m not one of them, but if you are, you can add a quarter cup to this recipe.

there are also purists who pull eschew the addition of flavorings such as vanilla, allspice, and orange zest – I’m not one of those, either.

 

Rinse and dry two 28 Ounce metal cans with one end of each cut off.

Move a rack to the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 325° F.

Choose an oven safe pot or dish deep enough so that you can fill it with water to about halfway up the sides of the cans. Boil enough water on the stove top to fill that pot or dish.

Lightly coat the insides of the cans with vegetable oil.

In a mixing bowl, combine wheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, allspice, and salt.

Add the molasses, milk, vanilla and zest to the dry ingredients and thoroughly combine.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans. Cover the top of each can with a double thickness of aluminum foil and tie securely with kitchen string. Place the cans in your deep pan and slide that into the preheated oven.

Carefully fill the pan with boiling water to about halfway up the sides of the cans.

Bake for 70 to 75 minutes. At seventy minutes, remove the foil tops. When the edges of the bread begin to pull away from the sides of the cans, you’re there.

Remove the cans from the oven, place on a wire rack to cool for 1 hour before sliding the bread out of the cans. If the bread is a bit sticky, a thin bladed knife run around the can will free it up.

Don’t forget to have plenty of fresh, local butter on hand…

A Wee Bit o’ Irish Soda Bread

So, a few days ago, alert blog follower and old friend Jeff Jaquish sent me a PM asking about a good Irish Soda Bread recipe. I was at work at the time, so I dove into my online files, found the first one titled Irish Soda Bread, and sent that off to him, and I posted it here, too.

Then, this morning, with something nagging at my noggin, I dove back into my recipes and found much more thoughts and details in a second, unpublished file. I’ve got ahead and combined those here.

The first recipe is my version with far more in it, frankly, than a truly classic recipe for this stuff, so I wanted to include a good base model too. Somehow, I’d completely forgotten about baking to a higher temp in a Dutch oven, and that’s a crime – I’ve corrected that here, so JJ, here ya go again.

Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.
Irish Soda Bread, a Simple slice of heaven.

Back in the early 1800s, Ireland was poor as poor can be, so stretching food wisely was a necessity. Soda bread, comprised of flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt, was perfect answer to the problem, especially when the potato famine hit, mid-Century. And by the way, yes, for genuine, old school Soda Bread, that’s all that needs to be in there – Raisins, nuts, sweeteners, and whatnot are purely American affectations, truth be told.

Early commercial bakers discovered that bicarbonate of soda, (AKA baking soda), when mixed with hydrochloride acid, (Yes, Virginia, they really did that…), made for prodigious production of carbon dioxide – Lo and behold, they got bread much faster than they did by waiting around for yeast, (which wasn’t all that great back then), to do its thing.

Fortunately, home bakers were far more sensible, and got their acid from buttermilk – Much more benign, much less dangerous, and tastier to boot.

Those early cottage bakers, (AKA, Mom), would bake soda bread in a covered dish or skillet, a local version of a Dutch oven. They’d snuggle that dish right into the hearth, with some coals on top and some beneath, just as we do when camping these days. The results were and are a truly delightful bread, and it’s super easy to make.

As with all things house made, ingredient quality and freshness count a lot. You’ll want the freshest All Purpose Flour you can find, and yes, It needs to be AP Flour – the relatively low protein content therein means gluten formation remains relatively low, and that yields a nice, chewy bread that won’t get too tough. Likewise. Check your baking powder before you start – As we’ve discussed here before, that stuff does have an expiration date, so make sure you’re working with fresh powder. Finally, get your buttermilk as fresh and local as you can.

Now, for process, consider and abide by the following – This is a recipe you want to finish mixing and get straight into a hot oven. Unlike yeast, baking soda does its thing in a rapid and fairly short lived manner – Think about mixing Coca Cola and Mentos, and you get the idea. As soon as you pour in that buttermilk, the second hand on the ol’ stopwatch is in motion.

Finally, you’ll see a lot of advice on kneading Soda Bread. I initially advocated around a 3 minute knead, and that’s OK, believe me, but there is wide variance available to you, depending on what you like.

If you prefer things a bit more rustic, you can add enough additional buttermilk such that you’ll end up with a dough that is too sticky to knead, but too stiff to pour – that’ll be perfect – Put that in your Dutch oven and let ‘er rip. If you like a thinner, crunchier crust and a bit smoother crumb, keep the buttermilk percentage as shown and knead for a few minutes.

What I love about this stuff is the fact that it has a crumb and texture that, to me, is quite reminiscent of good sourdough. The beauty is that you can have this out of the oven and ready to eat in under an hour, all told, while good sourdough is dang near an all day adventure.

Give them both a try and let me know what you think. The sheet pan, lower temp version derives, for my mind anyway, a bit of a chewier crust, because it doesn’t take advantage of the steam factor baking in a Dutch oven will impart.

Urban’s Irish Soda Bread

4 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 ¼ Cups Buttermilk
½ Cup Avocado Oil
¼ Cup Unsalted Butter
1 large Egg
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar, (Honey is fine as a sub)
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 350° F and place a rack in the middle position. Make sure your oven is all the way to temp by the time your ready to slide the dough in there.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and blend thoroughly.

Add avocado oil, 1 cup of buttermilk, agave or honey, and the egg to the dry mix. Combine thoroughly with a kitchen spoon.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for up to 2-3 minutes. You can stop when everything is well incorporated, or go on if you like things a bit more refined.

Form the dough into a round, and place it on a baking sheet – A silicone sheet covering the metal is never a bad idea.

In a sauce pan over medium low heat, melt the butter.

In a small non-reactive mixing bowl, combine melted butter and remaining ¼ cup of buttermilk. Use a pastry brush to coat the outside of the loaf with this mixture.

Bake at 375 for 30 minutes, then test the loaf with a toothpick stuck into the middle – Its should draw out cleanly. Depending on your oven, you may need to bake for as long as 45 minutes, but make sure you test at 30 minutes, and then every 5 minutes thereafter.

Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Allow to cool completely before cutting, (30 to 60 minutes).

NOTE: This recipe works great in a Dutch oven at 450° F for 40-45 minutes, too!

Classic Irish Soda Bread

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 – 2 1/2Cups fresh Buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1 1/8 teaspoon Baking Soda

Preheat oven to 450° F and set a rack in the middle slot. Make sure your oven is fully up to heat before you slide the bread in to bake!

To help avoid sticking, line the bottom of a Dutch oven with parchment paper. We use a 10” oven, by the way, so that’s what this recipe is scaled for. Do the parchment thing even if your oven is well seasoned, because this stuff will stick.

In a large, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate fully.

Add the buttermilk and use a spatula to incorporate. When the dough just comes together, you can stop mixing if you like. Again, you can add more buttermilk here to get that too sticky to handle, but too hefty to pour consistency if needed. If you like your crust a bit thinner, continue to mix for another minute or so.

Use the spatula to transfer the dough to your lined Dutch oven, and then to form a basic round loaf shape. Use a sharp paring knife to score the top of the loaf – You can do quarters, or straight lines, whatever you like.

Bake covered for 45 minutes, then remove from oven and carefully transfer the loaf to a wire rack to cool.

Allow the bread to cool thoroughly before you cut it – It’ll need that time, believe me – Anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more.

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. A guitar making parable comes to mind – I’ve seen a bunch of builders, including me, make ‘identical’ guitars, from the same wood, built to the same specs, as close to each other as we can make them, and ya know what? They never sound, feel, or play the same. Same goes for recipes and cooking – For something iconic like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.