Why It Works
- Thick and creamy grits serve as the perfect base for airy beaten egg whites.
- Adding cornmeal ensures the soufflé has the structure and stability to rise and stay risen, and provides extra texture and corn flavor to the grits.
- Adding the beaten whites in stages lightens the base and ensures thorough mixing, while retaining as much air as possible for a light final texture.
Most people wouldn't associate grits with being delicate. Grits are filling and hearty, something you eat that sticks to your ribs to keep you full throughout the day. And if you’re not from a certain part of the Southeastern United states, there's a decent chance you're not familiar with well made, high quality grits. But not only will a good pot of grits wow a crowd, in a preparation like Awendaw soufflé, it's the definition of lightness.
Awendaw is a grits dish famous in Charleston that straddles the line between a cornbread, a spoonbread, and a soufflé—in fact, depending on the recipe, you may see it described as one or the other. Many versions are, on a technical level, remarkably similar to a soufflé, with the grits taking the place of a French soufflé's bechamel base; beaten egg whites are folded into the grits, which puff and swell as the Awendaw bakes.
Whether there was actual French influence on the recipe is hard to say, though one of the first mentions of Awendaw is in Carolina Housewife, a cookbook published in 1847. Written by a woman named Sarah Rutledge, the book combined many cooking techniques and ingredients found in or brought to the Deep South with those of the popular French “haute” or “grande” cuisine of the time. Recipes using ingredients like benne seeds or okra are found alongside pieces on how to clarify a stock for “le bouillon” and a recipe for “boeuf a la gardette”—a change from many early American cookbooks, which were much more heavily influenced by the Northern colonies and the Dutch or English backgrounds of many of their residents.
The name Awendaw, or Owendaw, comes from an area of the Lowcountry of South Carolina that the indigenous Sewee people once inhabited. Before they fled their homeland on the coast, they shared their knowledge of growing and preparing corn for consumption with the various colonizers of the Southeast.
One of the most popular and recognizable dishes prepared from corn is cornbread, and, in the South, its more creamy cousin, spoonbread, is just as fondly prepared by experienced hands. In Rutledge's Carolina Housewife, the recipe is listed as “Owendaw Cornbread,” and it calls for hominy, milk, cornmeal, and eggs to make a dish that is the consistency of a baked, boiled custard. Her recipe for “Corn Spoon Bread” has similar ingredients but is made more like a cornmeal pancake, its batter dropped by the spoonful onto a hot griddle, giving the recipe its name.
By the 1950s the production of cornmeal, hominy, and grits had become more industrialized, making them much more accessible and easier to cook. This is where a recipe by the name “Awendaw Spoonbread” first emerges. Mrs. Ralph Izard gave it to the Junior League of Charleston, and it can be found in Charleston Receipts, the oldest Junior League book still in print today. Mrs. Izard’s recipe is more akin to a baked grits casserole, with a slight rise from the addition of the eggs, but much more firm in texture compared to the recipes of Sarah Rutledger, due to the amount of grits and cornmeal in the recipe.
The recipe for the Awendaw soufflé that I'm offering below is a combination of both of those women's recipes and techniques, and an homage to the many Black chefs and cooks of the South who often didn’t have formal culinary training (some chefs, like James Hemings, were able to be classically trained), but were some of the most important innovators of American cooking, weaving together techniques from around the world with familiar Indigenous and Southern staples like cornmeal and grits. Theirs were often the hands making the foods found in domestic cookbooks in antebellum America.
While this recipe requires steps very similar to making a soufflé, which can seem daunting to many cooks, it's fairly easy to make with success (although there are special considerations necessary for those cooking at higher elevations, as noted in the recipe). As long as you carefully fold the beaten whites into the grits base so that they're fully incorporated but still retain some air, the Awendaw will rise and puff—not quite as dramatically as a bechamel-based soufflé (those grits do start out on the dense and heavy side), but noticeably so. The resulting consistency should be creamy, almost custardy, and still light and fluffy despite being made from grits.
The dish takes about an hour and a half to prepare and bake, including cooking the grits. If you don’t have soufflé ramekins, a baking dish with high sides will work just as well, creating the effect of the rising soufflé, and the dish can be scooped and served at the table like spoonbread. Other cheeses, herbs, and fillings (like fresh sweet corn) can be used in place of the chives and cheddar cheese as well.
- Softened unsalted butter or nonstick cooking spray, for greasing baking vessel(s)
- 2 tablespoons (18g) fine cornmeal, plus more for dusting ramekins
- 5 whites plus 3 yolks from 5 large eggs, separated
- One recipe Smooth and Creamy Grits (about 1 pound; 450g cooked grits), slightly cooled but still warm and smooth
- 3/4 cup grated mild or medium Cheddar cheese (2 1/4 ounces; 65g)
- 1 tablespoon finely sliced chives
- 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (4g); for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
Set oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°F (or 375°F if at high elevation). Grease four 12-ounce ramekins (or, alternatively, one 8- by 8-inch baking dish) generously with butter or cooking spray, making sure to cover bottoms and sides all the way up to the rims. Dust with an even coating of cornmeal, making sure to cover bottoms and sides all the way up to the rims; tap out excess cornmeal.
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a medium bowl and using a hand mixer), beat egg whites at low speed until foamy, then increase speed to high and beat until stiff peaks form (or, if at a high altitude, until soft peaks form). Set aside.
Fold the 2 tablespoons cornmeal into the grits along with the cheese, chives, and salt until well combined. Add egg yolks 1 at a time, stirring until each is fully incorporated before adding next.
Working in 3 additions, carefully fold beaten egg whites into the grits mixture just until well combined.
The resulting mixture should be light and airy, not heavy or thin.
Fill prepared ramekins 3/4 of the way full with the grits mixture. Set ramekins on a rimmed baking sheet.
Bake on middle rack until soufflés have risen and are just starting to brown on top, about 30 minutes. Remove carefully and serve immediately. The soufflés should remain risen for about 10 minutes after removing from the oven, and are just as good after they fall.
Four 12-ounce ramekins or one 8-inch square baking dish; stand mixer or hand mixer
Soft peaks are essential for baking soufflé at high elevation. If the peaks are too stiff, the air in the egg whites will expand too quickly, causing an extremely high rise and then a very dramatic fall. The temperature also needs to be raised so that the egg, grits, and cornmeal all can begin to set more quickly and at the same time. Without raising the heat, the mixture won't rise but the inside will cook through, becoming much more dry.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Awendaw is best prepared right before serving.