As Sean Brock says in the introduction to this recipe in his new cookbook, Heritage, the perfect cornbread is the subject of much debate. My mother, who was from the southern Appalachians, always made the distinction between Southern cornbread (made with flour and sugar) and Mountain cornbread (no flour, no sugar), though frequently the sweeter, cakier version is called Northern cornbread. Brock's version is of the no-flour-no-sugar ilk, which is what I grew up on and prefer.
He makes his with Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Yellow Cornmeal, and if you can wait for it to be delivered, I would whole-heartedly recommend you order just that (otherwise look for another stone-ground cornmeal). He uses buttermilk for tang and a single egg, which leaves it light and corny. He also adds crisp crumbles of bacon (preferably Benton's) to the batter, as well as some of the bacon grease, to give the bread a vague and pleasant smokiness and decidedly savory edge. It's a very classic cornbread that would be as at home with a country supper as gracing the table at Husk.
Why I picked this recipe: I can't resist when an extraordinarily gifted chef turns their talents to perfecting the basics.
What worked: This is my kind of cornbread: waxy, savory, with an amazingly crunchy crust.
What didn't: I encountered a few problems along the way to this lovely loaf: First, the minced bacon took about 20 minutes longer to reach a rendered, crispy state than indicated in the recipe (four to five minutes over medium-low heat). I also only got about three tablespoons of bacon grease out of my bacon, though the recipe requires five tablespoons. Finally, probably because I couldn't wait for the Anson Mills cornmeal and used another brand, the coarsely ground corn didn't hydrate fully and resulted in crunchy bits throughout the cornbread.
Suggested tweaks: Just cook the bacon until crispy, disregarding the suggested time. Make up any discrepancy in the amount of bacon grease (which will vary based on the fattiness of your bacon) with canola oil. And plan ahead and order Anson Mills cornmeal.
Excerpted from Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Put a 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to preheat for at least 10 minutes.
Run the bacon through a meat grinder or very finely mince it. Put the bacon in a skillet large enough to hold it in one layer and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t burn, until the fat is rendered and the bits of bacon are crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bits of bacon to a paper towel to drain, reserving the fat. You need 5 tablespoons bacon fat for this recipe.
Combine the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and bits of bacon in a medium bowl. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat and combine the remaining 4 tablespoons fat, the buttermilk, and egg in a small bowl. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just to combine; do not overmix.
Move the skillet from the oven to the stove, placing it over high heat. Add the reserved tablespoon of bacon fat and swirl to coat the skillet. Pour in the batter, distributing it evenly. It should sizzle.
Bake the cornbread for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm from the skillet.
9-inch cast-iron skillet