From hearth to oven, corn bread stays a classic

June 19, 1996|By Pat Dailey | Pat Dailey,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Tastes change and so do recipes, in style and substance. The proof, in this case, can be found in corn bread. A look at three versions of this American classic shows evolutions in technique, taste and recipe form.

"American Cookery," published 200 years ago by Amelia Simmons, is noted for being one of the first books to use cornmeal in bread-making.

Corn was an abundant staple in the newly settled land.

In recording her formula for this dense, rustic bread, Simmons used a style that was imprecise, but it's safe to assume that the average American cook at the time was familiar with culinary matters.

She offered several alternatives for making the bread, indicating that she was aware that some kitchens were more frugal or less equipped than others. "Bake before the fire" meant just that -- put the pan on the hearth in front of the fire.

Johny cake, or hoe cake

Scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of Indian meal, and half pint of flower -- bake before the fire. Or scald with milk two-thirds of the Indian meal, or wet two-thirds with boiling water, add salt, molasses and shortening, work up with cold water pretty stiff, and bake as above.

One hundred years later, Fannie Merritt Farmer's measure-for-measure approach shows in her columnar listing of ingredients, with exact amounts spelled out. Commercial leavening had become fairly common, and a generous amount of baking powder lightened up the bread considerably.

The taste of molasses is subtle but distinct, making this version ideally suited to the breakfast table.

Corn cake sweetened with molasses

1 cup corn meal

3/4 cup flour

3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup molasses

3/4 cup milk

1 egg

1 tablespoon melted butter

Mix and sift dry ingredients; add molasses, milk, egg, well beaten, and butter; bake in a shallow, buttered pan in hot oven 20 minutes.

The next version is from a recent edition of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," revised in 1979. It shows a marked preference for sugar-sweetened breads. Of it, Marion Cunningham, who revised the book, writes: "Sturdy, solid, slightly dry -- a direct legacy from our American past."

Cunningham offers several variations, including one for Mexican corn bread flavored with cheese and chilies, which shows that cooking will continue to evolve, ready to reflect the changing face and taste of America.

Corn bread

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup flour

1/3 cup sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

1 egg, well beaten

2 tablespoons melted shortening or bacon fat

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square pan. Mix the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add the milk, egg and shortening or bacon fat and blend well. Spoon into the pan and bake about 20 minutes.

Cool and cut into squares.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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