Puffy and light, yet creamy and comforting, southern spoonbread is part pudding, part soufflé. Made much like a soufflé, with whipped egg whites folded into a base of cooked cornmeal and milk, spoonbread is baked in a straight-sided dish and puffs up gently in the oven. Yet with one spoonful of this creamy pudding, the nutty-sweet flavor of corn reminds you that this is a down-home southern dish.
Southern spoonbread is really a happy marriage of European and Native American cuisines. In colonial America, cooks adapted American stone-ground cornmeal to traditional European dishes such as puddings and soufflés to produce new dishes like spoonbread. In 1847, Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife gave a recipe for spoonbread (she called it Owendaw Corn Bread), saying, “it has almost the delicacy of a baked custard.” Yet spoonbread was certainly around before then. The Colonial Williamsburg cookbook, From Williamsburg Kitchens, has recipes reflecting food from the late 1700s, and it includes three recipes for spoonbread, each just slightly different from the next.
This love of spoonbread hasn’t waned over the years; southerners seem to eat it in endless variations. In fact, today’s Southern restaurant chefs are still inventing their own versions. The simple corn flavor might be enhanced with the addition of chopped asparagus, sweet pepper, a blend of sautéed jalapeños and onions, or even a bit of cheese. Sometimes spoonbread is nearly sweet enough to be dessert; sometimes no sugar is added at all.
Most spoonbreads follow essentially the same technique. First, cornmeal is cooked on the stovetop with a liquid (usually milk) until the mixture thickens and the tiny grains are soft. Butter, salt, eggs or yolks, and often sugar, are then added. If the egg whites are beaten separately, these are folded in, along with any seasonings. Some recipes don’t call for whipping the whites, but I don’t care for those versions. The mixture is poured into a heavy, straight-sided dish and baked until puffy and golden brown. The thick crust on top is delicious.
Spoonbread for dinner…and breakfast, too
The one thing all cooks agree on is that spoonbread should be served steaming hot, with lots of butter. While it’s a perfect foil for any roast meat, I think it’s just made for soaking up the juices from a nice piece of roast beef.
As much as I love spoonbread the first night, it’s almost better the next morning. Sliced and skillet-browned (in butter, of course), and then laced with honey or maple syrup and dusted with confectioners’ sugar, twice-cooked spoonbread rivals the best French toast.