I cut corners in the kitchen. There, I said it.
It’s not often, and it’s certainly not something of which I am particularly proud, but there are certain things I don’t make from scratch. Pie crust is not one of them, but that’s another story, for another day.
We had a couple of friends over for dinner last night, and while planning the menu I had a real urge for Southern food. No, not Cracker Barrel – although that’s fine and dandy, even for this liberal yankee food snob – but something with more substance. So I roasted a pork loin, and accompanied it with a mess of sides: black eyed peas, collard greens, and corn bread. The greens and beans, I’ve been making for years – and from scratch, even going so far as to soak my own beans.
Jiffy corn bread, on the other hand, I’ve been making for even longer. But unlike the rest, it’s straight out of the box, and one of the few such recipes I know by heart: add 1 egg, 1/3 cup milk, bake. My only additional step is something my dad showed me in high school: start with a hot cast iron skillet, coated in bacon grease, and fry the dough for a minute or so to get a better crust. Still, even with dad’s magic, that’s pretty simple, right?
I’ve made a ton of Jiffy cornbread using just that technique – dozens, if not over 100 boxes at home – but while it always tasted the same, it just didn’t taste right. In the past, no matter how precisely I’d followed the directions on the box, the result was.. it tasted of chemicals, preservatives, or something else that just wasn’t right. Every time I cooked it people ate it up, but that’s likely because it’s still better than the sticky, cakey mess you can get at the store.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I’d had some really good home-made cornbread over the years, and on top of that a restaurant where I once worked, the District Chop House, put out a respectable product – to which I helped myself on far too many occasions. Those experiences raised my proverbial bar, and until last night, my cornbread wasn’t nearly good enough to make me proud.
So, what did I do differently?
Well, I forgot about it. After mixing the ingredients, I left the bowl on the counter for 30 or 40 minutes – and when I came back, the mess inside that bowl had evolved into a strange new world. Where there once was an eggy, goopy mess, there was now a more structured, slightly risen dough reminiscent of the yeasty doughs I saw and sold at a couple of other dining establishments where I worked in college, Bloomington Bagel Co. and Malibu Grill.
I tasted the dough (or is it a batter?), and I knew right away that my mistake was actually a blessing. It was sweet, and whatever the chemical awfulness was that had permeated previous batches, was no more. I did a little searching today, and (not being much of a
golfer baker) learned that with quick breads, i.e. not leavened with yeast, resting the dough is a must – so that the sugars in the milk can work their magic with the baking powder.
Suffice to say, this is one mistake I’ll never fail to make again.