We were away last week. We went on holiday over a long weekend, and ate gorgeous food, and coveted beautiful houses, and met brilliant people, and saw more paintings of 17th century militia than I previously thought possible. We get home late on Monday evening, and put the washing in the machine and slippers on our feet, and I move through my kitchen, touching things. Things that ground me. My chopping boards. My tea towels. My measuring cups. The little things that make our home, well, our home. And then I pick up a tin and a mixing bowl, and choose a knife. And I make cornbread.
And I go through the steps, steps that are almost muscle memory by now, because I’ve been making this cornbread, or a version of it, for over three years. And as I sift and mix and stir and chop and pour, I realise that it is this that I long for. This ritual, this predictability of process and consequence. There are certain breads and cakes and bakes that, as you make over and over again, become unintentionally ritualised, a set of steps so clear and defined that the mere process conveys security and safety.
I have written before about how my home is a house that eggs built, and never does that feel more true that when, having left it for a little while, even for the loveliest of reasons, we return to it. I want straight away to be in the kitchen, making something comforting, something that will anchor us. Being in the kitchen always feels like a very practical way of making our little house a sanctuary, or a safe place, as if, while I stir, or beat, or whisk, I am drawing a circle of saftey around the home. Cornbread is my talisman.
Cornbread is one of the first things I ever learned to cook. The recipe came from a friend, Lizzy, in the very early days of my cooking, and was one of the successes that paved firmer ground for my tentative baking steps. It was so simple to make: just a matter of pouring wet ingredients into dry, and stirring. It was ready in half an hour, and was a glorious, golden yellow, rich from the eggs and oil, but tender from the buttermilk. I crowed at my newly found kitchen skills, and Sam took a photo of me, looking flushed with success and giddy with excitement, holding my freshly baked cornbread.
Mine is a little different now, a hotchpotch of recipes I’ve tried and loved and collected and held close. A bit like life, if that’s not too saccharine for a post about jalapenos and lard: a patchwork of things borrowed, and given and taken and made my own. I like it not too sweet, unlike my food writing, so I’ve reduced the sugar but I’ve adopted the Lockhart’s cornbread’s now legendary honey butter that is spooned on while the bread is hot from the oven, so it pools around the edges, and sinks ever so slightly into the crust. I have also stolen Felicity Cloake’s method from her Perfect cornbread of melting fat in the pan until hot before adding the batter, so that it crisps and browns the exterior.
And my recipe still bears the marks of the first time I made the recipe and couldn’t get hold of creamed corn, so blithely used normal tinned sweetcorn instead, which it turned out was an accidental delight. I add jalapenos because I love them. Sometimes I throw in a handful of chopped spring onions. Utterly inauthentic, completely delicious.
I realise we have created this magic circle, around us with our home. So I make cornbread, and I draw my magic circle, if not in salt, at least in jalapeno brine.
It goes like this:
There’s no place like home jalapeno cornbread
Makes: 16 squares
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: 20-25 minutes
150g cornmeal or polenta
150g plain flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
50g light brown sugar
2 large eggs
240 ml buttermilk
4 tbsp vegetable oil
200g tinned sweetcorn
A handful of jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
3 spring onions, finely chopped (optional)
A small knob of lard or butter
1 tablespoon of runny honey
1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. This can be baked in a 20cm square baking tin, but I often do it in a large falcon enamelware dish, but you could also cook it in a large, ovensafe, iron skillet.
2. Sift all dry ingredients (cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar) together into a large bowl.
3. Beat the eggs, buttermilk and olive oil together in another mixing bowl.
4. Pour this wet mixture into the dry ingredients and mix together, taking care not to overmix.
5. Fold through the sweetcorn, jalapenos, and spring onions if using.
5. Rub the lard or butter over the dish or tin base, and heat over a hob, or in the oven, until the fat is sizzling.
6. Pour the batter into the tin, and bake for 30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Depending on your oven, you may need to cover with foil during the latter stages of cooking, if it’s starting to look a bit toasty.
7. Ta dah!
Icing on the Cake
We eat this with thick, smoked bacon, the best we can find, or fried chicken, and homemade chilli jam and lots of bitter salad with zingy dressing. And the next morning we take it in our lunch boxes, as a little reminder that there’s no place like home.