Friday, October 14, 2011

Vegan MoFo Day 14: Corn Light Bread, a Quest...

Growing up, "corn light bread" simply meant sweet corn bread, whether in skillet form or as a cakey loaf. What made it "light" was a mystery. If you google "corn light bread" you will find many recipes for various forms of sweet corn bread. In the course of doing some reading on salt rising bread, I discovered that the original form of corn light bread was leavened with the same sort of funky bacteria/yeast culture. While the time-consuming and temperature-sensitive nature of salt rising bread has caused it to all but disappear, the same factors pushed corn light bread away from its origins and toward regular corn bread with sugar added.

I first tried a recipe from the Atlanta newspaper, which yielded pretty good results. However, the recipe as printed has both an error and a mystery. The error is that it says to let the batter sit out overnight at room temperature. Wrong. Room temperature is too cold for good results, except maybe in the middle of a Georgia summer. The batter really needs to hold at about 95-100 F -- think the back of a wood stove or near the fireplace. My oven has a "bread proof" setting at 100F which works well for this purpose. The mystery in the AJC recipe is the use of self-rising flour and cornmeal. The whole point of salt rising bread and corn light bread is the use of a natural bacteria/yeast leavening process, and not commercial yeast or baking powder. I think the most likely reason for this oddity in the recipe is that self-rising flour and cornmeal became very common in the typical Southern kitchen by the early to mid 20th century. Self-rising cornmeal was what cooks had on hand, so they used it even if it did not make sense. If you want to add baking powder to corn light bread for a truly "lighter" texture, you should do so immediately before baking, and not before the overnight fermentation, as the leavening will lose much of its power during that long wait.

Further investigation led me to Bill Neal's Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, a very non-vegan book which should be purchased immediately by anyone interested in Southern baking. Neal is clear about the parallel to salt rising bread, and gives much better directions. However, he perpetuates the myth that you must use water-ground, not-degerminated cornmeal for success. Untrue! Cheap plain cornmeal from the grocery store works just fine. I think he also overestimates the role of wild yeast vs bacteria in the "raising" process. If we take Neal's recipe and swap out oil or shortening for the bacon fat, we are left with a recipe which is vegan, gluten free, authentic, and very tasty:

Step 1: Bring 4 cups of water to a rolling boil. Slowly (so it does not clump) add 1 cup of plain cornmeal (not self-rising or cornbread mix). If you whisk as you add the cornmeal, you'll be fine. Boil, stirring fairly regularly, for 10 minutes.

Step 2: Stir together 1 c plain cornmeal and 1 c cold water. Let stand 10 minutes.

Step 3: Combine the hot and cold mixtures, along with 1 T shortening or oil. Cover and set in a very warm place (95-100 F - e.g., a very low oven, or a dehydrator) for 8-10 hours (overnight). It won't get as aggressively funky as salt rising bread starter, but you should see a little bubbling and detect a fermented smell.

Step 4: To the fermented mixture, add 2 c plain cornmeal, 1/3 c sugar, 1/4 c sorghum molasses, and 2 t salt. (You can double the sorghum and omit the sugar if you like.) Stir well until completely combined. Cover and return to the very warm place until you can see signs of fermentation. An hour is usually sufficient, although you can certainly go longer if it seems inactive. (NOTE: As with salt rising bread, don't taste the dough. You likely have bacteria growing which may - until neutralized by baking - be unfriendly to your digestion.)

Step 5: Add approximately 1 T (a big spoonful) shortening or oil to a cast iron skillet and let it get hot in a 350 F oven. Pour the batter into the hot skillet and bake until it browns and a toothpick tests clean. Neal says 40 minutes, but I find it takes longer - more like an hour. Your mileage may vary.

As Neal says, the word "light" refers to the fermentation process and "not to the texture or color of these pones." (p.22) The overnight mash leavens it more than you might expect, but not like baking powder or commercial yeast. The final result is a fairly dense (but not unpleasantly so), sweet, and interestingly fermented cornbread. Give it a try!

1 comment:

panda with cookie said...

I salute your fermentation skills.