I suspect that many of you will be entirely unfamiliar with spoonbread. In fact, until I made some for myself this past weekend, I had only ever had spoonbread made by three people: my mother, my mother's mother, and my mother's sister. I believe that spoonbread is relatively common in southern cooking, but it is clearly not nearly so well known as its famous cousin cornbread or even its slightly less famous cousin, the cornstick.
I will have to acknowledge that this obscurity may not be entirely undeserved. I must further acknowledge that when my mother put spoonbread on the table, my father was pretty much the only person who was delighted by its appearance. To me it always tasted wet, somehow. Exactly why this should be so I cannot explain to you: I haven't had spoonbread made by anyone in perhaps twenty-five years, and while I considered calling my mother to ask her how she made/makes her spoonbread, I decided not to. In part because she probably doesn't use a recipe, but also in part because I was afraid that she might make it for me again the next time I visit her and my father. I suspect that Mom's spoonbread is something that my adult palate would find pleasing, but I'd just as soon not take the chance.
My initial batch of spoonbread didn't really start out with that destination in mind. I just wanted something warm, filling, cornbread based, and within my dietary parameters. Since cornmeal, eggs, and skim milk are all unlimited foods, I figured that I could mix those up with water, some spices, a small amount of oil, and perhaps some cut corn, and get something that would make a decent breakfast. I was really thinking of something more like a corn-based equivalent of porridge. But when I was done, it occurred to me that I'd basically recreated (a leaner version of) spoonbread.
My first batch was made entirely on the stovetop, and it was much better than I thought it had any right to be, given the very small amount of fat. My mother always baked her spoonbread, and that's how I did my second batch. You can make it either way. If you do it entirely on the stove, then you will have a much more solid texture. Bake it, and you get something like a soft baked custard in texture. I'd happily eat a lot of either version. In fact, I have.
My mother's spoonbread (like my grandmother's and my aunt's) was very plain fare. I believe she used white corn meal, water, milk, butter, salt, eggs, and probably nothing else. As is my general practice, when I cut down on the fat in a recipe, I compensate with additional flavors, so the flavor of my spoonbread is nothing at all like Mom's.
Although I am aware that there are many, many options for people who want to spice up their food, I have lately been restricting my spicy palette to ground black pepper and a troika of reds: ground ancho chiles, ground cayenne pepper, and smoked sweet paprika. I find that by using these three spices in varying proportions, I can almost always get something that's just what I want when I want something spicy. (I am not, however, advocating that you do the same. Just last weekend, I heard a brief interview with Rick Bayless where he talked about a large food market in Mexico City and about how one of the stalls had thirty-seven different varieties of dried chiles. It made my mouth water. V., in fact, will be going to Mexico City for a week right after tax season. He's attending a conference there, and I could go with him if I wanted, but I am not sure that I'd feel safe there, and he'd be in meetings most of the day. Of course, that would give me most of the day to count varieties of chile peppers in the markets, but I think that I will instead opt for something less adventurous and more secure. Alas.) I used all three of them in the spoonbread.
I am not kidding you when I say that the tiny amount of oil in this recipe seemed fine to me and that I did not at all miss the fat. At the same time, if you wanted to ramp up the recipe with a couple of tablespoons of butter or bacon fat, then no one would blame you. Neither would blame attach to the addition of some nice, sharp cheddar, though, again, I didn't miss it.
2 cups water
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
1/4 t. garlic powder
1/2 t. ancho chile powder
1 t. smoked paprika
2 t. salt
Black pepper to taste
1 cup cornmeal
2 t. olive oil
1 cup cold liquid*
1-2 cups corn
Grease an 8x8 baking pan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a decent sized saucepan, bring the water to a boil. When it is nearly there, add the seasonings and stir. Slowly whisk in the cornmeal, to avoid lumps. Whisk in the olive oil and whisk over heat for another two minutes. The mixture will be very thick. Remove from heat and whisk in the cold liquid. Whisk in the eggs until well incorporated. Fold in the corn kernels.
Turn the mixture into the greased baking pan and bake until brown and crackly on top, about 35 minutes. The spoonbread will still quiver when it's done.
Serve straight up, or with hot sauce or salsa.
*Most spoonbread recipes call for cold milk. I have used cold water and cold (fat-free) buttermilk, and they both work just fine.
If you want to do the whole deal on top of the stove, just return to the heat when you've whisked in the eggs and return to the flame until well cooked, then fold in the corn. This method will save you about thirty minutes. I used semi-defrosted frozen corn, and there was plenty of heat to finish defrosting and cooking the corn. I prefer the recipe with the larger amount of corn, but it is fine with the smaller amount.
This is not the sort of dish that improves with age. You want to consume it soon after it's made.