The first time Pableaux Johnson asked his grandfather to teach him how to cook the family’s coveted cornbread recipe, he ran into a few snags.
Baked in a cast iron skillet and served with plenty of butter, the recipe is pretty straightforward – it’s a quick bread, after all. But, it took a while for Johnson to get the recipe right because his then 80-year-old grandfather wasn’t using a recipe or measuring spoons.
“He did it all by feeling,” says Johnson, a New Orleans-based writer, photojournalist and host of a long dinner series. “So when I wanted to learn how to do it, I said, ‘How much cornmeal are you putting in?’ And he just took a few out of the bag and said, “That’s a lot.”
Undeterred, Johnson ultimately created a recipe by stopping his grandfather throughout the process to measure out each ingredient.
Now, regulars at Johnson’s dinner party can expect to be greeted with a pan of delicious buttered cornbread. Until the pandemic brought things to a halt, he hosted weekly dinners on Monday evenings (and sometimes Thursday evenings) for years that have proven to be a hit among his friends. During these meals, he serves red beans and rice or, when the weather starts to get cold, okra, and “one of the constants is that cornbread,” he says.
When he was finally convinced to take these dinners on tour, he began traveling to cities across the country for his Red Beans Road Show, which he hosts in restaurants alongside local chefs. The establishment prepares an appetizer and dessert, while Johnson makes his kidney beans and rice and, of course, cornbread. He’s hosted over 60 of these dinners to date, and naturally he takes his cast iron stoves for the ride.
“This is the way of my people, these are my traditions,” says Johnson. His signature recipe and the techniques his grandfather passed on to him offer insight into his family history and why the dish is still popular.
Here’s a look at Johnson’s recipe for Papa’s Skillet Cornbread, some tips for making this versatile side dish at home, and a really awesome tip he picked from Papa himself.
The ingredient list for Papa’s Skillet Cornbread is pretty standard. It contains cornmeal, baking powder, eggs, buttermilk – all the usual suspects. However, it also includes small measures of flour and sugar. Growing up, Johnson never thought twice about his grandfather sprinkling sugar for flavor (it’s responsible, after all, for that caramelization on the sides of bread) and a few tablespoons of flour for one. soft and tender texture. Once he left home and began his career as a food writer, however, he discovered just how controversial this simple, quick bread – and his family’s recipe – could be.
“I had met other people who were very, very fond of cornbread, but came from different family traditions,” Johnson says. The devout cornbread enthusiasts he encountered generally fell into two camps: the “Jiffy people” who love the convenience of classic boxed bread and the “purists” who firmly believe that sugar and flour do not do the trick. not part of the recipe.
“I’ve known people who tend to really take an attitude and say, ‘Well, if there’s sugar or flour, it’s not cornbread, it’s cake. “, He said. “To which I say, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but you can fuck yourself.’ I tend to say it in slightly different words, but the feeling is the same. Mine has a little sugar, a little flour – that’s the way of my people.
While you can make cornbread in just about any glass, metal, or enamel baking dish, what gives the Johnson family recipe its edge is a cast iron skillet. “Basically it gives you a good solid flavor for the crust on the outside,” says Johnson.
Before adding ingredients, the pan is heated to around 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit – roughly the smoking point for canola oil. The vegetable or canola oil you use will be reheated in the hot pan before being mixed vigorously into the batter, which is then poured into the hot pan for cooking.
“When he starts smoking, you know it’s hot enough to pour the batter in,” Johnson says. “When it hits [the skillet], the dough seizes and makes a nice crispy crust – that’s the key. If you try to do it in a square baking dish, you’ll never get it that hot. And it’ll be fine, but it won’t have it.
Johnson says the technique and order of operations for his pan-fried cornbread “boils down to family tradition,” but he incorporated new equipment to make the process less of a guessing game: a radar thermometer. The idea came from a friend who swears by using them with his pizza oven. For pan-fried cornbread, that means you know exactly when the pan is ready to add to the oil. “It’s a nod to modernity that I’ve kind of learned to embrace,” he says.
While the flip technique Johnson uses to get the “a little browner, a little more delicious” cornbread top is entirely optional, it’s a milestone in his family tradition. Once the top of the cornbread has started to brown, he peels it off the pan, butter the top and flip it over to crisp a little more. While this can be done by transferring it to a plate and returning it to the pan, Johnson adopted the same no-plate technique his grandfather used.
“You don’t use a plate, you throw it in the air and it flips over and then lands in the pan, top down,” says Johnson. While flipping cornbread in a heavy cast iron makes an impressive spectacle for guests – it has even earned him the admiration of professional chefs – he notes, “It takes experience and focus. If you dare to try this “advanced move” yourself, make sure the cornbread is baked first.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong,” he says. During a visit to a friend’s house in North Carolina, for example, he quickly discovered how cornbread baked in a convection oven is different from that in a traditional oven: “Imagine a lava lamp made of corn and buttermilk and the people standing around you, ”he says. “It all went into super slo-mo and I had to make sure I caught him and he didn’t come apart. It was the longest thirty seconds of my life that did not result in a car accident.
While cornbread is served in the same pan it bakes in, there is one final “key” to amplifying its visual appeal, flavor and texture. “It’s super buttery,” says Johnson.
“When you flip it you butter the bottom liberally, then let it brown, then flip it over and butter the top liberally,” Johnson says. Then all you have to do is cut it and serve.
The last knobs of butter on top will slowly melt and come together, making the pan’s cornbread irresistible to guests and a worthy pairing alongside okra, red beans and rice, or anything else on your menu.
By Pableaux Johnson
- 2 cups of cornmeal
- 4 tablespoons of unbleached flour
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 4 teaspoons of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 2 eggs
- 1.5 cups buttermilk
- 3-4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a heat-resistant mixing bowl, mix the dry ingredients well with a wire whisk or wooden spoon. Add the eggs and buttermilk. Stir until the mixture forms a medium thick paste.
- In a 9-inch cast iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil until it smokes lightly.
- Swirl the oil to coat the inside of the pan. Then pour the hot oil into the dough and mix vigorously until the oil is well mixed.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake for about 25 minutes or until the top is lightly browned.
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