This cornbread recipe uses masa harina, a touch of brown sugar, and plant-based buttermilk to make a sweet & fluffy treat to serve alongside a hot bowl of chili or collard greens.
Nothing says "Southern" quite like cornbread. Like all southern food, there are a myriad of ways to make it and all are rooted in our history of colonization, slavery, poverty, socioeconomic class, and how they intertwine. Cornbread is, without a doubt, the bread of the south. It tells an evolving story of making do with what you have. It's connected to the indigenous people of this land before colonization and the forcefully enslaved people after it. It's connected to poor folks of every color and even rich folks of the same. Cornbread, and the way we each choose to make it, tell a story. Our collective story and our individual ones.
You'll see mostly white southern folks telling you that true southern cornbread should only be made white cornmeal and that sugar-laden yellow cornmeal cornbread is "Northern". The fact of the matter is, this hasn't been the case for some time and these deep-seeded divides are often rooted in - you guessed it - classism and racism. With a simple google search, you can learn much about this topic from an award winning article by Kathleen Purvis. In short, the article notes that once white cornmeal became too expensive, many Black folks and poor white folks switched to the more affordable yellow cornmeal. Being that yellow cornmeal is less sweet - in came adding a bit of sugar, honey, molasses, or cane syrup into the actual bread itself rather than just being served on the side. For poor white farmers who had access to white cornmeal, they stuck with it because they had land to grow it. It's speculated that "northern" cornbread exists in the South because of the forced influence of european baking techniques on enslaved Black cooks while in the kitchens of the white southern aristocracy. The Northern stereotype for fluffy & sweet yellow cornbread is said to have started after The Great Migration when many Black Americans moved up north in search of a better life for themselves and these inherited recipes came along with them. In the north, there existed a similar version of cornbread from the collision of European colonization and the indigenous peoples of the area. In fact, it's said that all cornbread, as we know it here in the states, originated from both the traditions of enslaved African peoples and the indigenous people from whom this land was taken.
I've heard people call sweet & fluffy cornbread both northern and southern. I've read so much conflicting information that I'm not sure what to think anymore. I've all but decided it's mostly rooted in white folks trying to gatekeep southern cooking - no doubt a lingering remnant of race and class segregation. What's "Southern" to the Deep South isn't to Southern Appalachia. What's "Southern" to Black folks might not be to white folks. The fact of the matter is, the origins between each are so crossed and so intertwined that it's all southern cornbread at this point and no one can really be the gatekeeper of what is and isn't Southern - especially us white folks who are often the ones attempting to draw this divide. The more we draw lines in the sand and micromanage each other's expression of lived food culture - the more we feed the segregational divide and continue to treat each other as "the other". The middle class and the poor. Black folks and white folks. Now, soul food - that's not for me to have literally any opinion on. It is a distinct style of southern cooking owned, operated, and revolutionized by Black folks. I respect that divide and understand why it's needed. If you're from the south or descend from folks who've long been in the south, I wanna know what your southern food looks and tastes like. That's the "true southern food" I'm looking for. Food that's just as diverse as the people who make it.
Whatever the case may be, we tend to love the cornbread we grew up eating. This cornbread is fluffy, sweet, and made with yellow cornmeal. I'll be honest with you - it tastes a little like Jiffy. Those 50 cent boxes were what we ate the most of. It's what we could afford and what my working single mother had the time for. However, I do absolutely love cornbread with more grit and crunch to it. To me, that's fancy cornbread because when I had it - it was always completely handmade. My nanny typically made the denser, more salty type of cornbread exclusively for cornbread dressing. As a person who descends from generations of poor southern white folks - we ate both at different times and with different meals. So, why do other white southerners or white folks not even from the south continue to attempt to dictate what makes a "proper" southern cornbread? Especially when the type they continue to condemn is so closely associated with the traditions of Black folks? Hmm. I'll take The Latent Effects of White Supremacy for 500, Alex. Many focus their argument solely on the industrial history of corn milling and ignore how that same history affected all people in the south differently. When these recipes adapted to better suit the lives of many different types of southern people - the recipes didn't stop being southern and to say differently is kind of anti-progressive. This type of anti-progressive sentiment, on a grander scale, continues to keep the south held in time and unable to move forward for the livelihoods of all it's people. In the end, I enjoy the anticipation of when cornbread is being served. It's like a fun little surprise when you find out what kind it's gonna be - because guess what? It's all good, baby.
This recipe is a bit of a mix of - what I consider - all the best parts of each tradition. Most commonly made with white corn, we substitute a portion of our all-purpose flour with Masa Harina. This ingredient, which runs deep with its own Latin culture, adds a distinct flavor to this bread that you don't want to miss out on. Our use of yellow cornmeal in this recipe is traditional to my own upbringing in the Deep South and is the key to its flavor and texture. We use brown sugar in this recipe as a means to keep the bread as moist as possible and get that deep sweet flavor of the molasses. It uses an easy to make plant-based buttermilk that contains only two ingredients and a controversial tiny splash of vanilla extract. Try to keep the "That ain't cornbread - that's cake" comments to yourself and just give this baby a try for me will ya? I'm talking to my fellow white folks here. Change the record. It might not be your cup of sweet tea but it's a version of what I grew up eating in the Deep South and it's daaaamn good. If I was being really true to my childhood cornbread, I could have added some canned corn. Consider yourself lucky if you're not into that type of thing. As for me? Bring it on.
Sweet & Fluffy "Buttermilk" Cornbread
Author: Megan Thompson Aston
Time: 1 hr
1 1/4 all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup masa harina
1/4 cup corn starch
1 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup avocado oil
2 1/4 cup plant-milk ( soy or oat are best)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and liberally oil your preferred 8-10 inch cake pan or skillet. If using a cast iron, you can place the skillet in the oven while you prepare your batter - but I haven't tested this yet with this recipe.
In a large bowl, thoroughly combine all your dry ingredients. Make sure everything is evenly distributed.
Next, cut in your avocado oil until it resembles and clumps in your hand like wet sand.
In a glass measuring cup, combine the rest of your wet ingredients.
Pour your milk mixture into your dry ingredients and fold together against the side of the bowl until there are no clumps. The batter will be thin.
Pour your batter into your prepared cake pan or skillet.
Bake for 45-50 minutes at 400 or until golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Avoid opening the oven door until almost done.
Serve warm with salted butter.
Citations: Why does sugar in cornbread divide races in the South? by Kathleen Purvis