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Cornbread is one of the signature foods of the American South.  Cornmeal is a staple ingredient in the South and it shows up on the table in a multitude of shapes and preparations, but all are essentially a variation on basic cornbread.

While traveling through the region, I wanted to learn how to make cornbread, this most Southern of foods, so I took a cooking class specializing in cornbread at Southern Season, the giant gourmet market and cooking school in Chapel Hill, NC.

how to make cornbread

What are these fresh veggies doing in a cornbread class?  In the South, cornbread is not just for breakfast!

Having grown up in the northeastern US, to me cornbread was always a bit of a novelty. We’d occasionally make corn muffins or cornbread, which were more corn-flavored versions of a quick bread, typically for breakfast or brunch.  They were often either too gummy or too dry, which made me wonder what all the fuss was about.

In the South cornbread shows up at every meal: sweet, savory, baked, fried, you name it. During our class chef Charis West explained some of the ways Southern cooks vary the use of cornmeal, including some of the tricks to ensure great flavor. A few basic tips to remember:

It’s made with cornmeal

Sounds simple, right? But too often recipes veer from Southern tradition and make cornmeal a secondary ingredient, which takes away the characteristic grainy texture and crunch.  Flour is sometimes added to round out the batter, but always in smaller amounts than cornmeal itself.  Flip the ratio, using more flour than cornmeal, and you’ll end up with corn-flavored cakey stuff (such as those gummy “Yankee-style” muffins of my youth).

Cornbread8-Closeup

True Southern cornbread has a coarse, crumbly texture. Bacon drippings are used in this version to grease the pan and provide a tasty, crispy crust.

Grease the skids:

Traditional foods such as cornbread came about from combining ingredients that were on hand.  Butter, shortening, oil, or even bacon drippings (ooh!) are all acceptable options for the fat, providing unique flavors depending on the end use.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Hot, Hot, Hot:

Cornbread should be crusty. To achieve this, be sure to preheat the pan (and the fat) in the oven before adding the batter.   A heavy pan that holds the heat is best; use either a ceramic baking dish or a cast iron frying pan.  Pouring the batter into a hot greased pan will give it a sizzling start in the oven.

Cornbread5-Spoonbread or Corn Pudding

A preheated ceramic casserole dish provides the ideal baking pan for a crispy, fluffy cornbread pudding (also known as spoonbread).

Once we had the basics techniques down, Chef Charis showed us several variations on the cornbread theme. . .

Salads using Cornbread

Cornbread4-Panzanella

Crisp, crumbly cornbread is the perfect base for a panzanella (bread salad) that showcases the fresh vegetables of a southern summer. Featured here are fresh corn, black-eyed peas, cherry tomatoes, spinach and cheese with a tomato-basil aoili dressing.

Fried Cornbread, aka Hush Puppies

Cornbread7-Hushpuppies

It wouldn’t be the South without something yummy and fried!  Deep-fried hush puppies can be savory or sweet. Here we sizzle up a savory version that includes caramelized shallots. A great accompaniment to good ole’ barbecue.

Main Courses that showcase Cornbread

Cornbread with Shrimp

Our crispy, fluffy spoonbread can be used like polenta. Here it is combined with shrimp and a lemon cream sauce for an elegant main dish with a definite southern flair.

Cornbread-inspired Desserts

Cornbread6-Buttermilk Pie

Pie made with cornmeal?  Why not!  Cornmeal provides a crisp, crumbly crust, similar to graham cracker crumbs. A buttermilk pie fresh from the oven (above), and sliced to reveal it’s creamy lemon curd filling (below).

Cornbread

Lemony buttermilk pie with cornmeal crust: the perfect end to a Southern meal!

This class demystified cornmeal for me, an ingredient that I’ve rarely used in the kitchen.  I now see how versatile it can be, and I’ve also learned a little bit more about Southern culture through one of it’s fundamental foods.  So save your bacon drippings, y’all.

Here’s information on cooking classes at Southern Season in Chapel Hill.

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Biscuits, barbecue, burgers and more, the central part of North Carolina including Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh is a foodie’s paradise. Although it goes by the more prosaic label Research Triangle, it is really a great place to get your fill of another geometric shape, the Southern food pyramid.

Southern Biscuits

biscuits north carolina

We stayed in Chapel Hill for the summer in a house that was within walking distance of the Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. Fortunately the walk back was all uphill to work off some of those fluffy carbs. Their main competition arose from Rise in Durham, whose strip mall location belies its down-home food and recipes. Between the two Rise would get our vote for top biscuit. Rise gets credit for also specializing in donuts, the chocolate pudding donut with a toffee topping was a favorite for Larissa but mine was the cronie, basically a round croissant that is fried; really the best of both worlds.

North Carolina Barbecue

north carolina barbecue

The South is barbecue heaven and central North Carolina is blessed with too many to choose from. The regional specialty is slow-smoked pork butt or shoulder, served with a vinegary sauce. I’m not a huge pulled pork fan because in the wrong hands it can be a mushy mess that is more reminiscent of canned tuna fish. The Hillsborough BBQ Company strays from the pig-centric menu of most North Carolina barbecue joints and also offers my favorite, brisket. It manages to do both well.

Over in Durham The Original Q Shack feels like a Texas roadhouse plopped down from on high. Which makes sense since the owner hails from the Lone Star State. All the meats are hickory and mesquite smoked but the brisket is the star of the show along with barbecued baked beans. Back in Chapel Hill The Pig is run by Sam Suchoff, a former vegan from California. Aside from the usual assortment of NC ‘cue, Suchoff makes his own hot dogs, bologna and pastrami. A slab of the delicious house-made coconut cake, with toasted coconut on top, is big enough to serve as a wheel chock for a 747.

Farm to Market

Locavores have many markets to choose from. Our favorite was the Carrboro Farmers’ Market which was open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The produce, and vendors, still retain the hard-earned grit from the fields. This is the place to get heirloom varieties of tomatoes, eggplants and more that you’ve never heard of. A few blocks away is the original branch of the Weaver Street Market. It buys as much as it can from local producers and is one the most happening places in town. Despite all the healthy food, it makes the best baked goods in Chapel Hill. Other branches are in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.

Burger Battles

chargrilled burgers north carolina

Burgers have jumped over from fast food staple to trendy hipster snack and we’re still trying to figure out if that’s a good thing. But we know we loved the burgers at Buns in downtown Chapel Hill where you choose from a wide range of free toppings. Just down the street, On the Top is the new kid on the burger block. Their grilling device looks like a leftover from the Space Shuttle program. The gleaming block of silver metal presses down on the burger to sear the outside while retaining the tasty juices. Elevation Burger is making inroads into the local burger scene with their first outpost in Raleigh. The Virginia-based chain touts beef that is organic, free-range and grass-fed.

If you want to go old-school, regional chain Cook Out produces a burger that tastes like what a good fast-food burger used to taste like. Their fresh milkshakes were recently written up as a Top Ten shake in the country. The smoky aromas of Char-Grill in Raleigh waft over several blocks. Just like their name implies, they flame-cook their burgers the old-fashioned way to get that char-grilled flavor.

Breakfast Treats

ye olde waffle shoppe chapel hill

My favorite meal out is breakfast and nothing could be finer than Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe (they seem to have a thing for ending words in “e”) on Franklin Street in the heart of Chapel Hill. It’s been serving waffles since 1972 and you can even order them cooked how you like them, which for me was extra crispy. If you’re into flaky danishes and buttery croissants, Guglhupf on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, is the best choice for a full bakery in the area.

Counter Culture

suttons pharmacy lunch counter chapel hill

Perhaps our favorite spot in the area was Sutton’s, a pharmacy that’s been open since 1923. Tucked next to the metal shelves stocked with back-to-school supplies and cold remedies, is an old-fashioned soda shop.

We sat at the counter, our elbows pressed up against our fellow diners, and chatted with cabinet-maker Rob and his octogenarian father Bill who eats lunch at Sutton’s five days a week. (His favorite is peanut butter and honey on toast for those of you who keep track of such things.)

Bon Appetit magazine named Chapel Hill “America’s foodiest small town” and based on our tasting foray there, it just may live up to that billing.

What are some of your favorite food places in North Carolina?

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