A funny thing that DC-area people do is get together to watch political events, like election results coming in, or debates. (I didn’t realize this was not ordinary until recently.)Years ago, watching some election results roll in with my friend Del, it happened that a candidate that I loved won. We ran excitedly around my then-apartment, looking for something with which to celebrate. The only toast-able liquid was a bottle of gin.Guys, taking shots of gin is really just not a good idea, for a lot of reasons, but in this instance it was especially inappropriate because 1) it was bottom-shelf gin and 2) Del doesn’t even like gin. But we were undeterred, convinced that we needed something to mark the event. I measured the gin into those tiny tumblers, and we tipped it back.And here’s the part I’ll never forget: Del, the trooper that she is, screwed up her face and shook her head a little bit. Then she opened her eyes and looked at me calmly. “Tastes like election day,” she said.
For the next few years, at various bars and summer social events, whenever we were together and got a waft of that juniper-y, herbal scent, the joke was revived. Lots of people have sensory memories of things like the smell of chocolate chip cookies, saying it reminds them of their grandmother or aunt. Me? I smell gin, and I think of the first Tuesday in November.This year, I tried to get people together to watch the State of the Union address. I baked this cornbread. I’ve been trying to perfect a cornbread recipe for a long time—it seems like something a Virginia girl should be able to make really well. I haven’t yet arrived at the perfect recipe, but this one is close: really moist, with a sturdy top and bottom to keep the insides from crumbling all over. The batter is poured into a hot skillet so that it forms a browned bottom immediately. The cracked black pepper is my addition; but in the first iteration of this recipe, I used maybe a littttle too much. I coughed and spluttered after the first couple of bites, blinked back my tears, and then put on a brave face. From now on, maybe cracked black pepper will remind me of the State of the Union address.
Cracked pepper skillet cornbread
Adapted very liberally from John Currence via Food & Wine, but the smart idea to cook the cornbread in a preheated skillet is all his.
(Don’t worry, this is the recipe with the adjusted black pepper amount.)
You will need
- Olive oil, for greasing the skillet
2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup greek-style plain yogurt
1 tablespoon honey
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease the bottom and sides of a 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet with a smear of olive oil, and place the skillet in the oven to heat.
In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: corn meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Using a mortar and pestle, or, alternatively, a clean tea towel and a meat-tenderizing mallet or a heavy pan, crack and grind the black pepper until it is small enough that no one will crack a molar, but still much coarser than pepper ground in a pepper mill. Stir this pepper into the dry ingredients.
In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Whisk in buttermilk, yogurt, and honey until well blended.
Incrementally, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and whisk well until all the dry ingredients are incorporated.
Carefully remove the hot, oiled skillet from the oven. Pour the batter, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, into the hot skillet. It will sizzle a little, and that’s okay.
Return the skillet to the oven, and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top of the cornbread begins to brown, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not overbake–the cornbread will continue cooking for a bit after it comes out of the oven, and you don’t want it to dry out.
After removing the cornbread, allow it to sit for 15-20 minutes undisturbed. After that, it’s beautiful spread liberally with butter. When it becomes more cool, it’s perfect in the bottom of a bowl with a few ladlefuls of stew over the top.
Wrapped up, this keeps well on the countertop all week.