Thursday, 26 January 2012 | 19 comments

Cracked pepper skillet cornbread

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 eggs
    2 cups buttermilk
    3/4 cup greek-style plain yogurt
    1 tablespoon honey


  1. 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.

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§ 19 responses to Cracked pepper skillet cornbread

  • I don’t know what I’m waiting for to make skillet cornbread. This looks really wonderful.

  • I went to a new hair stylist this week. She said she and her husband were having date night that evening and when I asked what their plans were she endeared me to her forever because she said they were going to watch the State of the Union address. Ah, political love.

    And they didn’t even know about the cornbread :-)

  • I love the way in which certain flavours can conjure up such strong memories. Your corn bread looks pretty close to perfect to me, and the addition of cracked black pepper sounds lovely, even if you did overdo it the first time! Your photos are beautiful too – very soft and calming.

    • It was raining. The light is so grey, isn’t it? I like it too, even though they’re probably not technically what photos are supposed to be. Thanks :)

  • I vaguely recall an instance or two when I took a shot of gin, which always ended with a grimace. I’m certain it didn’t have anything to do with elections, though, just long college nights with friends and cheap booze. This cornbread looks marvelous, and I love the added kick of the black pepper.

  • Katie

    Have you tried the Moosewood cornbread recipe? I noticed the kudos you received from Mollie, so I’m assuming you probably have :) It’s become my favorite recipe…so simple and delicious. I can’t remember if the recipe calls for the use of a skillet, but I think that’s what makes it so good. I like to melt the butter in the skillet in the preheating oven…a little more butter than the recipe calls for, to account for what stays in the pan. I’m adding cracked pepper next time.

    I’m really enjoying your blog since finding you late last year…thanks!

    • Katie! Thank you for noticing that Mollie Katzen commented here. I had a huge fangirl moment :) But seriously, I actually haven’t tried the Moosewood cornbread. It’s one of those books that I just open and cook from, and really haven’t been methodical about it. Now I want to try it! Thanks so much for your note.

  • this recipe sounds lovely and that bit about the gin makes me laugh! gin (and tonics) will forever remind me of kenya, even though it has been a very long time since i have had one there. i’ve made a skillet cornbread before, but used butter (and quite a bit of it) for the pan. i think it might have been a Bittman recipe. i do love fresh cracked pepper so i plan to try this with quinoa chili for dinner tonight. thanks!

    • Jenna, I forgot you had spent time in east Africa. Gin and tonics forever remind me of that area—in a Hemingway, drinking-tonic-water-to-stave-off-malaria type of way. I bet it’s hot there right now :) It’s been awhile for me, too.

  • Lovely yellow bread for the yellow house! I love the cracked fresh pepper addition. And I love any chance to use my cast iron skillets.

  • Deb

    My mom always made cornbread in a cast iron skillet. But I don’t recall if it was pre heated? Her recipe included sugar and we would spoon jam on top of the warm, sweet cornbread. That was a long time ago. (I must confess, I don’t recall much of the State of the Union Address and that was very recent.)

  • I’m totally gonna try this, dont think I’ve ever made corn bread

  • Heating the skillet is not new. While at grad school in Texas I befriended a little old lady who being a real Texan taught me to cook cornbread. Her secret was bacon grease in the skillet heated on the stove. The batter poured into the hot skillet then place in the oven.

    She also taught me how to fry chicken and fix pinto beans. All a Yankee living in Texas needs to know.

  • There are few things I like better than good cornbread. I will make chilli as an excuse to make some cornbread on the side. I don’t think I’ve ever tried a cornbread that had yogurt in the batter, but it sounds like a natural addition, given the place that buttermilk should have in it to begin with. I’ll have to try it soon. (My two all-time favourite cornbreads are very different from one another–the first is from Peter Reinhart’s BBA and is rather rich and sweet; the second is a Lee brothers recipe that Tim at Lottie and Doof posted awhile ago and involves a pre-heated skillet like yours but with lots of butter. The latter is less cake-like and rather addictive.)

  • Heather

    Hello from the District! I think Molly Wizenberg sent me to you in a recent post and I am ever so grateful. Your photo storytelling is wonderful and your food is right up my alley. Also, sweet font!

    This cornbread looks perfect to me. I am so glad to see it has the barest hint of sugar in the form of honey. Please do keep us informed if you come up with something better, though!

  • Heather

    P.S. I covet both your mixing bowl and the quality of light in your kitchen.

  • Heather

    I finally made this cornbread for the first time, and am amused to find that this is the first of only a few of your posts I have commented on, although I have enjoyed your blog for almost a year (!) now. Making it in a pre-heated cast iron skillet is genius and I will absolutely make cornbread in that way in the future, but I’m still searching for the perfect recipe. I wonder if you’ve made any headway since the above post?

    Thanks, as always, for the inspiring, lovely blog.

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