I love cornbread. So much that I recently bought a large cast-iron skillet — primal cookware that has long intimidated me — expressly to perfect my cornbread. I mean Southern cornbread, not cakey, sugary corn muffins and the like. Southern cornbread is a descendant of frontier cornpone — meal, water, salt, and grease — but made more gracious with additions of buttermilk and egg. Both versions glorify the rich, warm essence of maize. And the use of slightly gritty meal, not flour, gives a pleasing burr to the texture.
In “Southern Food,” from which this recipe is adapted, author John Egerton writes that it could “be claimed in any of the Southern states.” Cornbread surely is canonical for Southerners, but this recipe is not sacred text. Definitely use stoneground meal for the flavor, but experiment with varieties and grinds. My best recent batch was made with half blue cornmeal and half yellow, and with yogurt mixed into the buttermilk. For higher bread increase the baking soda (Damon Lee Fowler in “Classical Southern Cooking” uses about twice as much as Egerton).
Does the cast-iron skillet really make the corn bread better? Yep, for the delicate, crackling bottom crust that the searing metal produces. And besides that, I swear there must be an aerobic benefit to cooking with a pan this heavy.