Boxed mixes are convenient, fast, and a weeknight staple in many busy American households. One can find everything from breakfast pancake and waffle mixes to dinner entradas of chicken and dumplings or beef/tuna pasta dishes. Sides like rice, stuffings and mashed potatoes, desserts like brownies and puddings, and bread mixes are all equally abundant. Some mixes, such as gelatin and pancake, have been around since the mid-to-late 19th century, but the more substantial meals were created around World War II as convenience foods. These items gained in popularity during the 1950s and ’60s as American consumerism boomed.
Boxed and prepackaged foods might be easy to throw together, but they are nutritionally terrible. Tending to be full of sodium, sugar, saturated fats, and preservatives, they offer a lot of calories minus the healthy vitamins, fiber, and nutrients.
There are many things I used to eat in the States that came pre-mixed in a cardboard box, oftentimes with plastic sauce pouches tucked nicely inside. All I had to do was add a bit of liquid and, ¡buen apetito! But I have been on a huge no-box cooking spree lately, and by that I mean I have not made a single pre-packaged dish or dessert in over three months. Everything has been created from scratch.
No more dish-in-a-box, I decided! The fact that I know precisely what is going in everything I create is very satisfying. Thus far I have made cake, cinnamon rolls, macaroni and cheese, pancakes (read about them here), a variety of complex sauces (I suppose those came in cans, not boxes), and most recently: cornbread!
I had thought about cornbread since my first batch of chili several months ago. At the time, I regretted not having any Jiffy boxes on hand and ultimately did not mix any from scratch. I vowed not to repeat that again: everyone knows that cornbread is the perfect accompaniment to chili con carne.
The following recipe is a basic mix that I tweaked into a not overly sweet, cheesy and light cornbread. Sometimes I enjoy a hearty and dense cornbread, but this time I wanted something light and less substantial that would soak up globs of raw honey. It turns out cornbread is a really forgiving recipe, as I eyeballed my tablespoon/teaspoon measurements using basic kitchen spoons and guestimated my measurements in grams (and milliliters) using this measuring pitcher:
So, it’s not exact science after all! I really should go on the hunt for some real kitchen measuring devices. I don’t think my employment of a coffee mug and some soup spoons is going to do my baking any favors. Maybe that’s why my pancakes turned out funky?
Pan American Cheesy Cornbread
2/3 cup milk
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup self-rising flour (harina leudante)
1 cup cornmeal (I actually used instant polenta)
1 tablespoon baking powder (this isn’t necessary for self-rising flour, but is with all-purpose)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 ounce can creamed corn
8 ounces grated cheddar
Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter and flour a 9 inch round or 9 x 9 inch square pan. Embarrassment alert: I just learned how the butter and flour technique for baking. Though I am not an inexperienced cook by any means, I sometimes miss really easy solutions. Needless to say, non-stick pan spray (which never really worked, anyway) will go on my list of worthless, prepackaged items.
In a large bowl, mix eggs, milk, and oil. Stirring with a wooden spoon is sufficient, though I lightly whipped these by hand (remember those appliances I mentioned above? I haven’t purchased an electric beater/mixer, despite my hands getting cramps muy malo when whisking cake batter). Add flours, baking powder, salt and sugar, stirring just until lumps disappear. The batter should be a bit thicker than the consistency of pancake mix. Dump in the can of creamed corn and stir gently until corn is deposited evenly throughout, being careful not to over-mix.
*Notes on the creamed corn- choclo cremoso in the US is a bit more liquid than the kind I’ve found here in Argentina, which is a result of the US-style being partially puréed. The can I purchased was considerably more gelatinous than creamy. It looked really funky, and I had my doubts about how it would turn out, but a few minutes of mashing it with a fork and a touch of water made a slightly more consistent cream. I chose a white variety this time, which yielded a less sweet taste than yellow corn would have (both are available here).
Pour about half of the batter into the pan, gently spreading it across the bottom. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the batter. Had my choclo been seriously creamy, I would have layered this over the cheese now, but since it was chunkier I preferred to mix it in with my batter. Putting the corn in with the cheese layer creates an amazingly gooey center as it bakes into the surrounding bread.
Pour the remaining batter over the cheese layer, being careful not to displace too much cheese. Bake for approximately 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. The top of your loaf should be a light golden-yellow. Your baking time may vary depending on the type of flour you use, as the self-rising will cook quicker than all-purpose. Mine bread was done in about 25-30 minutes, but I admit that I can never figure out what the exact temp of my gas oven is. I just set the ambiguous dial somewhere in the middle and stick my hand in (I am sure I can find an oven thermometer somewhere).
This recipe is really easy to customize. You may want to spice it up a bit by mixing chopped jalapeños into the batter, or add some bacon for a really savory treat. If you prefer sweeter cornbread, add more sugar (a few tablespoons, to taste) and/or a bit of honey. I normally use cheddar cheese as the filler, but as the deli was out I used a cheddar/mozzarella/gouda mix, which lacked the full flavor I prefer. Sharp cheddar is a superb option, though I will be trying some local cheeses soon (queso cremoso might melt wonderfully).
I wonder why I waited such a long time to start making cocina de verdad. I suspect it’s a combination of my laziness and a bit of trepidation. What was I afraid of? It turns out making food from ingredients in your cupboard (and that you can pronounce) is not difficult, and that cooking is much more pleasurable and delicious because of it.