Though I consider myself more of a spartan breakfaster (no more than a bowl of unsweetened cereal with berries and skim milk, or jam-spread toast with yogurt on most days), when Jonathan Reynolds wrote about spider cake in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago, I found myself intrigued by the thought of a pan of Northern cornbread with a cup of cream poured into the middle so that little rivulets ran through the bread like spider legs, enriching and flavoring it.
Nutritionally-speaking, having a slice of this creation is probably not even that much different than smearing a tablespoon or two of butter on toast in the morning. But the recipe confuses me a bit. You make a plain old cornbread batter (well, with sugar, so for the Southerners out there reacting in outrage to me calling this plain and old, I'm sorry), pour it into a butter-coated skillet and then pour a cup of cream into the middle.
Since I used a 10-inch skillet and not a 12-inch as directed, the baking time took longer (about an hour instead of 45 minutes). The cornbread rose a little and turned a gorgeous golden-brown. The apartment filled with a corny, buttery-sweet smell. I pulled the skillet out of the oven (carefully) and let it cool for a bit before slicing in. The center was firm but tender, and the crusty edges had caramelized - and let me tell you, caramel-flavored cornbread is a very nice way to start your day.
But on the bottom of the pan, around the edges, there a milky-looking residue that looked like raw batter. I stuck my finger into the white sludge and tasted it - it wasn't raw batter, but rather hot cream. Instead of running little rivers through the cornbread after I poured it in the middle, the cream had somehow worked its way to the bottom of the pan and then slid down to the edges. When I cut out a slice, it collapsed a bit at the end.
The flavor of the breakfast cake was quite nice, but I have to be honest, a regular corn muffin would be just as good (and I kind of like the dry muffin - it lends itself better to milky tea-dunking). I didn't need to waste a cup of cream to moisten this already perfectly acceptable corn bread, and all that cream is certainly not worth the calories. How spartanly New England of me.
New England Spider Cake
Makes 8 servings
2 cups milk
4 teaspoons white vinegar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine milk and vinegar in a bowl and set
aside to sour. In another bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and
salt. Whisk eggs into the soured milk. Stir into dry ingredients and set
2. Melt butter in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Pour in the batter. Pour cream
into the center, slide skillet into the oven and bake until golden brown on
top, about 45 minutes. Slice into wedges and serve warm.