I'm sure that many aren't aware of the woman known as Marion Cunningham. I certainly wasn't, even after years of culinary school training and restaurant jobs. There were no oral presentations on her, no chefs accrediting her as a mentor, no movies about blogs placing her in the minds of the masses. In fact, it wasn't a television show or cookbook that introduced me to Ms. Cunningham, it was a singular recipe: custard-filled cornbread.
About twice a year (today being one of them), I pride myself with being able to gloat tell people that I've catered for a 75 person BBQ entirely myself. It was 4th of July, 2009...or 2010 (?) and yes I had servers, yes it took me 3 very very long days to prep, yes it was buffet style, yes it was the biggest gathering I've ever cooked for (as a private chef).
While researching dishes for the occasion, I fell face first (not literally) into this recipe when I found it over at Martha Stewart. I made it 3 times, tweaking each, before I came up with a version that gave me the warm fuzzies (literally). It's sweetened (I was in yankee territory!), is pitted with fresh sweet corn and perfumed with lemon zest. It's decadent and should be eaten with eyes closed.
I clearly cathect some questionable things.
Part of the praise I have towards this dish stems from the science of it. Here you are with this very loose batter that you pour into this scorching hot pan...BUT before you throw it in the oven, ALREADY questioning if the soggy meal before you will even set, you go ahead and DUMP a cup of cream into the center! Then you do as no recipe alike suggests: don't stir. Two shakes of a lamb's tail later, you have found the yellow brick road.
After the BBQ, but right before handing out copies of this recipe to guests, I read more about Marion Cunningham, Cornbread Magician.
Most notably, she revised the Fanny Farmer Cookbook. She also wrote a longstanding column for The Chronicle, put Alice Waters on the map and was a Southern California native who battled agoraphobia until taking an Oregon-based cooking class led by James Beard.
But most importantly, Cunningham was a fierce advocate of home cooking:
“No one is cooking at home anymore, so we are losing all the wonderful lessons we learn at the dinner table. Too many families seldom sit down together; it’s gobble and go, eating food on the run, reheating it in relays in the microwave as one dashes off to a committee meeting, another to basketball practice. As a result we are losing an important value. Food is more than fodder. It is an act of giving and receiving because the experience at table is a communal sharing; talk begins to flow, feelings are expressed, and a sense of well-being takes over."
There are seldom things in life that I could agree with more.
Forget about the self-loving celebrity chefs and the self-important restaurant chefs, and remember that the importance starts in the home, with family.
Marion Cunningham passed away a few weeks ago.
She may not be no Julia Child or Alice Waters, but that's because she's Marion f***ing Cunningham, Cornbread Magician.
Adapted from Marion Cunningham's Custard-Filled Cornbread
INGREDIENTS: (makes one 8” square pan)
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled (plus extra for buttering the pan)
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 ½ tbsp. cider vinegar
- zest of 1 lemon
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup yellow cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup fresh corn
- 1 cup heavy cream
-Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. -Butter an 8” square pan that is about 2” deep.
-Place the buttered pan in the oven and let it get hot while you make the batter.
-In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and cooled butter. Add the sugar, salt, milk, vinegar and lemon zest and beat well.
-In a medium sized mixing bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and baking soda. -Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, add the corn, and mix until well incorporated.
-Take the hot pan out of the oven and pour the batter.
-Pour the heavy cream into the center of the batter- don’t stir- and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until lightly browned.