The word polenta, which predates the introduction of corn to Italy, more accurately means porridge. But once corn arrived in Italy, it took off and has now become synonymous with the dish. There is an enormous range of polenta on the market from artisanal stone ground varieties to the pre-made kind in the plastic tube (ugh). By contrast, most American grocery aisle cornmeal is ground to a specific size (between .6 and 1mm according to Harold McGee) and is degerminated (the hull is removed before milling, increasing the shelf-life at the expense of flavour and nutrition).
Substituting polenta is almost as simple as it sounds. You’ll find a wider range of options which will affect your final bread. Coarse polenta is going to give you a grainier, crumblier texture, which is my preference. Finer polenta will produce a denser texture, which I must admit was the Fives’ favourite. It is essential that you avoid quick cooking polenta. If it isn’t labeled as such but the cooking instructions range between 1-5 minutes, your cornbread with be thick and stodgy. Hold out for the long cooking stuff and you’ll be glad you did.
The added bonus of using polenta is that the cornbread really tastes of corn. One of the reasons for this is that good quality, long-cooking polenta typically includes the germ from the corn kernel. The germ contains loads of nutrition, fiber and protein but it is often removed from large scale commercial brands (such as Quaker Oats and Jiffy) in in the interest of consistency and a longer shelf-life. The label should note if the grain has been degerminated. In my experience it is easier to find whole grain polenta than cornmeal.
The addition of flour — which gives cornbread a cakier texture — is a modern adaptation. If you prefer a lighter cornbread with more rise and a muffin-like texture, substitute up to 1/2 cup of the cornmeal with plain flour.
In order to get a great crust on the bottom of the cornbread, you’ll need a hot pan and melted fat. The best way to do this is in a cast iron skillet, but a cake pan works well too. Whichever pan you use, it must be piping hot and coated with fat when you add the batter to the pan.
As the interest in heritage ingredients are grown, a few producers have started producing ingredients like cornmeal that are stone ground, retain more of the nutrition and corn flavour. In other words, all the benefits of polenta but milled for recipes like cornbread. If you have access to something like Anson Mills Antebellum Cornmeal, use that. If you can convince them to start exporting to London, let me know.
Cast-iron skillet cornbread
I use an 8″ cast iron skillet. For a wider skillet or cake pan, reduce cooking time by 5-7 minutes. For muffins, begin checking at 15 minutes.
1 cup (240 ml) buttermilk
1/2 cup (120 ml) milk
3 Tbsp (45g) unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 425F/210C.
Measure out dry ingredients and whisk together to evenly distribute. In a separate bowl, combine wet ingredients.
Heat butter in cast iron skillet until foam subsides. Pour off into a mug, leaving a generous coating in the skillet. Place skillet in hot oven.
Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Add melted butter and continue mixing until everything is incorporated. Allow to sit for about 2 minutes. Don’t over mix. It won’t help and it wastes time.
Remove hot pan from oven. Remember that it is hot. This is the hardest part for me. I find it safest to leave an oven mitt on the entire time, but that might just be me.
The butter likely browned in the oven. That is good. Pour batter into pan. Encourage into corners, but don’t worry about smoothing the entire surface. Aesthetics will not affect the flavour.
Bake for approximately 22 minutes until edges have browned and centre is set.
Rest for 2-3 minutes and then turn out onto a rack to maintain the crust on the bottom.
Best eaten the same day, but delicious anytime. Especially smeared with butter. Or jam. Or chili.