In Eastern Kentucky where I grew up, there's a dish called Soup Beans & Cornbread. I'm not pretending we invented it or suggesting that other areas of the American South don't eat this - I'm sure they do, but I'd be surprised if you can find a single family in my hometown that doesn't eat this dish at least once a month. My granny once told me that families of coal miners used to eat it because it was cheap to make for a lot of people. Since she was a coal miner's daughter, one of 6 kids and a child during the Great Depression, I took her word for it… Years later, families in this part of Appalachia were and still are eating Soup Beans and Cornbread, however it's now a bit of a local delicacy rather than a necessity and you can even find it on the menu of some restaurants & cafes in the area. While some may go out for their Soup Beans & Cornbread, it's more likely to be enjoyed in someone's home… Doesn't have to be your home. In fact, it's made in such quantities that it's not uncommon to get a random phone call from a friend or relative proclaiming, "I've got hot soup beans & cornbread, so come on over for supper!" It's a meal that's meant to be shared with loved ones, especially on a cold evening, but welcome anytime even in the heat of summer.
How people eat soup beans & cornbread is down to personal preference. Some crumble cornbread into a bowl and cover it with the soup beans. Some have their cornbread on the side and dip as necessary. My sister likes hers with ketchup on top. Some people bake their cornbread while some people fry it. Cornbread can be sweetened or not… I like it either way. As far as side dishes go, they can be anything from homemade sour kraut or macaroni & tomatoes to a slice of fresh tomato just picked from the garden or fried potatoes dug up that afternoon.
If I'm being completely honest, I must admit that I hated soup beans growing up. Soup beans are pinto beans that have been stewed and cooked all day until they are muddy and mushy. Sometimes they are cooked with ham or bacon to add flavor, but when they weren't I suspect they might have been the original Meatless Monday dish in Appalachia. Cornbread, something settlers learned to make from the Native Americans back when the USA was just a few colonies has always been a favorite of mine, especially when it's crispy fried in a cast-iron skillet, covered in butter or dunked in milk. Fondly enough, now that I'm older and far from home I wouldn't turn away a bowl of soup beans & cornbread - in fact I imagine I'd inhale it. Funny how things grow on you over time.
This cornbread recipe is on another level. It still reminds me of the corn pones my mother would turn out for dinner alongside a steaming pot of soup beans, but it's so much more. The combination of sweet, sticky maple syrup with butter and salty bacon complements the cornbread perfectly. Finding little bits of chewy bacon inside is for a bacon lover like me, like discovering a buried treasure. This is one of my favorite things now… Delicious, sinful and reminiscent of home. I'll eat this as a side dish or all on its own.
For me, it's important to get proper American bacon for this recipe to get the taste and texture right. Oscar Mayer is my choice and I've found it in several places here in London including Sainsbury's. The packets are 200g, which means you have half a pack left over for more cornbread, a bacon sandwich or breakfast… It's particularly amazing fried up as a side dish with Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes! As for the polenta, if you can't find regular polenta that's not quick-cook in your grocery store, I've had success finding it at Holland & Barrett. Additionally, the measurement for the buttermilk is odd because that's the size of the tub it comes in here in the UK, however if you're cooking this up stateside, just do your best to get just under 300ml and that should work fine.
For the cornbread…
100g American style bacon (such as Oscar Mayer)
150g polenta (not quick cook)
150g plain flour
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons maple syrup
75g unsalted butter, melted
For the maple butter glaze...
25g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon maple syrup
Method1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
2. In an oven proof frying pan, preferably a cast iron skillet, fry the bacon until golden and crispy. Remove with tongs or a slotted spatula to a plate lined with paper towels to drain some of the grease and let it cool for a bit while you get on with the batter. Set the pan with the reserved bacon grease aside.
3. In a large mixing bowl, mix together all of the dry ingredients with a wire whisk and set aside.
4. In a smaller bowl, add the buttermilk, egg and maple syrup. Beat with the wire whisk until fully combined and then whisk the wet mixture into the dry one.
5. Stir in the bacon bits along with about 3/4 of the melted butter until combined.
6. Pour the rest of the melted butter into the pan with the bacon grease and heat stovetop until it starts to foam, being careful not to burn it.
7. Pour in the bread batter and bake for 20 minutes.
8. Just before the bread is due to come out of the oven, make the glaze by melting one tablespoon of maple syrup together with 25g of unsalted butter. When the cornbread comes out of the oven, pierce it several times with a form and pour the glaze all over the top, covering every inch. Pop it back in the oven for another 5 minutes.
9. To serve, run a rubber spatula around the edge and underneath of the cornbread to loosen it. Simply slide it out onto a plate and cut into wedge shaped slices to serve. Enjoy hot, warm or cool.