Is it bread? Is it a pudding? Is it a cornbread that didn’t make it? Is it a soufflé?
The dish was originally an outgrowth of the Native American steamed corn pudding. The Europeans, having had little luck making bread out of corn, due to its course nature and resistance to yeast as well as the heavy quality of the meal, developed a sort of savory pudding which could very well have been a failed attempt at making corn bread.
Virginia claims this recipe as its own creation and has sort of a national pride in making the best spoon bread in the world. The first time I had this dish was on a trip to Williamsburg as a kid, so Virginia will always be the home of spoon bread to me, but in reality, spoon bread is made all over the United States and South America and it true origin is a complete mystery.
There are many theories about how it came about:
- Spoon bread may have also been a local adaptation of the British Yorkshire pudding.
- The dish developed from the Native American dish of steamed corn pudding.
- The dish developed from The Italian dish of polenta
Here is what is known about the dishes origin:
Spoonbread is a cornmeal dish that may have originated in the Americas. One bakes this bread in an oven after combining the main ingredients, but the end product is closer to a pudding than it is to sliced bread. As its name implies, the texture of the food is similar to a pudding, making it appropriate to eat it with a spoon.
Food historians often credit Native Americans with creating the original dish that is now known as spoonbread. The dish is prepared widely throughout the Americas, making this explanation plausible. Regional differences in the ingredients, preparation methods and cooking techniques further confound the subject of the origin of spoonbread. English cooks make Yorkshire pudding, which predates spoonbread by many years. This flour batter also may be a predecessor of the cornmeal-based recipes.
Classic spoonbread recipes require cornmeal, eggs, butter and milk. The proportions of these ingredients vary according to the recipe’s source. There are many variations on this classic dish, including the addition of creamed corn. Modernized, updated versions use polenta, grits or even masa, a fine corn flour from Mexican cuisine. The dish also requires a leavening agent such as baking powder or baking soda.
Spoonbread gets its distinct texture from the cooking techniques one uses with the ingredients. First, one must cook the cornmeal in the liquid on the stovetop. After that step has been completed, the eggs are added. When the mixture is transferred to an oven to finish cooking, it rises while baking and forms a crust. The interior of the finished product will be firm but softer than traditional cornbread.
Variations on the classic recipe are almost as numerous as cooks. Some recipes add fruit and include sugar to create a rustic dessert. Savory recipes use herbs, onions and mushrooms to produce a food that resembles cornbread dressing. One can even make spoonbread with vegetables such as sweet potatoes, creating something akin to the familiar sweet potato pone or soufflé that is common to the American South. Ham, bacon and cheese also have found their way into some recipes.
Every region of the world in which the dish has been adopted has managed to revise the classic spoonbread recipe to incorporate familiar or local ingredients. One can make a healthier version with olive oil instead of butter and use egg whites instead of whole eggs. Skim milk will retain nutrients such as calcium without sacrificing flavor.
Here are the crib notes from a vegetarian dish I made incorporating spoonbread as an entrée for vegetarians.
With Fried Green Tomatoes
& Whole Grain Mustard Sauce
Salt & Pepper
Green Tomatoes (sliced)
Salt & Pepper
Whole Grain Mustard
What I did here was to take the idea of spoon bread and incorporate peppers and onions into it. I also used whole corn kernels to give it more texture. Then I would bake it off like spoon bread in small soufflé cups. Then we would let them sit out and then reheat them to order, first giving them a crust under the broiler and then finishing them in the oven. It was not the smooth texture of a traditional spoon bread, but rather a refined evolution of the dish.
It was a very successful vegetarian option on our menu. The dish has seen little variation since its original inception. There have been a few additions of other vegetables such as onions and peppers and the traditional high seasonings of the colonial world, but other than the whipping of the egg whites as opposed to the mixing of the eggs directly into the batter, this recipe has seen little variation over the years. Chemical leavening has made a difference in the dish with the lessening of dependence on eggs, but except for a few modifications, this classic dish has stood the test of time and can be served with any meal from breakfast to dinner to tea.
Stir one cup of cornmeal into one pint of boiling water, which contains one half teafpoon of salt. Stir one minute, remove from fire and add two teafpoons of butter. Beat well, add four beaten eggs and beat in one cup of cold milk. Beat again and pour into hot buttered baking difh. Bake twenty minutes in hot oven and ferve in baking difh.
(Traditional Virginia Recipe, Prov’d
Market Square Tavern Kitchen, 1937.)
The Market Square Tavern is located on the Duke of Gloucester Street, the principal street in Colonial Williamsburg. It was called “The most historic avenue in all America” by FDR. Thomas Jefferson was said to have rented several rooms at the Market Square Tavern several times during his life. This is the classic recipe without any leavening other than the eggs. This changed as baking soda and baking powder became readily available.
Souffléed Spoon Bread
2 C. Boiling Water
½ C. + 2 T. Sifted Flour
1 C. Corn Meal
2 T. Sugar
1 T. Butter
2 T. Baking Powder
1 ½ Tsp. Salt
5 Eggs Separated
½ C. Milk
Make a paste with cornmeal and cold water, stir into boiling water with salt and butter – cook 5 min. until mixture is thick. Pour into large bowl, add well beaten egg yolks, milk, sugar, flour and baking powder, mix well. Beat egg whites until stiff – fold into corn meal mixture. Pour into buttered baking dish and bake in very hot oven (475 degrees) for 30 to 35 minutes. Serve hot with lots of butter.
Here we see a version incorporating baking powder to lighten the dish and bring it closer to a soufflé.
For the easiest spoon bread – beat two eggs, add two cups of buttermilk, one cup sweet milk, 4 tablespoons corn meal, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon melted shortening. Bake one hour at 400 degrees or 425 degrees in greased baking dish. Batter will be quite thin, but bread is delicious, much better than the scalded milk variety
– Ethel P. Smith
In this version of the recipe we see buttermilk being used. This may be considered to be more of a classic southern version of the dish, but in reality, the buttermilk plays an important role in acting as an activator for the baking soda.
2/3 Cup White Cornmeal
2 Cups Scalded Milk
1 Teaspoon Melted Butter
1 Teaspoon Sugar
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Egg Yolks, Beaten
2 Egg Whites, Beaten Stiff
Gradually add cornmeal to hot milk and cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Cool slightly and add butter, sugar and salt. Add egg yolks, then fold in egg whites. Bake in a greased, 3 cup baking dish at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Serves 3.
This recipe may be increased by 1/3, or halved.
– Elizabeth Trundel Barton (Mrs. Marvin)
This is the another method of making spoon bread by whipping the egg whites and achieving a soufflé style effect. This version must be served immediately as the whites will collapse shortly after it is removed from the oven.
Spoon Bread with Corn
9 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, Softened
3 Medium – Sized Fresh ears of Corn, Husked
3 Cups Milk
2 Teaspoons Salt
1 Cup White Cornmeal, Preferably Water – Ground
3 Egg Yolks
1 Tablespoon Sugar
¼ Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg, Preferably Freshly Grated
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Hot Red Pepper (Cayenne)
3 Egg Whites
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. With a pastry brush, spread 1 tablespoon of the softened butter evenly over the bottom and sides of a 2 – quart casserole. Set aside.
Using the teardrop – shaped holes of a hand grater, shred the corn into a bowl. Then, with a rubber spatula, scrape the corn and the liquid that has accumulated around it into a heavy 2 or 3 quart saucepan. Add 2 cups of milk and a the salt and bring to a boil over high heat.
Pour in the cornmeal slowly enough so that the boiling continues at a rapid rate and stir constantly with a wooden spoon to keep the mixture smooth. Reduce the heat to low and, stirring from time to time, simmer uncovered until the mixture is so thick that the spoon will stand up unsupported in the middle of the pan.
Remove the pan from the heat and immediately beat in the remaining 8 tablespoons of softened butter, a few spoonfuls at a time. Add the remaining milk and, when it is completely incorporated, beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, and the sugar, nutmeg and cayenne.
In a deep mixing bowl, preferably of unlined copper, beat the egg whites with a wire whisk or a rotary or electric beater until they are stiff enough to form unwavering peaks on the beater when it is lifted out of the bowl. Scoop the egg whites over the corn mixture and, with a rubber spatula, fold them together gently but thoroughly.
Pour the mixture into a buttered casserole, spreading it evenly and smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake uncovered in the center of the oven for 35 – 40 minutes, or until top of spoon bread is golden brown and the center barely quivers when the casserole is gently moved back and forth.
Serve the spoon bread at once, directly from the casserole.
Now we begin to see the addition of other ingredients into the spoonbread, such as in this case we have fresh corn and cayenne pepper. They still differentiate the spoonbread from the corn in the recipe title, so this may be seen as a variation on the classic dish so as not to offend the food purists who think that classic food should never be changed.
½ Cup Milk
½ Tsp. Salt
1 Tsp. Diced Pimentos
2 Tbsp. Chopped Jalapeno Peppers (Optional)
1 Tbsp. Chopped Fresh Parsley
¼ Cup Melted Butter
6 Oz. Cottage Cheese
1 Box (8.5 Oz.) Jiffy Cornbread Mix
3 Cups Yellow Squash, Unpeeled & Coarsely Chopped
- 1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 x 8 – inch pan.
- 2. Blend the eggs, milk, and salt. Add the pimento, peppers, parsley, and melted butter. Mix in cottage cheese.
- 3. Pour the Jiffy mix into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the milk and cheese mixture. Add the coarsely chopped squash. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with paprika if desired. Bake 30 minutes or just until a tester, when inserted in the center comes out clean. Cut into 9 inch squares. Serve warm.
There is definitely more of a Latino flavor profile here in the inclusion of jalapenos and pimentos into the dish. There are all sorts of combinations you can make including making a sweet version of the dish by adding vanilla and sugar into the classic recipe. The possibilities are rather endless considering the abundance of flavors which can be matched with corn. One of my favorite dishes is a BBQ Short rib set on top of a bed of spoonbread. This is a fantastic dish to make with just about any dinner and in its classic form, it is easy to make. Instead of thinking about potatoes or rice for dinner, consider spoonbread as an option and feel free to add onions and herbs as well as peppers and even meat into the dish to create an easy to prepare casserole. As with all cooking, the possibilities are endless.
 The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion by Ms. Helen Bullock: Colonial Williamsburg Inc. 1938
 Maryland Cooking Compiled by the Maryland Home Economics Association 1948
 Cookbook by The Women’s Community Club of Beltsville, Maryland: Printed by the Explorers and Scouts of Boy Scout Troop No. 238 of Beltsville, Maryland 1953
 Queen Anne Goes to the Kitchen by the Episcopal Church Women of St. Paul’s Parish: Tidewater Publishers 1962
 American Cooking: Southern Style: Foods of the World by Time Life Books: Time Inc. 1971
 Williamsburg Today: A Year of Culinary Celebrations by the Williamsburg Symphonia: Mellon Street Graphics 2006
- The Old Ways (drfugawe.wordpress.com)
- Gluten Free Cookbooks: Gluten-Free on a Shoestring (jessieclemence.com)
- A Good Appetite: A Sweet Corn Pancake as Versatile as the Corn Itself – A Good Appetite (nytimes.com)
- Cheese Soufflé 101 (pechluck1.typepad.com)
- Beautiful Corn (americanscientist.org)
- Best Seafood in Richmond (apartmentguide.com)