Though spoonbread is little known in most corners of the world — and is even fading in some parts of the South — it remains a beloved classic for many families whose recipes date back generations. Some say spoonbread, which is more like a cornbread souffle with bread-pudding consistency than actual bread, dates back to the 1700s, when local settlers adopted and adapted the Native American tradition in their kitchens.
The late Atlanta-born journalist John Egerton sang the praises of this “feather-light dish” in his 1987 book Southern Food. “Tracing the evolution of cornbread from suppone (Indian corn) to spoonbread is in some ways similar to studying history through fossils and other artifacts,” he wrote, as noted by the Los Angeles Times. “There is a rough parallel in these recipes with the social and cultural movement of people through history. A properly prepared dish of spoonbread can be taken as continued testimony to the perfectibility of humankind."
Whether or not Egerton got a little carried away using such warm praise in his prose, spoonbread can indeed be the perfect complement to any Southern feast, and the residents of Berea County, Kentucky, surely agree. For two decades the community has put together an annual Spoonbread Festival, marketed as the “signature event of the Berea Chamber of Commerce.” Organizers boast that the 2015 edition welcomed some 60,000 spoonbread fans.
It’s probably an event well-worth attending, but fortunately you don’t have to travel all the way to Kentucky for a taste. By following a few simple steps, you can bake your own right at home.
The spin on spoonbread below is served up as a savory casserole-style side dish that includes garlic greens and smoked ham. Great for a weeknight dinner or Sunday brunch, one taste will have you realizing why this provincial comfort food favorite has stood the test of time.
Spoon Bread, Garlic Greens and Smoked Ham
Recipe adapted from The American Medical Association Family Health Cookbook
- Vegetable cooking spray
- 1 pound young collard, mustard or turnip greens or Swiss chard (or 10-oz. package frozen greens, thawed and drained)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) diced lean smoked ham
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 cup white or yellow cornmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup low-fat (or nonfat) buttermilk
- 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
- 2 whole eggs, separated
- 2 egg whites
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 2-quart souffle dish with vegetable oil spray.
If using fresh greens, wash them well. Discard tough stems. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the greens until just tender (5 to 7 minutes). Drain thoroughly, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Coarsely chop the greens.Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the ham, garlic and greens and cook over medium heat until the garlic softens (3 to 4 minutes). Spread the mixture in the bottom of the prepared dish.
In a heavy medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Gradually whisk in the cornmeal and add salt. Cook over medium heat — whisking almost constantly — until the mixture is very thick, begins to form a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pan (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and whisk in the buttermilk, cheese, hot pepper sauce and egg yolks.
Using an electric mixer, beat 4 egg whites until stiff but not dry. Stir 1/3 of the whites into the cornmeal mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whites. Spoon the batter over the greens and bake until puffed and lightly browned on top (45 to 50 minutes). The spoon bread should be soft in the center and crusty around the edges. Serve immediately.