James Beard, the father of American gastronomy, knows his bread. Take for instance, this Cornmeal Bread–note that I didn’t type cornbread. The latter uses leavening agents to help with the rise. This cornmeal bread harnesses the awesome power of yeast to get its rise on. If you’re hesitant to try this recipe because you don’t have cornmeal as a staple in your pantry (understandably, most Canadians don’t), think again! It’s like the southern cousin to traditional sandwich bread, but has some cornmeal woven in for a heartier flavour, as well a toothsome texture, and an airier crumb.
This bread has a firm texture which is perfect for toasting, slicing, and nestling goodies in between for sandwiches. It has a browned crust and golden hued crumb with a slight chew to it. There is a faint sweetness from the use of dark brown sugar, which not only brings a delicate molasses flavour to the bread and helps brown the exterior, but moisture to the party as well. This is a lean bread, as in, it does not use eggs, butter, oil, or shortening in it- – but it is not by any means dry.
Since this recipe comes from Beard’s book, Beard on Bread, which was written in the 70s, it makes many assumptions of the baker to know what he’s referring to. For instance, it does not state what type of grind the cornmeal should be, the fat content of the milk, or what type of salt to use. All of these things are crucial to the outcome of the bread in terms, of taste, texture, and appearance. So I filled in the blanks based on my personal taste preferences: I didn’t want an overly gritty texture, so I used a medium cornmeal grind; I used full-fat homogenized milk to give body and richness to the dough, and kosher salt over the iodized table stuff (I find kosher salt has a cleaner taste). I also read from Mr. Alton Brown that instant yeast is superior to active dry so I opted for that instead. Finally, as usual, I upped the amount of brown sugar to 1/3 cup. We like things sweet in this family.
This recipe is dead easy to make, so give it a whirl and share your thoughts with me! My notes and tinkering of the recipe are in italics.
½ cup cornmeal (used medium grind)
1 cup boiling water
1 tsp. salt (used kosher salt and used 1 1/2 tsp)
2 packages active dry yeast (one package is equal to 2 1/4 tsp)
½ cup warm water (100 to 115 degrees, approximately)
1 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 cup warm milk (used whole milk)
2 to 3 tsp. salt (used 1 tbsp+1 tsp of kosher salt)
¼ cup dark brown sugar (upped it to 1/3 cup)
4 to 4½ cups all-purpose flour (preferably unbleached)
Pour the cornmeal into the boiling water with the salt and stir vigorously until it cooks thick (about 4 minutes). Place it in a large mixing bowl to cool. Proof the yeast with the granulated sugar in the water, then pour into the mixing bowl with the cooled cornmeal mixture. Mix well. Add the warm milk, salt, brown sugar, and flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring very well after each addition of flour.
When the mixture is well blended and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, turn out on a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 to 12 minutes, adding more flour as needed. Butter a large bowl (you don’t need to butter the bowl. If it has been kneaded properly, it will release from the sides with little to no trouble). Place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with the butter on all sides. Cover and set in a warm, draft-free place to double in bulk.
Punch the dough down and turn out on a lightly floured board. Cut in half (used a scale instead. I want these babies to bake up equally), shape into two loaves, and let rest while you butter two 9-by-5-by-3-inch tins (I used cooking spray and dusted them with flour). Place the dough in the tins, cover, and let rise again until almost doubled in bulk, or just level with the tops of the baking tins. Bake (I recommend placing your tins on a baking sheet) in a preheated 425 degrees oven for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking for 20 to 25 minutes (if you have a probe thermometer, you’re aiming for about 185F-190F), until the bread is nicely browned and sounds hollow when removed from the tins and rapped with the knuckles on top and bottom. Place the loaves, without tins, on the cooling rack for a few minutes, to crisp the crust. Continue to cool on racks completely before slicing (if you can, wait an hour to allow the bread structure to set up. If you cut into it too soon, you can squish the hot loaves rendering squat and gummy slices)
Yield: 2- 9×5 inch loaves