By Leah Eskin
Bread gets along well with the knife. A serrated one for slicing and a blunt one to handle the buttering. Perhaps a slotted one for trimming cheese to suit. Bread has no need for fork, or spoon.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my friend Michele showed up with a pan of spoon bread. Bread, she explained, served with a spoon.
Spoon bread, I learned, is made from cornmeal. It belongs to that broad category of cornmeal constructions whose particulars are hotly debated: skillet bread, cracklin' bread, cornbread, corn dodgers, johnnycakes and hush puppies. Its eggs are often whipped, giving the lowly bread lofty souffle-style ambitions.
Perhaps the spoon, with its rounded edges and the word "spoon," with its rounded center, not to mention its snuggling and canoodling connotations, spoon-fed the odd combo to the skeptic. "Spoon bread" promises comfort that "cornbread souffle" lacks.
And, as it happens, the dish is served with a spoon. Apparently in certain remote enclaves, the local cook bakes spoon bread dense and slices it with a knife. Causing the purist to draw knives. Spoon bread, the literalist argues, should be airy and tender, and served with a spoon.
Michele's spoon bread floated over a bedrock of wild rice, which I ignored. Wild rice always reminds me of rice, mingled with sticks. After she left, I messed around with her recipe, installing a satisfying layer of garlic-sauteed mushrooms under the cornbread cloud.
But I didn't dare mess with the basics. It's still spoon bread — meant to be served and savored with a spoon.
Prep: 45 minutes
Cook: 1 hour
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound mushrooms (any mix you fancy), sliced
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon sherry
2 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped thyme and/or rosemary
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal
6 eggs, separated
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a 12-inch skillet. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, 10 minutes. Add onion and 3 cloves garlic. Cook, stirring, until mushrooms turn deep golden brown and all liquid has disappeared, about 12 minutes. Deglaze with sherry. Pull pan off heat, stir in green onions and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Spread out mushrooms to cover the bottom of the skillet.
Heat milk to a simmer in a large saucepan. Gradually whisk in cornmeal. Whisk over medium heat until thick, about 5 minutes. Pull pan off heat.
Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter with remaining garlic; whisk into thickened cornmeal mixture. Whisk in egg yolks, 2/3 cup Parmesan and 3/4 teaspoon salt.
Beat egg whites to sturdy peaks. Stir one-quarter whites into the cornmeal mixture. Fold in the remaining whites.
Spread cornmeal mixture over mushrooms. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Bake in a 350-degree oven until spoon bread is puffed and golden, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.
Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor. Contact her at email@example.com
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