Cornbread with Harissa Butter

Cornbread recipe with harissa butter

One of my friends who also has a food blog told me that she likes the posts where I cobble together ingredients in Paris to make something American. After spending countless hours roaming the city in search of this and that, it’s something that is actually fun for me to do, too. I like nothing better than prowling around and discovering ethnic épiceries (often around Belleville and the Marché d’Aligre), where I always come home with a variety of curiosities, in addition to what I was originally looking for. Some are still in the back of my cabinets, like still-sealed coconut concentrate from Vietnam (which looks similar to molasses, and probably tastes amazing), and the bag of Fritos, which an American friend who was staying in my apartment spied, and threatened to open – and eat. But didn’t

Four years later – yup, the coconut concentrate is still in my baking cabinet, and the Fritos are still uneaten, along with a bag mahlab, the fragrant kernels of Mediterranean cherry pits, a dried-out stalk of candied angelica, which I had to buy since I searched far and wide for fresh angelica in France (even in the region where candied angelica is made) and no one knew where – or what – fresh angelica was (thus ending my ability to spin a story, and a recipe, out of that one). I have a tin sack of سبع بهارات, a Lebanese blend of seven spices that has no occidental equivalent that I can think of. There is a small box of handmade chocolate from Oaxaca that has been calling my name ever since the start of hot chocolate season. And just added to my roster are six juicy, plump Meyer lemons that were hand-delivered, and are begging to be made into something that exploits their unique, sweet-citrusy character.

bacon

While I love to play around with these things in baking, it’s hard to share any recipes because not everything is available everywhere. And while the internet fills a lot of gaps in global availability, there are no substitutes for a number of things. Fortunately cornmeal is something that is readily available not just in America, but is used in the cuisines of India, Sri Lanka, and Italy, as well as Central and South America. And a few months back, I was happy to find a bag of cornmeal in a shop VT Cash & Carry, up in the lively Indian quartier of Paris.

The French have a different relationship to corn than Americans. It’s native to us so we use it often, in a variety of guises – mostly fresh, but also dried and ground. But other cultures have cornmeal-based specialties. Lest you think the French don’t ever use cornmeal, think again, mes amis.

Cornbread recipe

Taloa (video) is a specialty of the Basque country and you can find cornmeal and farine de maïs (corn flour, which is finely ground) in natural food stores. Sometimes you need to massage the non-transparent bag to feel how finely ground the contents are. (I’m used to strange looks from other shoppers, watching the strange fellow in the store fondling bags of ground corn.)

To the unitiated, it takes a fairly precise knowledge of French culinary terms to know that semoule (which would perhaps best translate to “meal”) is different from farine (flour). The bag I got was labeled polenta, which is kind of a catch-all word that refers to cornmeal that’s not too finely ground. Fortunately I could see what it was through the bag. (Although unfortunately, I later discovered it was infested with little critters, who were just as hungry for cornmeal as I was.)

Cornbread recipe

Because Americans are often wont to “dial it up,” I figured that I’d add my deux centimes to that, and rev up the standard cornbread with bacon. While I was frying up the lardons, I thought – “Hmm, I bet crumbled blue cheese would be good in it, too.” So while the bacon was draining, I started crumbling some blue cheese that I had on hand. And, well, since I was adding salty bacon and sweet, sharp fromage bleu, why not add some of the marvelous smoked paprika that I had in my spice cabinet from Spain for a bit of smokiness? (That is another ingredient I don’t get to use often enough.) So into the batter everything went.

Cornbread recipe

However, after all my tinkering, I decided that my variation wasn’t an improvement on the original. And that was confirmed by Romain, who said “It tastes like construction ______.”

I didn’t catch that last word, because he said it in French and it was a word I wasn’t familiar with. But it had something to do with either paste, or semi-soft concrete. Or some kind of construction material.

(On the other hand, this morning he told me I was “Pas intelligent.” Note: When you’ve got a French partner, you need to develop a certain resilience.)

Cornbread recipe

Either way, intelligent or not, I agreed, and crumbled it up to use perhaps as a stuffing. Although the blue cheese was so strong, am not sure what’s a wise idea. But I’m too thrifty to toss anything out. So I put it in my freezer, and next year, I’ll probably throw it away when the contents are no longer recognizable — or even remember-able. And, of course, I could never share a stuffing recipe with it because one ingredient would be “One bag of leftover cornbread with bacon, blue cheese, and smoked Spanish paprika, torn into bits.” Which would, of course, give a number of people fits. (Which I would agree with.)

Cornbread recipe

However when I went to the refrigerator to pull out more butter and some milk, to start all over again, as I was closing the door, I noticed a jar of harissa on the shelf and thought, “Hmm. I wonder what cornbread would be like with a dab of harissa in it?” But that little voice in my head, that often tells me things to do, reached down and tapped me on the shoulder, to remind me that some things weren’t meant to be tinkered with too much. So I mashed up some of the Tunisian hot sauce with some softened butter, and spread it on the warm cornbread, which was a perfect pairing. So maybe I’m not all that intelligent, but at least that little voice that pops up in my head from time to time is.

Cornbread with Harissa Butter
Print Recipe
Eight to twelve servings
There is a vocal group of people who feel that there shouldn’t be any sweetener in cornbread. Well, I feel that way when someone hands me a sweetened glass of iced tea, when I see bagels with dried fruit in them, or when I see a Caesar salad with fried chicken or shrimp on it. As I get older, I say: to each their own. (And since few people call it “Banana cake,” in favor of “banana bread,” I rest my case.) If you don’t like it, just leave it out. But since we’re on our high-horse, if you can get it, stone-ground cornmeal makes much better cornbread. You can find it in natural food stores and online. However regular cornmeal will be fine. (In France, it’s available in markets that specialize in Indian, Sri Lankan and Middle Eastern foods. You can also use instant or regular polenta that’s not too coarse.) In the UK, cornflour is cornstarch (very finely powdered corn) and should not be used. Buttermilk give the cornbread a nice, light texture. You can make your own by measuring out 1 cup (250ml) of milk minus 1 tablespoon, then adding a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar (white or cider), and letting it sit for 10 minutes, until it looks lumpy and curdles a bit.
For the cornbread:
1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (120g) yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
2 teaspoons baking powder, preferably aluminium-free
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (250ml) buttermilk
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons, 60ml) melted butter, salted or unsalted, cooled until tepid, plus 1/2 tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan
1 large egg
2 tablespoons honey
For the harissa butter:
4 ounces (8 tablespoons, 115g) salted butter, softened to room temperature
1 teaspoon harissa, or to taste (see Note, below)
1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Have ready a 8- or 9-inch cast iron skillet and drop the 1/2 tablespoon of butter in it. If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, butter an 8-inch (20cm) square pan, or similar sized baking pan.
2. In a medium bowl, use a whisk to mix together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, until there are no lumps. If you see lumps, sift the ingredients together.
3. In a separate bowl, mix together the buttermilk, melted butter, egg, and honey.
4. About 5 minutes before you’re ready to mix and bake the cornbread, put the cast iron skillet with the butter in it in the oven, to melt the butter and warm the skillet. (If using a buttered baking pan, no need to put it in the oven first.)
5. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, then mix in the wet ingredients using a spatula. Stir just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Small lumps are okay, but don’t overmix; that will result in tough, dense cornbread.
6. Wearing an oven mitt, carefully pull the very hot skillet out of the oven, being conscious of how hot it is. Spread the butter around the inside of the pan with a paper towel or brush, then pour the batter into the pan.
7. Bake the cornbread until the center just feels like it’s about set; in a cast iron skillet, it will take 10 to 12 minutes, in a baking pan, it will take about 15 to 18 minutes.
8. While the cornbread is baking, mix together the softened salted butter with the harissa until thoroughly blended.
9. Let the cornbread cool slightly, then cut squares of the cornbread. Serve warm, slathered with butter.

Storage: Like most baked goods, cornbread is best served warm from the oven. If you wish to reheat it, it can be wrapped in foil and reheated in the oven, until warm. Cornbread can be frozen, if well-wrapped, and stored for up to two months.

Note: Harissa is a paste-like Tunisian hot sauce and available in shops that specialize in North African and Mediterranean foods, as well as in well-stocked supermarkets. It’s available online as well. My go-to recipe for harissa is in My Paris Kitchen if you want to make your own, and you can find recipes online as well.

Related Links and Recipes

Taloa recipe (Papilles and Pupilles, in French)

Fresh Corn Soup

Ingredients for American Baking in Paris

What’s the Difference Between Cornmeal and Polenta? (The Kitchn)

Stone-Ground Cornmeal versus Regular Supermarket Brands (Good Housekeeping)

How To Tell if Baking Powder Is Still Good

Fresh Corn Cakes


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39 comments

  • December 15, 2014 6:03pm

    I do the same with things I find at ethnic markets. I have Chinese shrimp chips, Vietnamese coconut jelly, Brazilian beijinho mix, among many other weird ingredients I will use *someday* stashed away in my pantry/fridge/freezer.

  • December 15, 2014 6:14pm

    This post came at the perfect time…I was just beginning to panic because the cornmeal supply I brought back from the U.S. is getting dangerously low. Good to know that the ethnic markets have it!

    You mentioned molasses in your post, which made me remember that I’ve been looking for molasses in Paris for a couple of years now to no avail…do you know if it exists here?

  • Claire
    December 15, 2014 6:41pm

    Oh David! As a Southern (U.S.) girl, cornbread is near and dear to my heart. And being a Southern girl, I’m firmly in the camp of “no sugar” in the batter. However, your 2 T of honey sounds awfully good! Your pictures are beautiful, your cornbread is perfect in height and texture. Will make some, with that amazing sounding butter, to have with chili tonight. Thanks, as always!

  • Peggy Carrubba
    December 15, 2014 6:43pm

    Would love a chance to poke through your cupboards and compare our strange accumulations !! I gathered up some processed tamarind on a trip to St. Maarten one year thinking it was unique. Just bought some again in a local market – unprocessed – and ate it. It is wonderful ! And apparently, even healthy !! It’s past time for me to get a little adventurous with my piles of ingredients !!
    Love reading your posts and trying your recipes !!

  • sillygirl
    December 15, 2014 6:53pm

    I have the same problem with recipes for things we eat. My husband asks if I have written down the recipe when he loves something. I tell him I can’t because first you have to make this recipe and it fails, then add this next thing that failed, and then another and some odd ingredient I’m using up. I just say this is one of a kind – enjoy!

  • Patrick Wright
    December 15, 2014 6:57pm

    Hi, David – and Merry Christmas to you and your partner. (That should probably be Happy Holidays”, but, at age 73, I’m somewhat resistant to change. The sentiment is what counts.). I discovered your blog just this year and I’ve really enjoyed it and look forward to your frequent updates. “My Paris Kitchen” has also been a terrific find and one passed on to friends for Christmas.

    Best wishes for the New Year.

    Pat Wright

  • December 15, 2014 7:14pm

    I like honey in cornbread, so no sass from me! And that harissa sounds delightful :)

  • December 15, 2014 7:29pm

    Living in Middle East, Harissa caught my attention naturally. Looks amazing:)

  • Lyse
    December 15, 2014 8:00pm

    The French and corn: we were living in Paris in the fifties and when my mom asked if they had corn on the cob, she was told in typical Parisian tone “mais madame, c’est pour les cochons!” I’m happy to hear there has been progress on that front. Joyeux Noël David, et Bonne Année!

  • Carole Berger
    December 15, 2014 8:13pm

    Oh how I wish this were a cornbread recipe without flour. I have gone gluten free and feel much better because of it, except emotionally when I read your recipes that I cannot eat. Fortunately I live in Berkeley where there are bakers who have given gluten free a try, rather successfully. Can you do the same with this yummy sounding cornbread recipe and find a substitute for the flour?

  • Javahead
    December 15, 2014 8:24pm

    I fall on the cornbread-should-not-be-sweet side of the divide, but I had a southern-born grandmother. (For some reason, topping it with lots of homemade wild blackberry or plum jam after baking was perfectly OK) I’d more than happy to give your version a whirl, though. With or without Harissa butter.

    If you only have half a dozen Meyer lemons, you should probably reserve them for something special. But we have a Meyer lemon tree, and I can tell you that substituting them for the traditional lime produces amazing good margaritas.

  • December 15, 2014 8:34pm

    An excellent post, David, thank you. I’ve been using Breton “ribot” for buttermilk in France with great results. And I love your use of the familiar iron skillet for baking, I think it’s my very favorite cooking vessel. Happy holidays to you and Romain!

  • Sasha
    December 15, 2014 8:48pm

    What a coincidence that you wrote about this! When I saw Rancho Gordo in your gift list last week, I wanted to ask you if you’ve tried products from Anson Mills, particularly the cornmeal. I only discovered them a month or so ago but after trying their cornmeal, I practically ordered every flour in their catalog. They’re all in the freezer waiting for their turn. Their corn meal has an amazing corn flavor. Their toasted stone ground oatmeal is also fabulous. Oh, and my Rancho Gordo order should arrive today.

  • December 15, 2014 8:56pm

    Looks wonderful, as always. I think the very first blog post I read from you were corn cakes. This reminded me of them, and the challenges of recreating certain American dishes abroad. I know how hard it can be.

  • Chelsea
    December 15, 2014 9:21pm

    In the photos, there are pieces of what looks like canned cream corn kernels in the final product. I don’t see this listed in the ingredients?

    Thanks!

  • December 15, 2014 9:47pm
    David Lebovitz

    Chelsea: I opted not to use corn kernels in the final cornbread, preferring to keep it more straightforward, and dial up the butter with harissa.

    Connie: I love lait ribot although as much as I like drinking it, too, I often resort to just acidulating some regular milk.

    Javahead: Yes to Meyer lemon margaritas! (Now, I think I need more…)

    Patrick: Thanks so much – and glad you liked the book, too : )

    Sasha: We don’t get Anson Mills here so I can only try those things when I bring them back. Enjoy the Rancho Gordo beans (which I do bring back)…

    Carole: Although I haven’t tried it, many people find corn flour a good swap out for wheat flour in recipes like this. Corn flour is basically corn milled very fine, so it’s pulverized. You should be able to find it at a natural food store. (As noted, in the UK cornflour is what they call cornstarch, and I wouldn’t recommend using that.) Some supermarkets in the U.S. carry cornflour, too.

  • Karen
    December 15, 2014 10:32pm

    you got me at harissa butter. thank you

  • December 15, 2014 11:13pm

    You are a fantastic writer, thanks so much for this blog, it is highly entertaining and extremely useful! I would have been so lost in my culinary endeavours when I moved to Paris a few years ago had I not found it. I remember taking out a recipe to make cupcakes and being so very lost.
    Happy Holidays to you and Romain!

  • Joyce Agress
    December 16, 2014 1:33am

    As a Southerner, I concur with the stone ground cornmeal (readily available in my tiny south Georgia town) and the buttermilk. Can’t wait to try it with the harissa (to be purchased at Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market in Atlanta, source of so many things NOT available in my tiny town.) For the record, I bake both banana bread and banana cake…see Luke Nguyen’s My Viet Nam for an incredible recipe.

  • Linn
    December 16, 2014 1:33am

    I have to say that anyone who has written tested and written as many cookbooks as you have plus your blog (in a foreign country BTW), also can figure out the intricacies of a digital camera(mine is complicated!!) can’t be too slow in the intelligence department…. Surely Romain was kidding!!

  • zee
    December 16, 2014 2:23am

    Angelica grows wild on the hills south of San Francisco, though no one here recognizes it. I’ll bet you can find it wild in France too if you know what you’re looking for. The stems make a fine pickle, and the dried seeds ground up are uniquely suited to sprinkling on pomegranate seeds, or fava beans, or grilled salmon.

  • December 16, 2014 3:05am

    You cannot go wrong with corn bread, and these sounds like a yummy way to change it up!

  • Angelika
    December 16, 2014 3:08am

    I would suggest to make ” Migas ” for a nice breakfast instead of allowing the blue cheese-paprika corn bread to languish in the freezer.
    I think it would make a wonderful substitute for our Mexican Migas made with corn tortillas, or for the Spanish ones made with bread crumbs or semolina ( cream of wheat ). The options are endless.
    Thanks for a year of wonderful recipes, even though many of them only made wonderful food for thought and dreams, because Mexico is not a very culinary country outside of our own food, so many ingredients are unavailable here.
    I enjoyed your interesting reports and delightful anecdotes and desire the very best for you and all your followers.
    Thank you !

  • Oonagh
    December 16, 2014 4:13am

    Thanks so much for this David, it cracked me up!

  • Ed
    December 16, 2014 6:14am

    Sounds like one of thousands of variations. I do the dry ingredients first adding the melted butter and/or fat to the dry mix and then stir in the liquid mixture. And, of course I grew up on the savory mostly corn based cornbread, no more than quarter the amount of cornmeal. I also will add quick hominy grits if I have some to get rid of. It’s all good! I enjoy your blog. Thanks David.

  • Jessica
    December 16, 2014 1:20pm

    I, too, collect all kinds of odd food ingredients with every intention of using them. Bought mahlab a few months ago. A few years ago I bought black grass jelly. I ate and drank it quite alot while in Asia. Upon returning to my home I discovered that there’s a huge difference in enjoying something where it’s commonly used, and in isolation very very far from Asia (ie I haven’t used the jelly).

    • December 16, 2014 3:07pm
      David Lebovitz

      Some foods don’t always translate elsewhere, and I often think it’s best to enjoy them where they are from – when you’re visiting, which is what makes them so special. Your black grass jelly reminds me of my (still unopened) bag of Fritos! : )

  • GiGi
    December 16, 2014 2:43pm

    That’s the right way to make cornbread.. Cast iron skillet heated in the oven. But just good quality butter on top. Have you ever put some corn kernels in your cornbread? And red pepper? Texture difference and touch of color.
    Gigi

  • margot nightingale
    December 16, 2014 3:00pm

    David, do you know the exact term for corn meal in french? (not farine de mais, which you said is corn flour) Is it Semoule de Mais?

    Thanks!

    • December 16, 2014 3:06pm
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, it’s semoule de maïs. Many natural food stores in Paris carry it.

  • margot
    December 16, 2014 4:26pm

    thanks! you just cleared up a corn conundrum i’ve been having. btw, one of the best bio shops in paris in on rue lecourbe, near sevres lecourbe metro. bio c’est bon – it’s just a bit hidden from the street, making it a little extra mysterious and inviting. just sayin..if ur ever in the dearth of the ethnic-food challenged 15th, a good address.

  • Carol L
    December 16, 2014 11:17pm

    David,
    Off subject with todays post but I wondered if you had any updates on your friend who’s chocolate/candy shop had the explosion? I have been thinking of her recently.

  • Christy
    December 17, 2014 4:36am

    Carole, I make cornbread all the time gluten free. I just substitute in an equal amount of a gluten-free all purpose blend of flour. You really can’t go wrong. I make a similar version to this recipe all the time for my coworkers and they would never notice a difference (and it is much more popular than a sweet treat like cookies). I hope this helps.

  • December 18, 2014 2:17am

    Mmm, harissa butter. I’ve made harissa butter and harissa mayonnaise (sometimes I’ve made the mayonnaise, but usually just added it to a good local mayonnaise here in Montréal). Isn’t there cornbread made only from maize?

    This sentence would make more sense if the first part read “Not just in the USA”. “Fortunately cornmeal is something that is readily available not just in America, but is used in the cuisines of India, Sri Lanka, and Italy, as well as Central and South America”. And whatever happened to Mexico, a populous and corn-centric North American country?

    As Obama said to Raul Castro: “somos todos Americanos”…

  • Eric Rathbone
    December 18, 2014 9:01am

    For people concerned about gluten, you can take comfort in the fact that honest to goodness old fashioned Southern Corn bread has no wheat flour in it at all.

  • December 18, 2014 10:39am
    David Lebovitz

    Carol L: A crowdfunding platform offered to assist if she wants to rebuild the shop, as did I, but we’re not sure she’s up for it. (She isn’t as young as she looks!) So for now, the shop is still closed.

    Eric: Yes – it reminds me of pound cake (the original poundcake has no leavening and people today would find it too dry and heavy) and some people like to add baking powder, others prefer the original. I’ve made cornbread with all cornmeal and with various proportions of flour and cornmeal, and find I like this best. Cornflour is also excellent in cornbread, which will yield a denser result – but tasty!

    margot: There are a few Bio C’Bon shops around the city, and one near me. They’re a decent shop, however I’m a big fan of Le Retour à la Terre which is part of the Biocoop network, but they have a very wide selection of things, including produce. (The one on Avenue Philippe Auguste, I think, is better than the Left Bank one.)

  • Omar
    January 3, 2015 5:07am

    Thanks for planting the seed of harissa butter in my head. I’ve been wanting to try it since you posted it. I finally got the chance to try it when I made black eyed peas and cornbread for New Year’s Day. I used the butter on day old cornbread and it was so, so good.

    I’m sure you have made cornbread 400 times and would like to add that if you use cream instead of milk in a standard recipe, it adds amazing texture and taste to the final product. I had used Martha’s recipe for custardy cornbread (adding cream to on top of the uncooked batter that is poured into the pan). That is good, but just substituting cream for milk while making the batter, for me, yielded extra excellent results.

    • January 3, 2015 12:00pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks for the tip on the cream. I used to add powdered milk to the mix, which added a certain richness, but without the cream. It’s something I learned from a food scientist and worked really well, although since it was nearly 40 years ago, I never kept that recipe.

  • Cristina in England
    January 13, 2015 11:02pm

    Hahaha on having to develop resilience for a French partner. Ditto one from the West of Scotland (Glasgow)!