(Photo by Hélène Dujardin from Basic to Brilliant, Y’All)
I still remember the first time I came across a recipe for spoonbread, in one of my mother’s old cookbooks. She had a small, diverse collection, and as a girl I enjoyed paging through them, especially a small, spiral-bound book called The Savannah Cookbook. It was in that book that I first saw the spoonbread recipe. For some reason, those two plain words—“spoon” and “bread”—strung together, captivated me. I imagined just that—a bread so soft and pillowy that it had to be eaten with a spoon. It sounded like nothing I had ever had before; utterly comforting and delicious, quintessentially American, specifically Southern.
Which was something I was not. At our house we ate things like pasta and gnocchi and polenta, not to mention squid (which my sister and I called “creepy crawlers”) and tripe (which we called “worms”). It’s no wonder that something called “spoonbread” sounded so appealing to me.
In spite of my lingering fascination, it was years before I actually made spoonbread, and when I did I realized that I was essentially making…polenta. For that is what spoon bread is; stone-ground cornmeal, aka grits, cooked and then mixed with beaten eggs and baked until puffed and golden. A variation of polenta al forno. When I moved to Virginia in the mid-1990s, I began to see just how much Southern cooking and Italian cooking—and cooks have in common:
* We love our hearty greens, especially braised.
* We love our legumes, be they black-eyed peas or borlotti beans.
* We love our grains, from stone-ground to finely milled.
And we cook according to the firm belief that just about anything we make will taste better if it contains pork—lard or fatback; bacon or pancetta; country ham or prosciutto.
The other day I found myself flipping through another Southern cookbook—Virginia Willis’s just-published Basic to Brilliant, Y’All. When I came across her recipe for Sweet Potato Spoonbread, my taste buds did a little anticipatory dance. I knew it would be the first (but not the last) recipe I made from the book.
Virginia, a friend and colleague of mine, was raised in Georgia and is a Southern cook through and through. But she is also professionally trained, and she does a lovely job of blending her two selves in this book. Basic to Brilliant, Y’All has a clever—and very useful—premise. Each “basic” recipe can be elevated to “brilliant” by an accompanying companion recipe, presentation tip, or technique. Thus, a recipe for Mama’s Macaroni Salad is enhanced by folding in jumbo lump crab meat. Chilled Haricots Verts with Creme Fraiche, plenty refined on their own, are transformed by a sourdough bread crumb topping flavored with dried porcini. And a homey pot of sweet potato grits (or polenta) becomes, with the addition of beaten egg yolks and whipped whites, fluffy golden spoonbread.
To celebrate the publication of her book, Virginia has offered to send personalized signed book plates to those who buy a copy. If you are interested, you can simply click here to purchase the book. Then, fill out this order form BY OCTOBER 12 and you will receive your book plate in the mail. Buon Appetito, y’all!
(from Basic To Brilliant, Y'All: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, by Virginia Willis; Ten Speed Press, 2011)
- For the "Basic" sweet potato grits:
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups low-fat or whole milk
- 1 cup stone-ground grits
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
- Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- Pinch of ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- For the "Brilliant" sweet potato spoonbread:
- 2 large eggs, separated
- Pinch of salt
- Butter for a 2-quart casserole or soufflé dish
For the "Basic" sweet potato grits:
In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the water and milk and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Slowly add the grits, whisking constantly. Add the sweet potato. Season with salt and white pepper. Decrease the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes. Taste the grits and sweet potato to make sure both are cooked and tender. Add the ground ginger, cinnamon, and butter. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and white pepper.
For the "Brilliant" sweet potato spoonbread:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter an ovenproof casserole or round 2-quart soufflé mold. To the sweet potato-grits mixture, add the egg yolks, one at a time, stirring after each addition. In a separate bowl, using a handheld mixer, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt on high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently add the egg whites into the warm sweet potato mixture. Transfer the lightened mixture to the prepared pan; smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake until the outside is puffed and risen, the inside is firm but moist, and the top is golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately while still puffed.