Bread of the Month: Crumbling new life into old cornbread

The first time I made “bread salad” or panzanella, as it’s commonly called, the recipe had me soaking cubes of very stale, sturdy bread in water, wringing those cubes out and mixing them with tomatoes, onions, cucumber, basil and vinaigrette for what turned out to actually be a very delicious experience.

This old-world method of soaking and squeezing the bread for panzanella rerouted somewhere along the line, and recipes I saw later became more about making the bread drier and toastier — ala croutons — to enhance the crunch and absorb more of the flavorful combination of all the tastes in the bowl.


Then along came a cornbread variation! My heart be still! And, it included cubes of cheese! I have such an affection for cornbread. Could there be anything better? I made the salad, a simple toss of dried-out cornbread cubes, fontina cheese, basil, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and a light lemon dressing, and it was love. I took the salad to potlucks and received rave reviews. But sometimes when I made it, the cornbread, generally much more tender than the crusty artisan loaves used for traditional panzanella, came to near complete disintegration as I stirred up a batch. So I wondered, how could I keep the cornbread at less of a crumble?

I thought about cornbread croutons and was curious to see if there were already any on the market. While bread-y croutons of various flavorings exist aplenty in the salad aisle, I did not see any cornbread. So, I would have to make some myself.

To keep things simple, I didn’t even make cornbread from scratch. Many mixes make fine cornbread with but a few ingredients. I decided to bake the cornbread thin to make it easier to cube, so I spread the batter out on a large sheet pan.

For croutons, recipes I saw online suggested cubing the cornbread, dousing it with olive oil, sprinkling with salt and baking in the oven at 350 until golden and crunchy.


The cubes became something new in their crouton form – firm and crispy, yes, but also “cornier” as the cornmeal took on new flavor being baked twice.

This crunchy sweetness was begging to be paired with a colorful blend of basil, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and creamy cheese — not being able to find fontina, I used a mix of Monterey Jack and Havarti (a personal favorite). The lemon vinaigrette mixes up easy in a small jar, shaken, not stirred.

Cornbread, as a salad, could become my favorite food group.

Cornbread Panzanella
Adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis
(www.foodnetwork.com)
Serves 2 to 3

2 cups cubed cornbread, toasted (see below)
1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup cubed fontina cheese
1/2 cup cubed cucumber
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To toast cornbread, spread cubes in an even single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake at 350 degrees until goden brown and crispy. Let cool completely.

To assemble salad, place cornbread, tomatoes, cheese cucumber and basil in a large bowl. Mix lemon zest and juice, olive oil and salt and pepper in a small lidded jar. Shake to blend. Drizzle over salad and toss gently to combine.

•••

My mind was still abuzz with thoughts of crumbling cornbread, which in itself lends heart to so many things. I was not the first to consider its virtues. Cornbread is often the stuff of stuffing or dressing at Thanksgiving. The late, great Tammy Wynette wrote of her grandmother’s “Mississippi-Style Stuffed Bell Peppers” containing a filling of crumbled cornbread, corn, peas, tomatoes and ham. Even unembellished, “Cornbread In A Glass,” in Ernest Matthew Mickler’s “White Trash Cooking” (1986), has toasted cornbread crumbled into a drinking glass, drenched with buttermilk and eaten “with a long ice-tea spoon.”

But I was considering cornbread, crumbled, in a dessert. Cornbread crumble? Would it work? A Brown Betty uses bread crumbs as a dessert topping. Could the same be done with corny crumbs?

It was worth it to test it out. I made the game easier by whipping up a batch of mini corn muffins from boxed mixes, adding a little chopped fresh rosemary for enhanced flavor.

I crumbled about eight of the little muffins to total two cups. I decided to follow a standard crumble formula where the crumbled cornbread would stand in for the flour.

So I blended the cornbread, brown sugar, cinnamon and a stick of softened butter and, to further carry out a Southern flavor, some chopped pecans, mixing with my hands until it had the familiar feel of a crumble or crisp.

I kept my filling simple, too, using a canned light cherry pie filling (lower sugar), but one could certainly, easily make a filling of fresh or frozen sliced peaches or berries, mixed with some sugar and flour for thickening (there is room to interpret and create as you choose). I loaded the crumble topping over the filling and baked it off for about a half-hour.

Cornbread and pecans, atop a juicy filling…mmmmm, the elements here made it all extra buttery, with just enough delicate crunch. Cherry Cornbread Crumble would have to go into my regular rotation of favorite “c” desserts. Where there’s a cornbread, there’s a way….

Cherry Cornbread Crumble
Serves 4

2 cups crumbled cornbread
1 stick unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary (optional)
1/2 cup chopped pecans
3 to 4 cups light cherry pie filling (or your favorite fruit pie filling)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend cornbread, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, rosemary and pecans in a medium mixing bowl with your hands or a fork until the mixture is well-combined and has a cohesive, yet shaggy appearance (large, coarse crumbs).

Spread pie filling in an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish. Top evenly with cornbread mixture. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until crumble topping is browned and fruit is bubbling. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

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