Whoever came up with the phrase “breaking bread” had no idea they were talking about Balkan cornbread: a slightly sweet, sturdy, comfort staple you don’t use a knife to cut but break it apart old-school – with your hands. Best eaten a day later in a bowl of milk.
TO KNOW GOOD CORNBREAD IS TO HAVE HAD A GRANDMOTHER
Every one of us has or has had, a grandmother who loved and made cornbread.
She may have been a city girl wearing silk blouses, pearls and skirt-suits with a brochure on the lapel, who fought in WWII and retired as a teacher. Or maybe she leaned toward an East prototype, corpulent, head in a shawl, long skirt and a wool vest containing and restraining a bussom which earlier in life fed several children born in a sequence of coming up to each other’s ears in height.
She may have been both and neither.
But whoever she was, at some point and without exception, she could be found sitting in the kitchen with bowl milk in front of her, filled to the brim with cornbread so yellow it protruded through milk like the sun through nimbus clouds.
Before she’d splash milk over bread, she’d break it apart. She’d be patient, after all, she waited a day for the bread to become stony and hard, to split it into chunks. (This cornbread isn’t soft like cornbreads of the American south or a cake biscuit.) Here and there, a sturdy piece wouldn’t give way no matter the pressure. But put in a bowl of white liquid, even the hardest pieces relaxed and melted into a sweet and soft comfort.
The grandmother would slurp with satisfaction, remembering her own grandmother.
It may not be cornbread and milk, but one day this will be you.
THE “WRONG” WAY …
Like pogacha (traditional Balkan bread), cornbread is made throughout the region, and in many different ways. A couple of things help sort it out as cornbread typical for the Balkans. Its sturdiness, hardness even, and the use of cornflour (or finely ground cornmeal, ground maize). Other ingredients vary and may or may not include baking powder, white flour, salt, milk, eggs, and oil.
Today’s recipe is my aunt’s dressed down cornbread version. (It involves corn flour, sugar, oil and an egg mixed with scorching water.) I’m attached to it as it’s the cornbread my grandmothers made.
We may be unaware but where food is concerned there exist in us a thousand small prejudices about the “right” way and “wrong” way things are prepared. For many of us, food was how we were shown love, so when we think we recognize a food “transgression” it hits home. Some of our caretakers were busy so breaking bread around the table was the moment (in some households the only moment) when a small child was recognized as equal to grown-ups. Or recognized at all.
The cycle of “right” and “wrong” way imprints in those moments. This belief that the only right way to eat something is if it’s made exactly the way our mom or grandma, or dad or grandpa makes it.
We take this very personally. While we grow out of many generalizations about the world, somehow we cling to our food preferences. They pull the strings of our self-love – or lack of – and challenge beliefs about how respected we are.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
I mention this because, with the increased readership, one pattern that keeps on popping up is this idea of one right way to make something.
I struggle with this myself sometimes. I’m more of a food traditionalist and am known for my hate of fusion joints. I’m the first to tell you if you go to a Balkan restaurant in the West and they serve Caesar salad, you should walk right out.
Some fundamentals are important. If the recipe calls for making a ćevap (or Balkan meat sausage), you can’t make me a pie and call it a ćevap. But if you bring me a ćevap that has an ingredient that’s different, or two, it’s still a ćevap.
I may not be used to your version, but it’s still a ćevap.
CORNBREAD DO’s AND DON’Ts
Today’s cornbread is on the sweet side. (Put less sugar if you prefer, but don’t omit it completely.)
It’s made to be tough, because, unless warm, cornbread is almost never eaten solo. There is always a dip of some kind or a dish.
A dip can be anything from milk or European style yogurt to jam and sour cream. (Jam and sour cream combo are like the Balkan pb&j, so check it out!) And it’s best but broken into pieces with your hands.
Dishes cornbread goes splendidly with include the stuffed cabbage, ratatouille stuffed peppers. In short, anything “stewy” you can dip it in.
A tip on baking temperature and time. Please go through your experience here! My oven is on the weak side, so baking it at 480°F (250°C) for 30 minutes and then an additional 15-20 with a cover, made sense. Aleksandra would bake it at this temp for about 10 minutes before turning it down. Mom has to bring the temp down from 480°F before putting it in the oven.
My point? Follow your experience. Check the bread while it’s baking. Blushing too soon? Cover with foil, or turn the temperature down earlier. Some people prefer to bake cornbread for longer than an hour on 350°F (180°F). This may be the way you prefer to do it too.
Did you try it? What do you think? Would grandma approve?
Breads & Pastries, Vegetarian
- Prep Time: 10
- Cook Time: 50
- Total Time: 1 hour
- Yield: 4 1x
Whoever came up with the phrase “breaking bread” had no idea they were talking about Balkan cornbread: a slightly sweet, sturdy, comfort staple you don’t use a knife to cut but break it apart old-school – with your hands.
- 17.6 ounces cornflour (finely ground cornmeal or maize)
- 1 egg
- 2.5 tablespoons sugar
- pinch of salt
- 4 tablespoons oil + a little more
- 13.5 ounces of boiling water
Heat oven to 480°F.
In a large bowl, combine cornflour, egg, sugar, salt, and oil. Mix with a wooden spatula as much as the ingredients will allow.
Make a dent in the middle of the mixture and start adding a little bit of water at a time and continue while working ingredients with the spatula.
When you’ve exhausted all the water, and mixed ingredients to the max with a spatula, start kneading with your hands. (The consistency of the dough will be similar to wet sand.) Continue kneading a few minutes until you form a smooth dough ball.
Transfer the dough bowl into a well-oiled, round, 9-inch pan. Flatten the dough ball and even out with your hands so that it’s of the same thickness everywhere. Lightly oil a plastic scraper and make a circle with it, slightly separating the dough from pan walls. Use the spatula to smooth out any creases in the dough.
Place pan in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.* Turn the pan 180 degrees and cover with foil. Bake an additional 15-20 minutes. Use a toothpick to prick in a few places to check whether the bread is finished. If the toothpick comes out clean, the bread is done. If not, bake a little longer and repeat the test.
Take a clean kitchen towel and wet it. Squeeze out the extra liquid until the kitchen towel is damp, but not dripping with water. Take the bread out of the oven and place it in the damp kitchen towel. Let it cool for 20-30 minutes.
Eat cornbread warm. Store in a plastic bag. If eating the following day, soften in milk or stew.
Unlike most recipes on the site, you should be very precise with volumes. Use a digital scale to weigh the cornflour while using measuring cups for water. Be careful when working with boiling water.
*Baking time (and temperature) will depend on your oven. Mine currently runs on a weak side. If cornbread blushes earlier, cover it with foil at that time. Use the toothpick method to determine when it’s finished.
- Serving Size: 1/4 of cornbread
- Calories: 614
- Sugar: 8.4g
- Sodium: 98mg
- Fat: 19.5g
- Saturated Fat: 2.8g
- Carbohydrates: 103.4g
- Fiber: 9.1g
- Protein: 10g
- Cholesterol: 41mg