Every time I make cornbread I hear my father’s voice in my head, telling me one of his childhood stories. When he was a boy growing up in post-WWII Yugoslavia, the times were hard, people impoverished, the country ravaged from the brutality of the war, and hunger was an everyday experience for the majority. “There was no bread made of flour, white or wheat. We ate only cornbread, and not that beautified version that housewives make today with eggs, and cheese, and ham… Ours was made only from cornmeal and water. And when your stomach is rumbling, nothing tastes sweeter than those hardened discs seemingly made completely of crusts.”
I have tried many times in vain to replicate the cornbread from his adolescence that people in my country still make for big weddings and community events, as that bread is the only allowed accompaniment to anything made of sauerkraut. Mother was not particularly fond of that basic formula and preferred to treat us to the “sissified version” Father kept on mocking (even though I have never seen him reject a slice when offered). Since there was not a recipe for it in her handwritten cookbook I inherited, I have always been at a loss.
When I am in Serbia and there happens to be a feast featuring this simple bread, I enjoy it, as the only flavor that’s present is the sweetness of the mill-ground cornmeal and maybe a grain or two of salt. My daughters don’t like it and as Father will never cross the Atlantic to visit us again, I don’t have an incentive to master the old-fashioned cornbread baking. No matter how much I love it, I cannot envision eating the whole thing by myself, which would probably take me about a week.
But everyone in my house likes cornbread, the rich city cousin of the rugged traditional pauper: the Serbian version, the southern version, and even the sweet Yankee version. I buy cornmeal at my neighborhood Persian store, and even though it’s yellow, it’s the closest to stone-ground cornmeal from Serbia. I usually make it plain (yes, I can hear Father snorting), adding only some crumbled feta, but this time I had a few roasted hot Hatch chiles, and it seemed like that would be quite a compatible fit.
I served it as a side dish to chili and instead of kajmak*, which is what would be served in Serbia, I offered cream cheese. After a few bites, we all concluded that it tasted like jalapeño poppers. And jalapeño poppers are my guilty pleasure. Now that Hatch chile season is in full blast, I am going to make sure to have a few packets in my freezer just for the days when the poppers cravings hit.
*kajmak is a Serbian dairy product similar to clotted cream; when the fresh milk from the cow is slowly heated, it forms a thick skin on the surface which is comprised of milk fat; that layer is collected with a slotted spoon, placed in a bowl, and salted; the process continues for several days with each new batch of milk. This is one of the few Serbian products that cannot be found outside of the Balkans and are really difficult to make at home, as it asks for fresh cow milk, and lots of it!
- 1½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
- 1½ cup of cornmeal
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt (I usually don't use more, as feta is pretty salty)
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup water (or club soda)
- ½ cup buttermilk or plain yogurt (you can use more milk if you don't have buttermilk or yogurt)
- ½ cup sunflower oil (or any neutral oil of your choice)
- 8 oz crumbled feta cheese
- 2-4 hot Hatch chiles, roasted, peeled, and cut into small chunks (you can use mild chiles, too)
- Pour 1 Tbsp oil into a cast iron pan (or a 9-inch round cake pan).
- Turn the oven to 425 F and place the pan in the oven.
- In a large bowl mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt.
- In a separate bowl mix milk, water, buttermilk, and oil.
- Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix to combine.
- Add feta and chiles and stir gently to spread evenly..
- When the oven is heated through, take the pan out of the oven (remember to wear gloves!)
- Pour the batter into the hot pan.
- Return to the oven.
- Bake for 20 minutes.
- Turn the heat down to 400F.
- Bake for another 15-20 minutes, until done (if it's done, the knife inserted in the middle will come out dry).
- Let it rest for 15 minutes before you cut it.
- Serve with butter, kajmak, or cream cheese.