Happy New Year! As we welcome 2014, think up resolutions, and embrace lots of new things, I wanted to start the year with an old favorite of mine. Cornmeal is a breakfast dish that only my Papa can make. The best way I can describe cornmeal is that it’s a semi-sweet, warm, porridge-type breakfast. It’s a great meal to have on a cold morning or when you’re feeling a bit under the weather. And if you’re hungover one New Year’s day, I think this would help you feel better too.
And I’m serious when I said Papa’s the only cornmeal-maker in my family. Once when I was a kid, Mom made it for me and it came out lumpy. In college, I found a recipe online, and what I made came out as a dry and thick cornmeal lump. Papa is the one who makes the creamiest and tastiest cornmeal. So when I came to visit for the holidays I asked him to show me how. I’ll be honest with you that I’m still a bit intimidated. Papa showed me how to do it, but I think it’s going to take some practice before I’m on his level. So maybe that’ll be one of my New Year’s resolutions: to master Papa’s cornmeal.
Before we get started, let me provide a few of Papa’s tips for success.
1. He prefers Quaker brand cornmeal, but any regular cornmeal will do. He does not recommend ultra-fine cornmeal because he says it’s harder to work with.
2. This recipe is about finesse and whisking. It doesn’t take that long to make but you will need to be attentive and whisk constantly. You want the cornmeal to be smooth so you have to whisk a lot to keep it smooth. Lumps can happen, if you end up with a lot in the beginning then you’ll need to start over.
3. Think of this similar to how you think about making mashed potatoes. When you make mashed potatoes you add milk and butter until you get the desired creaminess. The same is true here. I’ve given amounts for ingredients, but you can add more butter and milk as you go until you get your desired consistency.
4. This whole thing takes about 20 minutes or less, but I don’t have specific times for these things. Next time I make it I’ll use a timer.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 cup water, divided
2 cup milk
3 tbsp butter (plus more just in case)
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar (or more to your taste)
cinnamon for garnish
1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, mix 1 cup water, milk, vanilla and salt. Bring to a simmer and stir occasionally.
2. While that’s heating, in a small bowl mix together the cornmeal and 1 cup of water. Whisk so that all of the cornmeal gets wet. The cornmeal and water will never get completely smooth, but you want it to be mixed enough so that the cornmeal does not stick in the whisk. See the picture below to see the cornmeal mixture stuck in the whisk. You want the cornmeal mixture to still be a bit thick and lumpy, but when you take the whisk out of the liquid clumps of cornmeal mix easily fall off.
3. When the liquid in the saucepan is bubbling (but not boiling over) add the cornmeal. WHISK LIKE CRAZY!!! Whisk, whisk, whisk until everything is smooth and there are no lumps.
4. When the mixture is smooth add the sugar. KEEP WHISKING!
5. Lower the heat (or remove quickly from heat if mix is thickening too quickly) and whisk, whisk, whisk. Taste it! Does it taste buttery and creamy? If not, add a splash more milk and a sliver more of butter. Whisk, and taste. You can also add more sugar if you like things sweeter.
6. Keep whisking until you have the consistency of grits or non-runny oatmeal. You want some of the liquid to evaporate and thicken, but not so much that it makes the cornmeal dense. Think back to the idea of mashed potatoes, you want them light, creamy, and buttery – and that’s the same idea here.
7. Pour cornmeal onto plates. You know the cornmeal is ready to pour when you lift the whisk, the cornmeal should run off smoothly. (Another hint, Papa recommends heating your plates in a 225° oven so that you’re cornmeal will stay warm as you eat.)
8. Sprinkle cinnamon on top for taste and garnish.
9. Eat with a spoon. My family scrapes around the plate in circles from the inside to the middle, that way you’re eating the coolest part first. Enjoy!
Messy Level: This is a two spoon mess recipe. It really doesn’t create much mess because most of the work is done in a single saucepan. But, it can be a little drippy so that’s the only reason I’m giving it two spoons.