I first made this bread for Thanksgiving about 40 years ago, and I’ve been making it for that holiday ever since. This bread captured my imagination from the first loaf, because it’s delicious, beautiful, and different.
Lighter and moister than most cornbreads, this bread has many uses. The gorgeous yellow color, light open crumb, and warm flavor blend well with traditional holiday meals centered around turkey or ham, and it’s also good in stuffings.
For breakfast, I recommend it toasted with cream cheese, or as French toast. Cornbread with cream cheese is a marriage made in heaven — definitely a good choice for a special brunch. As French toast, it will elevate a weekend breakfast. Soaked in milk and egg, the crumb softens, but retains a lovely texture — soft, but never soggy. And maple syrup brings out the bread’s warm tonalities.
On winter afternoons, when sunset comes too soon, I serve this cornbread with butter and honey along with strong tea or coffee in front of a fire in my fireplace. Another dish I enjoy is a slice spread with Gorgonzola, a soft Italian blue cheese.
I found the basic recipe for this pumpkin cornbread in The Breads of France, a 1978 cookbook by Bernard Clayton Jr. He attributes the recipe to the French Basque Country in the Pyrenees mountain range, but this is probably too precise. I’ve come to understand it as part of a class of French pumpkin cornbreads broadly associated with southern France — not just the Basque region. While documentation is sparse, it’s clear this bread is based on an old tradition.
The first known French pumpkin bread recipe was published in the mid-1600s by the influential author Nicolas de Bonnefons. This was a wheat bread. In southern France, where cornbread was a staple bread for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, people would sometimes combine their cornmeal with boiled, mashed pumpkin to subtly improve the bread’s texture.
Pumpkin and home-grown cornmeal make the texture and crumb of this cornbread distinctive.
French breads are lean as a rule, meaning they’re made only with flour, water, leavening, and salt. The French have a tradition of fancy breads — pains de luxe. These yeast breads are enriched with one or more fatty ingredients, such as egg, milk, or butter. The cornbread recipe on Page 28, with its milk, eggs, and pumpkin ingredients, falls into the luxe French bread tradition. Leavened with both yeast and egg whites, this bread has an open crumb, like that of a sandwich bread, taking the idea of cornbread to a different level.
To produce this bread in your home kitchen, you need only part of a pumpkin or winter squash, and a half-dozen ears of flint corn. Anyone with a patio can grow a pumpkin; I’ve been growing pumpkins for this bread for at least 30 years. Even if you have a small yard, you can easily grow the corn, too, as I did last summer. Deeply colored yolks from backyard chickens, combined with the natural yellow of the cornmeal, will produce an intensely colored bread.
Cornmeal is often ground from flint corn, an extremely hard corn — think of those colorful ornamental ears sold in autumn. Popcorn is a type of flint corn. I grow ‘Floriani Red Flint,’ a polenta corn I’ve written about in MOTHER EARTH NEWS (see “Floriani Red Flint: The Perfect Staple Crop for Every Homestead,” December 2010/January 2011). When growing your own flint corn, be sure to let the husk dry completely before removing the kernels and grinding. If you don’t have a flour mill, or don’t have a friend who owns one, then you can mill cornmeal in a food processor, high-speed blender, or small coffee grinder. You’ll need to work in small batches and carefully monitor the grind, making sure to stop when you’ve achieved a meal, not a fine powder. I should warn you about these workarounds: I’ve heard that corn can scratch plastic containers, such as the jar of a Vitamix blender. I tested making 2 cups of cornmeal in my coffee grinder, and also in a small food processor, and I was happy with the results.
From top: Fold beaten egg whites into the batter just before baking; mark a plastic measuring cup to see when the dough has risen enough.
Corn and pumpkin are both American crops. Indigenous people grew them together in the same field along with beans in the Three Sisters system of companion planting. If you’ve never grown your corn, pumpkin, and beans this way, try the planting method next spring. We can thank the French for developing this pumpkin cornbread recipe, but it’s time to bring it back to North America, and to acknowledge the Indigenous farmers who made this bread possible by domesticating pumpkin and corn.
The French have two words that roughly translate into English as “pumpkin” — citrouille, or true pumpkin, and potiron, or winter squash. French squash cornbreads seem to call for one or the other interchangeably. The recipe in Clayton’s cookbook calls for “pumpkin” in the recipe, but “potiron” in the French title. I suggest using pumpkin during fall, and then switching to winter squashes, such as acorn or butternut, when pumpkins are out of season. Winter squashes are less fibrous than most pumpkins and can be sweeter.
Sugar is an optional addition. Sweeteners weren’t common in historical cornbread recipes, but modern French and American recipes reflect the fact that most of us have a sweet tooth. I leave out the sugar because I’m diabetic. This recipe is leavened with yeast or sourdough, so, if you do add sugar, it will mostly be metabolized by the yeasts, and the bread will be less sweet than you might expect.
The best way to add a hint of sweetness, and at the same time an ineffable warmth, is to add the alcohol that’s listed as an optional ingredient here. French recipes often call for Armagnac, an expensive brandy from southwest France. I bought a bottle and tested it in the recipe, but I don’t think it makes sense to buy a bottle just for this purpose. Instead, you can use a less expensive brandy, or whiskey to make the recipe more North American.
Serve a slice slathered with butter and homey on a cold winter’s day.
Lastly, I’ll discuss the leavening. If you use yeast, the dough will rise about 66 percent when set in a warm place for an hour. The combination of yeast and egg whites brings real magic to this bread, and provides enough leavening power, even for naturally gluten-free cornmeal, to produce a crumb that’s more open than any other cornbread I’ve eaten.
Vegans can use water instead of milk, and skip the eggs. Spoon the batter into the prepared tin, set the tin in a warm place, allow it to rise about 50 percent, and then bake as directed in the recipe.
You can substitute canned pumpkin, or acorn or butternut squash, for fresh pumpkin in this recipe. To prepare fresh squash, remove the seeds, cut about 11/2 cups (about 12 ounces) into small pieces, cover them in water, and boil until the flesh is soft. Use a spoon to separate the pulp from the skin, and then mash.
Cornbread will mold more quickly than wheat bread in hot or humid climates, so store accordingly. This bread freezes well. Yield: 6 to 10 servings.
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup mashed pumpkin or other winter squash
- 2 cups cornmeal (use flint corn if grinding your own)
- 3 eggs, separated
- 1 packet yeast (7 grams), or 1/2 cup mild sourdough starter
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Up to 4 tablespoons sugar (optional)
- Up to 1/4 cup brandy or whiskey (optional)
Directions: Warm the milk in a saucepan on the stove, or, alternatively, in a glass jar in a microwave.
In a mixing bowl, add warmed milk, pumpkin, cornmeal, egg yolks, yeast, salt, and optional sugar and alcohol, if using. Mix until smooth, and then cover and let ferment in a warm place until batter has noticeably risen. With yeast, this will take about 45 minutes at 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and longer if rising at a lower temperature. Sourdough starter could take a few hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Liberally butter the sides of a 6-cup baking tin or soufflé mold, and line its bottom with parchment paper. When the oven has come to temperature, whip the egg whites. Thoroughly whisk the first third of the whites into the batter, and then more gently fold in remaining whites, one-third at a time. Pour into the prepared baking tin, and immediately place in oven.
Check for doneness in 45 minutes: A knife inserted into the center of the bread should come out clean.
Remove bread from the tin to cool on a wire rack. Slice and serve when cooled.
William Rubel has unearthed many historic recipes for the pages of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He’s the author of Bread: A Global History, and is one of the world’s preeminent bread historians.
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