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Thursday, November 7, 2013


I tasted my first bite of spoonbread years ago when Michael and I had dinner at Historic Boone Tavern in Berea, Kentucky. I had just moved back to Kentucky from New York City to live with the boy of my dreams in a small townhouse apartment located a few blocks from downtown Richmond. Nestled on a steep embankment surrounded by a sea of pavement, the apartment had ample parking and a tiny deck overlooking Interstate 75. With romantic innocence, we simply pretended that the relentless roar of the interstate traffic sounded like continuous crashing ocean waves. High tide all the time. Cozy.

There wasn't much to do in Richmond circa 1985. We were both college graduates living on the cheap in a college town. Aside from sunbathing on our asphalt beach (drinks in tow), date nights at Ponderosa Steakhouse, or occasional trips to Lexington for late night drag shows at Johnny Angel's Disco, we spent  most our free days driving around the rolling back roads of Madison and Estill Counties. Windows down. Music blaring. Trips to nowhere. On one particular drive, after hiking up the pinnacles of Indian Fort Mountain just outside of Berea, we passed Boone Tavern and thought it would be great fun to live large and return for a sampling of their classic southern fare. Reservations? Check. Jackets? Nope. Back in the day, Boone Tavern had a dress code. Gentlemen were required to wear jackets at dinner. Period.  If anyone arrived without one, they were invited to browse through their lovely complementary selection. I didn't have a jacket. As a transplanted New Yorker, I landed in Kentucky with a lone suitcase filled with Andy Hardy-esque cuffed baggy pants, skinny ties, weird dress shirts, and saddle oxfords. Yep.

Undaunted by my hip hapless wardrobe, we arrived  for dinner. After rifling through the complementary jacket closet, I dressed like a wayward clown and joined Michael for dinner in the old dining room of Historic Boone Tavern. Within minutes, a student-server glided by our table offering dollops of fluffy souffle-like spoonbread with butter. I have no idea what else I ate that night. It was all about the light and airy spoonbread. Swallowed in my ill-fitted borrowed jacket that certainly didn't match my saddle oxfords, the spoonbread got to me.

Spoonbread is totally southern. Cornmeal. Eggs. Milk. Butter. Humble ingredients. It's like a crazy cross between cornbread, souffle, and savory corn pudding. It's like nothing else. Spoonebread is simply spoonbread. There are countless variations.  Some folks like to gussy it up with various add-ins. Sometimes, less is more.

I went the less-is-more route. I wanted the real deal. I wanted the one served to Michael and me several years ago under the painted watchful gaze of Daniel Boone at his namesake tavern, so I went straight to the source. Served as an appetizer or southern amuse before every meal, Boone Tavern has been kicking out killer honest spoonbread for decades. It's what diners remember and crave. Richard Hougen, restaurant manager of Boone Tavern for over 30 years, compiled regional Kentucky dishes and his restaurant favorites in three cookbooks, including the recipe for spoonbread.

Boone Tavern Southern  Spoonbread.
3 Cups Milk
1 1/4 Cups White Cornmeal
3 Eggs
1 Teaspoon salt
1 3/4 Teaspoons Baking Powder
2 Tablespoons Butter

Stir meal into rapidly boiling milk. Cook until very thick, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. The mixture will be very stiff. Add well-beaten eggs, salt, baking powder, and melted butter. Beat with an electric mixture  for 15 minutes.  Pour into well-greased pan and bake at 375 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Serve from pan by spoonful with butter.
        Look No Further - Richard T. Hougen

It was fairly straightforward. I boiled the milk, added Weisenberger Mills unbolted plain white cornmeal, stirred it into a thick cornmeal mush, let it cool, added the remaining ingredients, and beat it with hand mixer for 15 minutes. Here's the deal, beating anything for 15 minutes seemed ridiculous. Determined to follow through, I actually attached my hand mixture to an extension cord, sat on the couch, and watched football while I mixed the spoonbread ingredients.

During the first 10 minutes of beating, I was very tempted to toss in snipped chives or cheese because it seemed downright boring. After 15 minutes, the weirdest thing happened.  The mixture transformed from a grainy cornbread texture into a silken batter.  I didn't want to muck it up with extra stuff, so I poured it into a well buttered dish and slid it into a preheated 375 degree oven to bake for 30 minutes.

When I pulled the puffed spoonbread from the oven, it deflated immediately. I slathered the top with 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, cracked it open with a large spoon, let the butter slowly ooze into the center, and spooned dollops onto small serving plates.

Spoonbread butter bombs.
Just as I remembered.
No jacket required.

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