I wanted to make refried beans, in no small part because I had two pounds of bacon fat trimmings in the freezer, which I had saved expressly for the purpose of making lard. I didn’t really have any intended vehicle for the refried beans, but Chef John suggested nachos, so I made nachos. Of course I didn’t have tortilla chips at the time (and I didn’t want to make a superfluous trip to the store), but I did have a large stack of corn tortillas in the freezer, so I turned those into chips. But I digress.
After straining the rendered pork fat through a cheesecloth, I was left with about 7 ounces of solid bits, known in the south as “cracklings” (ignoring the fact that lard is usually made with unsmoked, uncured bits of pork fat). The lard recipe suggested using these bits in something called “crackling bread”…basically cornbread with pork bits. I had a project!
But first I turned to Google to survey cornbread and crackling bread recipes, like you do. In particular I was curious to know if any specifically called for masa harina, which I had on hand, leftover from making homemade tortillas and pupusas. Turns out The Pioneer Woman had a recipe for Masa Harina Cornbread. I compared it to a Homemade Cracklin’ Cornbread recipe that I’d settled on because it was one of the few that did not rely on self-rising cornmeal. But I had no sense if either recipe was “correct” in an empirical sense.
Enter the spreadsheet.
|Fat||1/2 cup||6 tbsp (3/8 cup)||1/4 cup|
|Cornmeal||1 cup||1 1/2 cup||1 1/2 cup|
|Flour||1 cup||1/2 cup||1/2 cup|
|Maple Syrup||1/2 cup||1/4 cup||1/3 cup|
|Milk||1 cup||1 1/3 cup||1 1/3 cup|
|Baking Powder||3 tsp||2 tbsp (6 tsp)||5 tsp|
|Salt||1/2 tsp||1 tsp||1/2 tsp|
|Cracklings||1/2 cup||N/A||1 cup (7 oz)|
I was delighted to find that in large part, they used the same ingredients in roughly the same quantities (or ratios). So they must be correct, right? In fact there was only one ingredient whose quantity was different enough to warrant further research: baking powder. The crackling bread recipe called for 3 teaspoons while the cornbread recipe called for a whopping 2 tablespoons—twice as much. (Here it helps to recall that 1 tablespoon equals 3 teaspoons.) Given that baking powder was the sole leavening agent, its quantity mattered more in relationship to the other ingredients than almost anything else. The incongruity bothered me.
So I went further down the sodium bicarbonate rabbit hole. It was helpful to learn early on that 1 teaspoon of baking powder per 1 cup of all-purpose flour is a commonly accepted ratio in baking. Unfortunately I was only planning on using 1/2 cup of flour, so I could only account for 1/2 tsp of baking powder. I could not find an incontrovertible ratio for baking powder to cornmeal…until I thought back to those crackling bread recipes I had dismissed because they called for “self-rising cornmeal”. As soon as I found a halfway-credible recipe for DIY self-rising cornmeal, I took it as gospel. In short, it called for a ratio of 1 tablespoon (or 3 teaspoons) of baking powder to 1 cup of cornmeal. Since I was planning on using 1 1/2 cups of masa harina, that meant I’d want to leaven my crackling bread with a further 4 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder. Thus I landed on a quantity that stood apart from both of my sources: 5 teaspoons.
I suppose the only controversial ingredient, especially in the south, was the inclusion of maple syrup. In general, I prefer savory to sweet, and so I’d normally side with the southern “cornbread ain’t sweet” faction. However, in the context of crackling bread, adding a note of sweetness to contrast with the salty pork bits seemed like a culinary no-brainer to me. And I’m fully onboard with the advice from the cornbread recipe: “extra butter and maple syrup, for serving”.