This is the best season to be in East Texas. The winter rains have filled up the ponds and encouraged the emerging leaves into a hundred different shades of green. The days have warmed without the blazing heat that will begin in only a few weeks. The nights are still cool and perfect for sleeping.
Unlike most of the rest of Texas, the “Piney Woods” are set on rolling hills which are filled with Southern pines, hickories, sweet gums, maples, and oaks of several varieties. This time of year, though, the redbud trees announce themselves as well as Spring. Beautiful shades of pink and red light up the woods.
Water and woods
More hidden in the depths of the forests, dogwoods hang like clouds in the shadows. The branches spread, and the white sepals seem to drift suspended. Close up, the markings remind us of the legend of the dogwood serving as the wood of the cross. It seems appropriate that the beautiful show occurs in the Spring.
Dogwoods under the forest canopy
A very old image of dogwoods in the East Texas Piney Woods
East Texas has not lost the commercial opportunities of the redbuds and dogwoods. The Palestine Dogwood Festival (that’s Pal’-a-steen, Texas) provides visitors an opportunity to eat street food, watch the crowning of the festival queen, and tour the beautiful woods.
There are lots of foods that typify East Texas, including fried catfish, hush puppies, greens of all sorts (collards, kale, pokeweed), and at other times of year, black-eyed peas. For me, though, the quintessential food is cornbread.
Cornbread is almost universally popular, especially in the South. Craig Claiborne, the famous New York Times editor and food critic from Mississippi declared that there are more recipes for cornbread than magnolia trees in the South! Yet finding good recipes for plain cornbread in cookbooks is a difficult task. Moreover, the popularity of packaged cornbread kits has made it even harder to find a real home-made chunk of cornbread.
If you decide to bake your own cornbread, there are decisions that need to be made. Cornbread made from white cornmeal tends to be more popular in the east with yellow cornmeal gaining increasing popularity the further west you travel. Northern cornbread, or “Yankee cornbread” as it is commonly called in East Texas, usually contains some sort of sweetening – molasses, maple syrup, sugar, or honey; Southern cornbread usually does not contain sweetening, but these distinctions between north and south are not absolute.
This is a version of Southern cornbread, baked in a cast iron skillet as, in my opinion, all authentic cornbread must be. Some time ago, we had an informal family competition for the best cornbread recipe. This was my entry. One of my daughters used a recipe from one of her friends. It contains sugar (heresy!) and is more like cake. But it is so good that you could wind up eating the whole thing by yourself. I plan to post that recipe in the near future.
Freshly mixed batter
Batter poured into the hot cast iron skillet ready for the oven
Cornbread right out of the oven
Warm, fresh cornbread and butter – almost a meal by themselves
2 tablespoons bacon fat for greasing the baking pan
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 jumbo eggs, room temperature
1½ cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- Preheat the oven to 425°F (218°C) . Grease a 9 inch cast iron skillet with bacon drippings and place in the oven 10 minutes before you are ready to pour in the batter.
- In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients: flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
- In a small bowl, combine the wet ingredients: buttermilk, beaten egg, and melted butter. When they are well combined, stir them into the dry ingredients.
- Mix the batter for only a few beats until the mixtures are combined and the large lumps have been smoothed. Do not overbeat.
- Remove the heated skillet from the oven, pour in the batter, and immediately return to the oven. Bake for 15 minutes in the top half of the oven. Turn the skillet 180 degrees and continue to bake for another 15 minutes or until the top is lightly browned. Remove from the oven, cool for about 5 minutes, then cut into eight wedges, and serve immediately while still warm.