Spoon bread, banana bread and a pep talk on cornbread

Nell Harris of Flintstone, Ga., is in search of a tried-and-true sourdough bread. And we have repeat requests for blackened meats, jerk chicken and other meats, as well as caramelized onions and anything else that can be caramelized.

• It's a new season with new tastes and aromas in the kitchen and at the table. This makes me think of careful word choice: not smells, but aromas. And that reminds me of a kitchen blessing learned from our Atlanta daughter-in-law: Use a timer.

As in many areas of life, having been the recipient of much grace, I've come to expect cooking grace, relying on just remembering when something baking is due out of the oven. It worked for my mother in her magical kitchen, but she had fewer distractions (or was less distractible, perhaps; those were the days before attention deficit disorders).

In my husband's family, his father used to say to his mother, "Hurry up and burn the toast, Emmy, so we can eat."

With a timer there are no crisp edges, no charred crusts. There are AROMAS instead of SMELLS. Simple solution: Follow the directions and mark the time.

Thanks, Anne, for your example.

• And by the way, Anne has on occasion rearranged my refrigerator, telling me "you need a dairy shelf." Because so much fits in this category, it makes a difference to have a shelf reserved for dairy. Do you have any organizing tips to share with the rest of us? I hope you will do so.

Marianne Halbrooks answered a question and sent a recipe to add to the pesto conversation. She reported, "I got this from a cookbook I bought at the Biltmore mansion." Note that one doesn't have to have basil for pesto; parsley pesto works just as well, as Ms. Halbrooks' co-worker, Paige Brown, has proven. But Ms. Halbrooks insists that, though the recipe calls for walnuts or pine nuts, "You gotta have pine nuts."

And about freezing pesto, Ms. Halbrooks also weighs in. "I have frozen pesto with and without garlic and can tell no difference. I freeze it in ice-cube trays, pop them into a freezer bag and take out as many or as few as I need at the time."

Basic Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed

2 cloves garlic (or more)

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts (pine nuts preferred)

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Place basil in food processor or blender, and chop.

Add garlic, cheese and nuts. Process to mix.

Add olive oil, salt and pepper. Process to desired consistency.

Allow to stand 5 to 10 minutes before serving on your favorite crackers, pasta or raw vegetables.

Pesto can be kept in refrigerator for up to 1 week. Freezes best when you leave the garlic out and add it just before serving.

• Jane Guthrie is grateful for all your sweet-potato muffin recipes and is ready to begin the testing process, which sounds like a great deal of fun. She weighs in, along with Karen Horne, on the crispy cornbread dilemma.

Mrs. Guthrie, a seasoned cook, says she "sympathizes but doesn't have the solution to your crisp cornbread dilemma. I have suffered with gritty dry cornbread recently myself ... too heavy even in the iron skillet with bacon grease.

"I did buy some new meal the other day. I only use self-rising flour. I suspect, in my case, too much cornmeal in proportion to liquid. I thought of that after I made Mother's easy spoon bread the other night. The amount of liquid to meal is two-to-one.

"Spoon bread is a good way to go. It is very easy and a slice of warmed spoon bread with some Tupelo honey is good the next day. It almost looks like pound cake."

And here's the proof.

Spoon Bread

2 cups milk or half-and-half

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup self-rising cornmeal

3 eggs, beaten

Spray a loaf pan with cooking spray, and heat in a preheated 350 F oven. While pan is heating, heat milk, butter and sugar in the microwave until butter melts and milk is hot and a little bubbly. Milk should not be boiling. Three minutes more or less ought to do it.

Remove loaf pan from oven.

Remove milk/butter/sugar mixture from the microwave. Pour in cornmeal and stir hard. It should foam a little.

Add a spoonful of this mush to beaten eggs in another bowl, stir and add the eggs to the mixture until it is mixed as best you can.

Pour into the loaf pan and bake 25 minutes or so.

It rises like a soufflé. To keep it from falling, turn the oven off when the bread has risen. Also, crack the oven door when cooking time is over so the shock of leaving the oven is tempered.

Recipe may be doubled.

Cook's note: Some loaf pans can be shallow, so when I filled two of them there was about a cup of the mixture left. I poured it back in the egg Pyrex mixing bowl and stuck it in the oven. One gigantic spoon bread muffin resulted.

• Pardon my own Mama memories today, but I would guess this has happened to you when reading Fare Exchange. There was a round Pyrex dish that was my mother's vessel of choice for spoon bread. I've got an exact mate to it, and I hadn't thought until now that I should experiment. That spoon bread, after being beaten by my magic mama (her version called for the separation of yolks and whites, and she folded those whites in with reverent and fearful care), came out steaming and fluffy. Butter melted in its golden crevasses shortly before the whole spoonful melted in your mouth.

• This morning I opened email and at the very top was this message in all caps: DON'T GIVE UP. At the end of the message of encouraging words was this name: Karen Horne.

She wrote, "You mentioned you were about to give up on getting crispy outside/ moist inside cornbread. DON'T GIVE UP. The secret is putting your oil in the pan and placing in oven. Turn oven to desired temperature. Mix batter. As oven heats, the oil heats, and when you add your batter, it will sizzle a little. That is what you want. Crispy outside and moist inside.

Don't rush to put your batter in until oven has reached proper temperature, as the hot oil causes the crispy crust."

These three words concluded Ms. Horne's comments: "Works for me." And isn't that all any of us can truly say? You can see this same method referenced in Jane Guthrie's comments above. But sad to say, I have even tried that and gotten less than heavenly cornbread.

I will, however, heed the kind warning of Karen Horne and not give up.

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