Do you like surprises? I do. Most of the time. But generally not when the surprise is associated with food. Tuna surprise. Meatloaf surprise. Turkey surprise. I really have no desire to know what the surprise is in any of those dishes. But sometimes food surprises can be the best kind of surprise. Okay, maybe not the best kind. The best kind would be a $20 bill in an old pair of jeans you just found, your sister showing up on your doorstep from across the country with nothing to do but hang out with you for the next week, or a promotion for your husband at work. So, maybe not the best kind. But a good kind of surprise. Like when you think you’re getting plain old cornbread but you take a bite and you realize that what you have tastes like cornbread, but is so much richer and almost custard-like. Or when you think you are getting yellow cake but you take a bite and realize you have a creamy, corny cake that is much more filling and satisfying than yellow cake.
Last night, when we served this cake to our guests, we didn’t tell them exactly what it was. We had been calling it “cake.” Squish kept asking for cake, and we told him he’d get some when he finished his food. We served it to our guests warm from the skillet and then listened as they tried to figure out what it was. “Does this have corn in it? Is it a corn cake?” For a moment I thought this might be an unpleasant surprise, but they soon assured me that it was quite tasty and different from anything they’d had before. See? A happy surprise.
The other surprise is the versatility of the dish. The cookbook says this makes a good, hearty breakfast, that will “get your kids to school happier than they’ve ever been” but the first time I made it I brought it to a potluck as a “cornbread” side dish. Last night I served it with raspberries on top as a dessert. It was a hit as a side dish and a hit as a dessert and I can imagine it would be a good breakfast, too. Yeah, with bacon and hashbrowns and a bowl of fruit . . . I’m going to have to try that for sure.
New England Spider Cake from The Essential New York Times Cookbook
2 cups buttermilk (or 2 cups whole milk soured with a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar)
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
2 T. unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the butter in a cast iron skillet and put in the oven to melt. If using milk and vinegar or lemon juice, mix them together and set aside.
Mix the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk the eggs into the buttermilk/soured milk. Stir into the dry ingredients.
Pour the batter into the skillet in the oven (the butter should be melted by then). Pour the cream into the center of the batter. Do not stir. Simply slide the oven shelf back into the oven and bake until golden brown on top, about 45 minutes. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving. Slice into wedges and serve warm, or let cool and eat it at room temperature. It also tastes good straight out of the refrigerator, as I just discovered.