Prepare the cornbread. This may be done several days in advance. Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a 9-inch cast iron skillet inside. Add to the skillet and allow to liquefy:
The past several years of my life have been largely spent learning to do arcane things.
I majored in French language and literature. I spent three and a half years under the tutelage of a cheese maker. I learned how to spin wool into yarn and then knit that yarn into clothing. I learned how to sew. I learned how to garden and then how to install rudimentary irrigation systems. I learned to keep chickens.
At this point, I know how to do a lot of seemingly useless things. I say "seemingly" because I do not believe them to be useless. As someone who fantasizes about ultimate self-sufficiency, my bucket list is full, not of faraway destinations to see, but of things to learn.
This list has nothing to do with an apocalypse scenario or complete economic breakdown and resulting social anarchy. In fact, doomsday theory is far from my mind. I am simply obsessed with the adage that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.
The same applies to cooking. Cooking is a practicality that most of us have to deal with. On some level, even if it's only microwaving a boxed rice pilaf or assembling a taco dinner kit, we all have to cook.
There are, however, vastly different levels of knowledge and self-sufficiency in the kitchen. There are microwave mavens and stir-fry sages; casserole queens and Dutch oven divas; cast iron curmudgeons and nonstick sticklers. Then, there are bakers.
Hardcore bakers are a lot of things. Idealistic, anal retentive, perfectionistic, and, some would argue, crazy. But when you want a flaky, buttery croissant or a crisp-crusted baguette, who else are you going to go to?
For now, I'm not going to get into croissants or baguettes. Though not necessarily difficult to make, they are time consuming. I will, however, shed some light on breakfast's beloved bread, the English muffin.
These rotund little darlings are the picture of simplicity, both to bake and to eat. They require little fussing and mussing, and they happen to be perfect for summer, as no oven is required. Their somewhat unusual stovetop cooking method also renders the English muffin the perfect bread to make with children.
The only tricky aspect of making a perfect English muffin is getting those little nooks and crannies that butter and jam can collect in. As you can see in the photo above, I did not manage to achieve this. Guess what? They taste great anyway. I've read that you can get this result by cooking the muffins as they are rising. This way, the little pockets of carbon dioxide created by fermentation are fixed in place and even expanded by the evaporation of liquid in the cooking process.
This recipe is from JOY, although I have tweaked it to make it more flavorful and to have a chewier texture.
Combine in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer until smooth:
2 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup warm (105° to 115°F) water
1/2 cup room temperature (72° to 75°F) whole milk
Cover the bowl with a cloth or plastic wrap. This mixture is called a "sponge." Let this rise in a warm place about 1 1/2 hours, or until it collapses back into the bowl.
3 tablespoons butter, softened
Beat or knead in:
2 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
Knead with a stand mixer or by hand about 8 to 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Let rest for 30 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a surface lightly sprinkled with coarse cornmeal and pat the dough out to a thickness of about 1/2 inch. Cut into rounds about 3 inches in diameter, and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Let rise until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
Heat a griddle (I used a rectangular cast iron griddle, but a skillet will work) over medium heat until hot. Working in batches, transfer the rounds of dough to the griddle. Cook until browned on the bottom, then flip, cooking the other side until brown. Remove to a rack to cool and repeat with the remaining rounds of dough.