When you're in elementary school, before responsibilities like term papers and exams put a damper on the holidays, the middle of November through December is a time of year when school becomes particularly fun and exciting. Almost every class, in one form or another, seemed to draw from Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah for project inspiration.
In art class, we would carefully trace our hands on paper plates, adding feathers on top of the fingers and a beak onto the thumb to make a turkey, which would hold court on our refrigerator door for all of the relatives to see. This was also the time of year when pottery and clay were worked into the curriculum, so that our creations would be kilned and ready to wrap as Christmas gifts. My dad still has the "interesting" clay taco that I so proudly presented him with one year. You see? Even then, I was into food.
Music class would focus on preparation for the big holiday concert, which was held every year in the school's gymnasium-turned-concert hall. Bleachers were stacked away in lieu of the "good" plastic and metal folding chairs, which parents, grandparents, and siblings would sit and squirm on as they listened to off-pitch renditions of "Jingle Bells" and "The Dreidel Song" played on the recorder. I actually still have my recorder, complete with a circle of pink nail polish painted around the rim, my attempt to distinguish it from everyone else's recorder.
In second grade, I remember having several weeks of class during November dedicated to learning about the Pilgrims. We did some sort of a play about the Mayflower (so glad that my parents didn't have a video camera at the time), and we learned about the very first Thanksgiving feast. As part of that lesson, my teacher, Mrs. Gonzales, taught us how to make cornbread, and then we all got to have a piece. I don't recall being deeply enamored with her version, as it was a bit dry and crumbly, but cornbread became something that I associated with Thanksgiving as a result.
Since second grade, I have tried many, many variations of cornbread, often encountering that same dry texture issue, which bad cornbread has become notorious for. This variation, a rather unconventional sweet and savory version, is my all-time favorite, incorporating anise-scented fennel seeds, chewy tart cranberries, and crunchy pecans. Although cornbread purists might scoff at my adding sugar to the recipe (a huge no-no in the South), the sweetness works with all of the other flavors. The inside of this bread is nice and moist, and the outside forms a lovely crisp crust. For those of you who prefer an alternative type of bread on your Thanksgiving table, I have included a favorite easy biscuit recipe, which mixes chopped green onions and black pepper in buttery, flaky layers. These are great for mopping up gravy or for making post-turkey day sandwiches. Prefer rolls? Gotcha covered. Check out my Texas-Sized Dinner Rolls or my Butternut Squash Rolls, another two favorites. Clearly, the no-carb thing will never work for me! Here are my extra tips for preparing this scrumptious selection of breads:
- The cornbread loaves can be baked up to 3 days in advance, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and stored at room temperature. The loaves can be frozen for up to 1 week, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. Thaw at room temperature.
- Instead of making small cornbread loaves, you can make 12 cornbread muffins or 2 larger loaves. The cornbread can also be baked in a hot large cast-iron skillet and then cut into wedges.
- Crushing fennel seeds right before you add them to the batter releases more flavor during the baking process. You can crush the seeds using a mortar and pestle, a heavy rolling pin, or with the bottom side of a heavy skillet. You can also pulse them a few times in a spice grinder. You fennel will become more fragrant as you crush it.
- Instead of using 1 cup cranberries, you can use a mixture of cranberries and golden raisins. Feel free to substitute a different type of nuts or to omit them altogether.
- The biscuit dough can be prepared in advance and then frozen, tightly wrapped, for 5 days or refrigerated for up to one day. Thaw frozen dough overnight in the refrigerator.
- Biscuits can be baked in the morning and then reheated, wrapped in foil, just before serving.
- If you do not think that scallions will be a hit with your family, try substituting some chopped fresh rosemary, thyme, or mixed herbs.
Sweet and Savory Cornbread
Makes 4-5 mini loaves
1 1/3 cups flour
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 cup coarsely chopped dried cranberries
1/2 cup medium-fine chopped lightly toasted pecans
1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seeds, coarsely crushed
Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Spray 4 small loaf pans with non-stick spray and set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, whisk together the melted butter, eggs, and buttermilk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring until just combined. Stir in the cranberries, pecans, and fennel seeds.
Divide the batter among the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Place the pans on a baking sheet and bake in the middle of the oven until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean, 20 to 25 minutes.
Cool the loaves in their pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert the loaves onto the rack to cool completely.
Flaky Black Pepper and Green Onion Biscuits
Makes 12-14 biscuits
1/2 cup minced scallions
2 cups flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
Scant 1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
8 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
2 tablespoons melted butter for brushing biscuit tops
Coarse black pepper and coarse salt for sprinkling
Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 425F degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
Combine the buttermilk and scallions in a small bowl. In the work bowl of a food processor add the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt, and black pepper; pulse several times to blend. Add the cubes of chilled butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
Gather the dough together and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough gently to combine, about 3 or 4 turns. Roll the dough out to a 3/4-inch thickness. Using a floured 2-inch round cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can. Reroll the scraps and cut out additional rounds. Place the rounds on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them 2 inches apart.
Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter. Sprinkle each biscuit lightly with the coarse pepper and salt. Bake the biscuits until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean, 18-20 minutes. Cool the biscuits slightly on the pan and serve warm (or at room temperature.)