March 30, 2020
by Bruce Neyers
Frost protection wind machine in our recently pruned Cabernet South Vineyard, looking southeast.
In her seemingly endless quest to put a smile on my face, Barbara surprised me with a platter of her homemade cornbread for dinner last night. She baked it in the oven in a cast-iron skillet, and served it with a thick slab of Niman Ranch apple wood-smoked ham, alongside some sautéed baby carrots and homemade local chutney. With it, I served a slightly chilled bottle of our 2018 Roberts Road Pinot Noir. We just began to ship this wine and when we tasted it in Washington, DC recently it was showing especially well.
I rarely see her cornbread more than once a year – mostly in the summer with her 4th of July Buttermilk Fried Chicken – but I sense she was eager to see how fond I’d be of this long-time favorite on a chilly March night. It was the start of our 2020 frost season too, so some special sustenance was appreciated.
We’ve had bud-break now all over the Napa Valley, and the fragile new shoots on the grapevines are vulnerable to frost. About half of our vineyards are protected by solid-set Rain Bird sprinklers that spray a fine mist over the vines, preventing the shoots from freezing, which would destroy the cells. The balance is protected by a wind machine, a device equipped with an airplane propeller that moves the heavier, cold air away from the surface of the ground, and replaces it with the warmer air slightly higher in elevation. The water application has several drawbacks, so if the frost is modest – like last night’s – we prefer to protect the vines using just the wind machine. It’s noisy though, and ours sits close to our bedroom window, making it hard to sleep. Sensing a short night in my future, I treated myself to an extra slice of cornbread.
Barbara said it took her about 30 minutes to make the cornbread, and she stressed the importance of baking it in the cast-iron skillet, rather than one of those devices that faintly resemble a metallic ear of corn. As a result, when finished it looks more like a cake, and is sliced accordingly to be served.
Here’s the recipe, thanks to David Tanis, a friend and former Chez Panisse chef who now writes for the ‘New York Times’. By the way, a slice can be reheated the following morning, then served with some melted butter and maple syrup or honey, a country version of French toast you may want to introduce to those in your family who cooperate with the idea of ‘Shelter in Place’.
Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread
1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter melted and cooled, plus ½ tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan
1½ cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the corn meal.
Whisk together the eggs and buttermilk.
Add the eggs and buttermilk and melted butter to the dry ingredients. Combine until just blended, do not over mix.
Five minutes before baking the cornbread, put the cast iron skillet in the oven to warm. I prefer one that is 8-9” in diameter, about 1½” deep
Pour the batter into a lightly buttered cast iron pan.
Cook until the cornbread begins to brown on top about 20 to 25 minutes.