Down South, summertime is all about barbecues and beach bashes, pool parties and potlucks. Anything to beat our infamous heat! And where there's good times (and hopefully water), you can always rely on great food. I'm continuously on the hunt for those perfect recipes to bring along. You know, ones that are easy to throw together and light enough to stand up to the weather, yet delicious enough to have everyone coming back for more.
Hence the search for my signature summer dessert. After doing a little brainstorming, it seemed a cornmeal cake could be just the ticket. And it just so happens I recently purchased a very large bag of stone-ground yellow cornmeal. I'd already put a nice dent in it with a big batch of cornbread dressing as well as a round of fried green tomato BLT's, so something sweet seemed like a nice change of pace.
I started playing around with some of my favorite cake recipes, knowing I wanted to use buttermilk for tang and whole vanilla beans for that little something extra. What a revelation! The first nibble of cake started out humble enough, but after a few more bites I realized I'd discovered a really good thing. The grainy cornmeal added such a nice, unexpected crunch to the cake, while the buttermilk made it so moist it almost melted in my mouth. The only downfall is that it was a bit on the sweet side (but is that really a downfall?), so I decided to whip up a tart mixed berry compote to drizzle on top. It was just the balance the cake needed to really soar.
I made the cake again a few days later just to have around the house for snacking. It's the ideal dessert for grazing, just a bite here or a taste there. You could even have it for breakfast if you dared. All I know is that I can't wait for the next party to show it off. I think it's going to be around for a little while. Well, at least until it's time to roll out a something new just in time for fall.
For the cornmeal cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) good-quality unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
For the mixed berry compote
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups (12 ounces) fresh or frozen mixed berries
1 tablespoon sugar
Squeeze of lemon juice
For the cake, preheat the oven to 350°.Generously coat a 9-inch round cake pan with shortening (tip: this works better than cooking spray or butter) and lightly flour the pan, tapping out the excess.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with a hand mixer), cream the butter until it is light and airy. Add the sugar and continue to cream until very fluffy, about 3 - 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the buttermilk and vanilla bean seeds, mixing until smooth. Gradually stir in the flour mixture until just incorporated, being careful not to over mix.
Pour the batter into the greased cake pan and smooth the top. Bake until the cake is golden and cooked through, about 25 to 30 minutes (start checking with a toothpick at 25 minutes). Cool the cake in the pan set on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife along the sides of the pan and remove the cake from the pan. To do this, place a lightly-floured free hand or cardboard cake round directly onto the top of the cake in order to support the layer; then gently flip the cake pan over with your hand or cake round still supporting it, while gently tapping with the other hand until the cake slips out onto a flat surface. Invert the cake once more onto a serving plate. Cool completely, slice into wedges, and serve with mixed berry compote.
For the compote, melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the mixed berries, sugar, and lemon juice. Allow the mixture to cook down, stirring occasionally, until a thick syrup forms but some of the berries still hold their form. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Spoon over the cornmeal cake.
Related: Need a go-to cake? 5 Easy Recipes to Make Your Own
(Images: Nealey Dozier)