The Story Behind New England Spider Cake: The Sweet, Quirky Cornbread with a Surprise Inside

published Nov 5, 2019
New England Spider Cake

Heavy cream is poured over a sweetened cornbread batter, creating a spidered, multi-layered texture as it bakes and yielding bites ranging from crisp to tender to earthy and sweet.

Serves8 to 10

Makes1 (10-inch) cake

Prep15 minutes

Cook50 minutes to 1 hour

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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Coral Lee

Debates among cornbread fans are every bit as heated as the ones between Chicago- and New York-style pizza adherents, if not more. Should it have sugar? Butter or oil? Can flour ever come into contact with a “proper” cornbread batter?

Say what you will, but I prefer sugar in mine. It’s a habit that came with my Illinois state ID and an upbringing that included plenty of Jiffy box mixes. But I may have discovered a way to bring the delicious taste of sweet cornbread to everyone’s table, without causing an argument. How? Add so much sugar it gets blown out of the cornbread category altogether, and becomes cake. Then, while you’re at it, drown the whole thing in cream and top it with maple syrup. Voila! It’s a delicious cornmeal concoction that’s too far removed from cornbread for anyone to worry about. And it’s otherwise known as New England Spider Cake. 

This quirky recipe is the perfect demonstration of how to do a whole lot with very little, a key characteristic of many early American baked goods. As with most cornbreads, it’s a one-bowl, wet-into-dry operation, with an ingredient list short enough to memorize. The pantry staple creativity is what makes this old-school recipe so impressive: After a simple batter is scraped into a cast iron skillet, a dousing of cream not only adds richness, but also magically transforms what would ordinarily be a slab of regular ol’ cornmeal cake into a multi-layered cross-section of textures ranging from crispy crust to tender crumb to earthy corn custard, all in one bite. It’s worth making for the experience alone, but if you’re a fan of sweet and salty combinations, this unique recipe delivers in spades. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Coral Lee

How New England Spider Cake Got Its Name

Some recipes claim the name comes from the spider-like veins of cooked cream that run through the finished cake, but according to Kathy and Keith Stavely, the duo behind America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking the cake, like many other cornbread cousins, was traditionally cooked in a cast iron vessel known as a spider. As the Stavelys explain, “A ‘Spider’ is an eighteenth-century name for a skillet that had three long legs so it could sit above the coals of a hearth fire.”

The legs were eliminated when more modern stoves were invented, but at the time, they allowed for air to flow between the hot coals and the pan, resulting in more controlled cooking (or, in this case, baking). These days, a modern flat-bottomed pan in a conventional oven does the trick just fine (although I urge you to still use cast iron for that aforementioned textural interplay). 

The Very First Spider Cake

According to the Stavelys, the earliest published recipe we know of that mentions a spider in connection with baked cornbread is a recipe for “Indian Cake” in Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife (1832). “Indian” refers to “Indian meal,” which is how cornmeal was commonly referred to, since corn or maize was the staple grain of the native people of New England.

It’s not clear when cream was first poured into the center. The Stavelys note the practice of adding milk or cream to a corn custard before baking is often employed in Indian Pudding, a creamy cousin to cornbread. “We don’t know of any (cornbread) recipes before the later nineteenth century in which some of the dairy liquid is kept separate from the cornmeal mixture until the last minute. But a recipe from Mary J. Lincoln’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book (1884) perhaps marks a transition between recipes where the entire dairy component was mixed into the basic batter, and those in which cream is poured into the center before baking.”

That recipe instructs the cook to mix all the buttermilk (sour milk) and just half the measure of regular (sweet) milk into the batter, then to “pour the other half cup of sweet milk over the top, but do not stir it in.” From that 1884 recipe, it’s really just one luxurious step further to use heavy cream, and let’s face it, there are few things in life that can’t be improved by swapping plain milk for cream. 

What you get with that switch is a dish that walks the line between several recipe categories. Although the term “cake” may have you filing this recipe into the dessert folder — and with its healthy amounts of sugar and cream it can certainly live there — I think it works just as well as a superb treat-yourself breakfast moment on a fall weekend, with a river of maple syrup, spooned straight from the pan. Give it a try. No matter what you decide to call it, it’s delicious.

New England Spider Cake

Heavy cream is poured over a sweetened cornbread batter, creating a spidered, multi-layered texture as it bakes and yielding bites ranging from crisp to tender to earthy and sweet.

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 50 minutes to 1 hour

Makes 1 (10-inch) cake

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons

    unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan

  • 2 cups

    whole milk

  • 1/2 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 2

    large eggs

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons

    white vinegar

  • 1 cup

    all-purpose flour

  • 3/4 cup

    yellow cornmeal

  • 1 teaspoon

    baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    baking soda

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    fine sea salt

  • 1 cup

    heavy cream

  • Maple syrup, for serving

Instructions

  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Place the skillet in the oven to heat while you make the batter. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter, set aside to cool.

  2. Place 2 cups whole milk, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 2 large eggs, 1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar, and the melted butter in a large bowl. Whisk to blend well. Add 1 cup all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, and 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Whisk until nearly smooth. The batter will very thin. Set it aside to rest for about 5 minutes. 

  3. Remove the hot skillet from the oven. Pour in the batter. Pour 1 cup heavy cream directly into the center. Bake until the cake is deeply golden and beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan — the cake will still jiggle a bit on top and might have a few cracks along the surface — 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool slightly before slicing into wedges, or spoon warm from the pan. Either way, serve with a drizzle of maple syrup. 

Recipe Notes

Baking in a cake pan: Baking the cake in a cast-iron skillet gives the cake more color and a wonderful golden crust which adds to variety of wonderful textures here. But a deep 9-or-10-inch cake pan will work, too. 

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.