I saw my future in this cake, and in my future, I was an overbearing stage mom with lipstick on my teeth. I longed to dress my cake in ribbons and frills and make it presentable to guests. In cake-speak, this meant that I was itching to overload it with roasted fruit, to flood it with spice-infused cream, to make it a debutante.
But this cake wanted to be free. It wanted to sleep in late on Christmas morning, to go out sledding, to romp around in the snow, and to track water through the house. It was comfortable in its tomboy-ish ways, content with its gruff manners and its laidback attitude.
Just as I started spouting off ideas for how to dress up the cake like I had a verbal tic, the other editors put me in creative handcuffs. The beauty of this cake, they reminded me, lies in its simplicity, and everything I was piling on top of it was just a distraction.
This is a two-bowl, all-of-the-ingredients-are-already-in-your-pantry sort of cake. It belongs on your post-holiday brunch table — and not only because you can make it at 8 A.M. on December 26. Throw together the batter when you realize you spent so much time fussing over the capital H, capital M Holiday Meals that you forgot about feeding your guests the next day. It will slow your mind — anxious from dolling up pretty candies — and your body — strung-out from digesting sugary treat after sugary treat — but it’s not so virtuous as to be annoying.
This cake, in fact, is part of the series called “Food That Tastes Better Drowned with Cream” (food 1: Swamp Pie; food 2: Kale Gratin). You’ll make a quick cornmeal batter, dump it into a cast-iron skillet, then pour a cup of heavy cream over the center (and no, you cannot substitute skim milk). As the cake bakes, the cream will form milky rivulets all over its top. The real surprise comes, however, after you cut out a wedge: The cream sinks, forming a custardy middle layer below the crunchy cornbread top and above the firm bottom. A grainy, slightly sweet pudding with just enough flour to call itself a cake: It’s a Christmas (or a post-Christmas) miracle.
Even when I tried as hard as I could to let this cake be, I couldn’t resist ladling a little maple syrup over top. And you can do the same if you’d like. But come on: You’ve just spent the weeks from Thanksgiving to Christmas fancying up your desserts. Now it’s time to give yourself a break. Put on some wooly socks and let this recipe be exactly how it is. It’s not only good enough — it’s great.
4 teaspoons white vinegar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
Maple syrup, for serving
Photos by James Ransom