Spoon bread is a completely Southern dish, so what could be more “traditional” on the Gulf Coast? It combines two of Southern foods’ favorite ingredients: sweet potatoes and ham. Unlike most breads, spoon bread is not sliced and eaten, but is rather more like a pudding or soufflé and is literally spooned out of the dish and onto the plate. Spoon bread is normally served as a side dish and nutritionally takes the place of the starch such as potatoes or rice at the meal.
The sweet potato is another Southern food, and one story of its discovery by European explorers has Desoto finding it in native gardens right in Louisiana. Whether it was Desoto or Columbus that took it back to Europe, it has remained a Southern staple, seeing many families through hard times, whether it was an economic depression or a civil war. Today, the sweet potato doesn’t appear on tables as often as it once did, but the nutritional benefits it had remain the same. It is still an inexpensive and nutritional addition to the dinner menu.
Pork is another food that remains forever connected with Southern cuisine, and the Gulf Coast loves it almost as much as it loves seafood. Where would cooks have been without ham hocks, salt pork, pickled pork, pig feet, juicy hams, pork chops, and pork sausages in New Orleans? Both cured and uncured pork products are featured heavily in traditional Gulf Coast foods for the same reasons that they were popular throughout the South. A pig could be raised on much more marginal land and taken to market much easier than a cow, and the initial expense of buying that first piglet was far less than that of buying a calf. Even today, descendents of feral pigs run through the swamps and woods of the entire Gulf Coast region and many hunters pursue them.
Corn is another native food that was adopted by European settlers upon their arrival in the New World, and in the South, corn is present in a wide range of foods ranging from familiar grits and cornbread, to the breading that is used for the Gulf Coast’s famous fried seafood. It was one of the staple foods of the Native Americans all across the continent, and saved the early European settlers from certain starvation in their new home. Even in more recent times, it has been a nutritional staple for those who have hit upon “hard times.”
This recipe brings all of these together for a real taste treat that doesn’t keep the cook slaving away for hours.
Sweet Potato & Ham Spoon bread
- 1 lb. sweet potatoes
- 2 1/4 c. yellow cornmeal, plus more for dusting
- 1 1/2 tbsp. sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 1/2 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
- 3 c. boiling water
- 1 1/2 c. buttermilk
- 1 1/2 tbsp. honey
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- Scant 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 5 large egg whites, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375°. With a fork, pierce the sweet potatoes several times and set them directly on the oven rack. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on rack below the sweet potatoes to catch any drips. Bake the sweet potatoes for 1 hour, or until they are tender and let cool enough to handle. Slit the skins and scoop the flesh into a large bowl. Mash until smooth. You should have 1 1/4 cups of mashed sweet potatoes. Increase the oven temperature to 425°.
Butter a shallow 2 qt. glass or ceramic dish and dust with cornmeal, tapping out any excess. In a large bowl, mix cornmeal with sugar, salt and baking soda. Melt the butter in the boiling water and then stir the water mixture into the dry ingredients. Let cool slightly.
With an electric mixer, beat buttermilk, honey, cumin, white pepper, cloves, and cayenne into the mashed sweet potatoes until combined. At medium speed, beat in the cornmeal mixture.
In a clean stainless steel or glass bowl, using clean beaters (this is very important–it has to be all completely grease free!), beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold the beaten egg whites into the sweet-potato mixture until no white streaks remain. Pour batter into the prepared baking dish and bake for about 40 minutes, or until golden and risen and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve the sweet potato spoon bread warm or at room temperature.