The cast iron workout: Caramelized Onion Upside-Down Cornbread. - Something Edible
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The cast iron workout: Caramelized Onion Upside-Down Cornbread.

The cast iron workout: Caramelized Onion Upside-Down Cornbread.

Abstract: Part of the fun in buying a new cast iron skillet is breaking it in. In my recent efforts to bring a new skillet up to par with the rest of my cast iron collection, I caramelized two onions in a half stick of butter, baked my Grandma's cornbread recipe atop it all, and then flipped the whole mess over "pineapple upside-down cake"-style. This rich and decadent upgrade makes plain ol' cornbread worthy of main course status for a luncheon or even a light dinner.

Purpose: A few weeks ago, I picked up a 10 inch cast iron skillet to fill a functionality void for those times when the trusty ol' 12 inch was just too much iron. As I wracked my brain for ways to break it in as fast as possible, my mind drifted to cornbread. As I flipped thru my stand-by recipe sources, I came across my Grandmother's cornbread recipe. I have no idea where she got it, as it was typed out on a recipe card for her use so many decades ago; but as a lot of Grandma's cooking has southern roots, I'm pretty sure it's the real deal. Authenticity aside, I couldn't help but notice that the proportions of Grandma's cornbread had quite a bit in common with the batter that holds up a pineapple upside-down cake. With that in mind, I started considering options for an upside-down cornbread. As I'm trying to expose my new skillet to as much oven and stove time as possible, caramelized onion seemed like a good fit functionally and from a taste perspective; and let's face it: there are very few savory things that couldn't do with a little onion that's been slow-simmered in a alotta butter.

Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -

The Bottom, errr- Top... Whatever.

  • 2 sweet yellow onions Big ones, halved and sliced longitudinally.
  • 4 Tbsps butter (Hot damn, that's a half-stick!)
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp sweet vermouth (Optional, I suppose.)
  • The Cornbread

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 egg (a big one.)
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • 2 Tbsps butter melted
  • 8 fluid oz buttermilk (That's a cup.)

  • Into a 10 inch cast-iron skillet, add the sliced onion, 4 Tbsps butter cut into tablespoon-sized chunks, and the teaspoon of salt. Place your laden skillet over a burner at high heat for 4-5 minutes or until the onion just starts to think about browning. Take the heat to medium-low and continue to cook the whole mess down for about 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. The idea is that you want the onion to turn brown (but not actually brown) gradually; all the while cooking a good portion of the liquid out. After 45ish minutes, go ahead and stir in the vermouth, and kill the heat.

    To prep the quickbread, preheat the oven to 450F. In one bowl whisk together the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, baking powder, baking soda, and corn meal. Into another bowl whisk together the egg, honey, buttermilk, and 2 tablespoons melted butter. Stir the wet stuff into the dry stuff until the dry goods are just integrated, then spoon out and spread over the top of the caramelized onion. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until a toothpick comes out free of batter when testing the center. Run the back edge of a butter knife around the perimeter of the cornbread and let rest for ten minutes before ever so carefully inverting onto a serving dish.


    • The first rule of caramelizing onions: Don't let 'em brown. The second rule of caramelizing onions: Don't let 'em brow- yeah, you get the idea. We just use high heat at the beginning to give the cast iron a little something to work with and kick-start the whole process, which'll in turn save you about 10-15 minutes. As long as you wheel the heat back before browning occurs and stir frequently, you'll caramelize an onion that'd have done Robert Paulson proud.
    • If you're not keen on booze and still want to finish your caramelized onions with a lil' somethin', a couple of teaspoons of red wine vinegar would be just dandy.
    • Incidentally, If you just wanna caramelize the onions and could care less about the cornbread, caramelized onion freezes exceptionally well. One of my favorite uses is to dump a few tablespoons into a pound of ground beef destined for the grill. It's the condiment you never knew you were missing.
    • Resist the temptation to over mix your cornbread batter. Lumps are ok, just be sure to get all that dry stuff off the bottom of the mixing bowl.
    • Four hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit. I know, right? That's hot as hell for a quickbread. Every time I look at my Grandma's recipe I struggle with resisting the temptation to dink with the temperature. This is a thick batter, and it makes for a hearty bread with a tender crumb that's not about the light and fluffy. Consequently, we're trying to bake as quickly as possible without cooking the moisture out of it.
    • Don't forget about running the reverse edge of that butter knife around the perimeter of the cornbread as soon as it's out of the oven. The cornbread will have a tendency to contract and if you don't release the edges, you'll see a rift develop in the center.  Likewise,  loose edges will just make the finished product that much more willing to release from the pan when the flip takes place.
    • This entire recipe could totally be done on a grill as well. I've caramelized onions on the grill countless times as the Mrs. doesn't always appreciate the Allium potpourri in the casa. Likewise grill baking's no sweat as long as your heat is indirect in nature. 

    Results: Originally I had envisioned this as a side that would accompany a barbeque or even chili. However, the more I ate, the more I realized that this stuff is rich; and why wouldn't it be with all those onions a-swimmin' in butter? That said, I think your best bet may be to serve this as a vegetarian main course next to something like a cold soup, a big ol' salad, or maybe even grilled vegetables. As you take that first bite, the aroma and texture of the caramelized onions are unmistakable, and if not for the mildness of the cornbread, it'd totally be too much. Hell, as it stands, it probably is a bit much, but it's a good much; like the same way double-chocolate cheesecake is a bit much. The caramelized onions make for a sort of sweet and savory jam whose flavors thrive when paired with the heartiness and crispy brown edges of this particular style of cornbread.

    If I'm gonna come clean, I almost never use Grandma's cornbread recipe by itself, as some folks might find it a bit too hearty (read: dense). However, in the sort of application we've got going on here, it's exactly the kind of quickbread we need to support two ginormous onions and an eighth of a pound of butter. And, while I can certainly bet that my Grandma would never have pulled this dish out of her oven, I think it might be this cornbread recipe's highest and best use.

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