Lift Up Your Grits With Awendaw Soufflé

This Charleston staple straddles the line between a cornbread, a spoonbread, and a soufflé.

7/21/2021 11:00:00 PM

This Charleston staple straddles the line between a cornbread, a spoonbread, and a soufflé.

This classic Charleston side dish features thick and creamy corn grits lightly flavored with Cheddar cheese and chives, and made airy like a soufflé when baked with beaten egg whites.

Thick and creamy grits serve as the perfect base for airy beaten egg whites.Adding cornmeal ensures the soufflé has the structure and stability to rise and stay risen, and provides extra texture and corn flavor to the grits.Adding the beaten whites in stages lightens the base and ensures thorough mixing, while retaining as much air as possible for a light final texture.

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Most people wouldn't associate grits with being delicate. Grits are filling and hearty, something you eat that sticks to your ribs to keep you full throughout the day. And if you’re not from a certain part of the Southeastern United states, there's a decent chance you're not familiar with

well made, high quality grits. But not only will a good pot of grits wow a crowd, in a preparation like Awendaw soufflé, it's the definition of lightness.Awendaw is a grits dish famous in Charleston that straddles the line between a cornbread, a spoonbread, and a soufflé—in fact, depending on the recipe, you may see it described as one or the other. Many versions are, on a technical level, remarkably similar to

a soufflé, with the grits taking the place of a French soufflé's bechamel base; beaten egg whites are folded into the grits, which puff and swell as the Awendaw bakes.Whether there was actual French influence on the recipe is hard to say, though one of the first mentions of Awendaw is in

Carolina Housewife, a cookbook published in 1847. Written by a woman named Sarah Rutledge, the book combined many cooking techniques and ingredients found in or brought to the Deep South with those of the popular French “haute” or “grande” cuisine of the time. Recipes using ingredients like benne seeds or okra are found alongside pieces on how to clarify a stock for “le bouillon” and a recipe for “boeuf a la gardette”—a change from many early American cookbooks, which were much more heavily influenced by the Northern colonies and the Dutch or English backgrounds of many of their residents.

The name Awendaw, or Owendaw, comes from an area of the Lowcountry of South Carolina that the indigenous Sewee people once inhabited. Before they fled their homeland on the coast, they shared their knowledge of growing and preparing corn for consumption with the various colonizers of the Southeast.

One of the most popular and recognizable dishes prepared from corn is cornbread, and, in the South, its more creamy cousin, spoonbread, is just as fondly prepared by experienced hands. In Rutledge'sCarolina Housewife, the recipe is listed as “Owendaw Cornbread,” and it calls for hominy, milk, cornmeal, and eggs to make a dish that is the consistency of a baked, boiled custard. Her recipe for “Corn Spoon Bread” has similar ingredients but is made more like a cornmeal pancake, its batter dropped by the spoonful onto a hot griddle, giving the recipe its name.

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By the 1950s the production of cornmeal, hominy, and grits had become more industrialized, making them much more accessible and easier to cook. This is where a recipe by the name “Awendaw Spoonbread” first emerges. Mrs. Ralph Izard gave it to the Junior League of Charleston, and it can be found in

Charleston Receipts, the oldest Junior League book still in print today. Mrs. Izard’s recipe is more akin to a baked grits casserole, with a slight rise from the addition of the eggs, but much more firm in texture compared to the recipes of Sarah Rutledger, due to the amount of grits and cornmeal in the recipe.

The recipe for the Awendaw soufflé that I'm offering below is a combination of both of those women's recipes and techniques, and an homage to the many Black chefs and cooks of the South who often didn’t have formal culinary training (some chefs, like James Hemings, were able to be classically trained), but were some of the most important innovators of American cooking, weaving together techniques from around the world with familiar Indigenous and Southern staples like cornmeal and grits. Theirs were often the hands making the foods found in domestic cookbooks in antebellum America.

While this recipe requires steps very similar to making a soufflé, which can seem daunting to many cooks, it'sfairly easy to make with success(although there are special considerations necessary for those cooking at higher elevations, as noted in the recipe). As long as you carefully fold the beaten whites into the grits base so that they're fully incorporated but still retain some air, the Awendaw will rise and puff—not quite as dramatically as a bechamel-based soufflé (those grits do start out on the dense and heavy side), but noticeably so. The resulting consistency should be creamy, almost custardy, and still light and fluffy despite being made from grits.

The dish takes about an hour and a half to prepare and bake, including cooking the grits. If you don’t have soufflé ramekins, a baking dish with high sides will work just as well, creating the effect of the rising soufflé, and the dish can be scooped and served at the table like spoonbread. Other cheeses, herbs, and fillings (like fresh sweet corn) can be used in place of the chives and cheddar cheese as well.

Read more: Serious Eats »

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