Maize or corn made its way from the New World to Europe about four hundred years ago. It was enough time for Balkan cooks to develop their own special take on cornbread. There are many regional variations, but they share a few features that set them apart from the typical American cornbread.
A Balkan cornbread is usually dairy-rich. Along with eggs and milk, a typical recipe might include yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, or feta. Fresh from the oven, it is a rich, moist treat, a cross between bread and pudding that can serve as the main course. Unfortunately, Balkan cornbreads often lose their charm--or at least their moistness--once they cool off.
I have been looking for the perfect Balkan cornbread for several years now. Along the way, I have tried a few recipes for Serbian proja or projara, perhaps the best known variant. I once made a flavorful but dense cornmeal leek pie from an Albanian American cookbook. I haven't yet tried cornmeal zlevanka, a sweet dish made in Croatia and Slovenia, because it sounds more like a dessert.
Early in the fall, I found yet another recipe for Serbian proja or projara. It was on a charming blog called Paris on the Edge. The blogger, Allison, is an American artist living in Paris. The recipe comes from her Serbian friend Sonja.
Polenta, flour, eggs, oil, yogurt, sparkling water, and feta cheese. On the face of it, there was nothing unique about this recipe, except that it specified instant polenta. I'd never heard of it. Was it the same as the standard polenta I often prepared? Was it the same as cornmeal?
A little reading brought some much-needed clarity: Polenta is just another name for cornmeal, which can be purchased in different grinds. Instant polenta (which looks like a medium grind cornmeal) has been pre-cooked.
(Here's a helpful pictorial guide to the the difference between cornmeal and polenta.)
My local market was out of instant polenta, so I had to improvise with a mixture of what I had in my pantry: a bag of coarse cornmeal and another of corn flour (fine cornmeal.) I used Greek yogurt (mixed with a little kefir) instead of plain yogurt. And, in the spirit of that Albanian leek pie, I added some fresh vegetables: parsley and corn. Oh, and black pepper for extra zest.
Despite all the modifications, my first attempt at the new projara recipe was wonderful. Moist and flavorful. It reheated beautifully in the microwave the next day.
I have used that same basic recipe three more times. Each time, it is a little different. I have made it with and without corn kernels. I've used gluten-free flour. For my most recent attempt, I finally got hold of some instant polenta. It didn't make any difference that I could see.
There must be something magical about the proportions of cornmeal, flour, eggs, oil, and liquid. Or maybe it's the mineral water. This recipe is forgiving and always delicious and moist. At least so far.
But don't take my word for it. Try it yourself!
Never-Fail Balkan Cornbread (adapted from Allison's proja recipe at Paris on the Edge.)
3/4 c (120 g) polenta or cornmeal (see Note 1 below)
1/3 cup (30 g) white flour
1/2-1 t. salt
black pepper to taste (optional)
1/2 cup (100 ml) vegetable oil
3/4 cup plus 1-1/2 T (200 ml) sparkling water
3/4 cup (190 g) plain yogurt (see Note 2 below)
1 cup feta cheese (110 g), cut into "thimble sized cubes"
chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (optional)
Oil or butter an 8-inch cast iron skillet or round cake pan, or a rectangular ceramic dish. Sprinkle with a little cornmeal.
Combine cornmeal, flour, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, mix eggs, oil and sparkling water. Add these wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir well. Add yogurt and stir. Mix in feta cheese cubes and optional parsley and corn. Pour batter into the prepared pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm.
Note 1: Although the original recipe calls for instant polenta, the dish works with either type of polenta (instant or regular) and any kind of corn meal, although a coarse grind might be a little crunchy. I like to use a combination of medium and fine grind cornmeal (called "corn flour" in the US.)
Note 2: Plain yogurt is probably the best choice. I have also used Greek yogurt thinned with kefir or milk.
Special Diets: I have made a delicious gluten-free, low FODMAP version with gluten-free flour and Greek yogurt thinned with almond milk.