Vickie Strobel's request for jazzed-up versions of cornbread couldn't come at a better time, with New Year's Day dinner around the corner and the arrival, finally, of soup-'n'-stew weather.

Purists, hold your fire over the "jazzed-up" part. As in music, improvisations in food make eating interesting, no?

It's no secret that Southerners are very fond of cornbread. It has seen them through war and poverty, to be sure, yet no one seems ashamed of the fact that it was sometimes all they had to eat. If anything, it's now a point of pride to know and love cornbread.

Moreover, two cookbooks published in the past four years have been devoted entirely to the subject of cornbread.

The latest, "The Cornbread Gospels" by Crescent Dragonwagon (Workman, $14.95), talks about the differences between Southern and Northern cornbreads. There are exceptions but, in general, Southern cornbreads are defined by more cornmeal and little or no flour, buttermilk versus sweet milk, no or just a bit of sugar. They typically are cooked with bacon fat and/or butter instead of oil, leavened with baking powder and baking soda, and baked in a cast-iron skillet.

Here's a word of advice: Always use stone-ground cornmeal if it's available and you can afford it. It does make a difference, with more flavor, texture and nutrients than the mass-produced stuff.

Pat Cleary of Goose Creek offers a popular variation on cornbread. She embellishes the mix by adding diced pimiento.

Green Chile Cheese Cornbread

Serves 8

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 can (12-ounce) evaporated milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 egg

1 can (4-ounce) chopped green chiles

1 can (17-ounce) whole kernel corn, drained

1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Sift together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in milk, oil and egg. Beat well. Add chiles, corn and cheese. Pour 2 tablespoons oil into a cast-iron skillet (or baking pan) and heat. Pour the batter into it and bake in a 375-degree oven for 30 minutes or until done.

Julie Howard of Edisto Island sent a spicier recipe adapted from Ina Garten and her "Barefoot Contessa at Home" cookbook. "Very good!" Julie wrote.

Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons baking powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 cups milk

3 extra large eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted, plus extra to grease pan

8 ounces aged extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated, divided for use

1/3 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts, plus extra for garnish (3 scallions)

3 tablespoons seeded and minced fresh jalapeno peppers (2 to 3 peppers)

Combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, eggs and butter. With a wooden spoon, stir the wet ingredients into the dry until most of the lumps are dissolved. Don't overmix. Mix in 2 cups of the grated cheddar, the scallions and jalapenos, and allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x13x2-inch pan.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheddar and extra chopped scallions. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool and cut into large squares.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Connie Mulleady of Edisto Beach shares a recipe that she says is always a big hit. "I usually do other Mexican dishes with it, but I'm sure it can be done any way you want. I'm not sure where I got this, I've had it so long."

Beefy Jalapeno Cornbread

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup milk

2 eggs, beaten

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup salad oil

1 (17-ounce) can cream-style corn

1 pound ground beef (see cook's note)

1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1 medium onion, chopped (see cook's note)

4 to 5 jalapeno peppers, chopped (see cook's note)

Cook's note: A little more meat and onion may be added, if desired. The number of jalapeno peppers also is variable.

Combine cornmeal, milk, eggs, salt, baking soda, salad oil and corn in a mixing bowl; blend well and set aside. Saute ground beef until lightly browned; drain thoroughly and set aside.

Pour half the cornbread batter into a lightly greased 13x9x2-inch casserole (glass works best). Sprinkle with cheese. Crumble beef over cheese, and sprinkle with onion and peppers. Pour remaining cornmeal batter over top. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until golden brown. Yield: 10-12 servings.

Janet Ganiere of Walterboro e-mailed, "Not sure who gave me this recipe, but think I got it years ago from another Navy wife at one of our get-togethers. It's one of my husband's favorites and a big hit at potlucks."

Sausage-Cornbread Bake

6-8 servings

1 pound bulk sausage

1 large onion, chopped

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups self-rising cornmeal (see cook's note)

1 (17-ounce) can cream-style corn

3/4 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

Cook's note: If using regular cornmeal, add 2 teaspoons baking powder to the cornmeal.

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Grease a 10 1/2-inch skillet or a 2-quart baking dish; set aside.

Brown sausage and onion in medium skillet; break up meat with edge of spatula to cook thoroughly, then drain well. Combine eggs, cornmeal, canned corn, milk and oil.

Pour half of cornmeal mixture into prepared dish; sprinkle with sausage mixture and cheese. Pour remaining batter over top. Bake 30-40 minutes until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

This recipe in "The Cornbread Gospels" cookbook intrigued me. While more traditional than not, its distinction is custard. It's described in the book as a cornbread that "combines features of the North and South, and a wholly unique twist on preparation.

The twist? A cup of milk is poured over the finished batter, resulting in a custard layer just underneath the top crust."

Originally this cornbread was baked in a long-handled skillet with feet, called a "spider," that was designed to stand in a fireplace for baking.

Yankee "Spider" Cornbread With a Custard Layer

Makes 8 wedges

Vegetable oil cooking spray

1/3 cup unbleached white flour

1 1/2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

3/4 cup buttermilk

2 cups milk

2 to 3 tablespoons butter or mild vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with oil and set aside.

Sift together the dry ingredients into a medium bowl.

Break the eggs into a second medium bowl and whisk them well. Whisk in the buttermilk and 1 cup of the milk. Set aside.

Place the butter or oil in the skillet and place the skillet over medium heat on top of the stove. As the butter or oil heats, quickly stir the wet ingredients into the dry using as few strokes as possible to combine them. (The batter is wetter than most cornbreads. You might need to whisk it a couple of times to incorporate wet into dry, but don't overbeat.)

Pour a little of the hot butter or oil from the skillet into the batter, give a stir or two, then pour the batter into the prepared hot skillet. Pour the remaining 1 cup milk over the batter, without stirring it in.

Bake the cornbread in the oven until golden brown in spots on the top and quite golden around the edges, 50 minutes to 1 hour. The bread will still seem slightly wetter than most cornbreads, but if you poke a toothpick in the center, it'll come out clean. Let cool in the pan for at least 20 minutes before cutting, so the custard can set up a little.

Serving suggestions: Serve warm, but not hot. Place a large piece of butter on the top of each slice and eat with a fork. Enjoy with a bowl of stew or paired with an assertive salad.

Also thanks to Jane Orenstein of Summerville and Peggy Joseph of Charleston for contributing recipes.

Who's got the recipe?

--We're still pursuing a cake, or something close to it, for Vickie Strobel. She saw a cake named "New Orleans Bourbon Pecan Cake" advertised in a catalog. It appears to have a thick pecan filling between two yellow cake layers, a caramel buttercream frosting, pecan pieces pressed into the side, and caramel sauce drizzled on the top.