Hoe Cakes. Johnny Cakes. Same thing, different names.

Way back in the misty murkiness of time when the United States was still a young republic, a recipe emerged on the American food scene. Which is funny, because we don’t really think of post-Colonial America as something with a “food scene” but nevertheless, people had to eat. The recipe was, at its heart, a flat griddle cake made of ground corn, water or milk, and cooking fat. In the North, this recipe was called a Johnny cake (jonnycake, Shawnee cake, journey cake, any John’s no-cake, and I’m not making that up). Rhode Island has, to this day, made an institution of the Johnny cake, even seeing the particulars of the cake debated in local government.  Southerners called this recipe a hoe-cake, or an ash-cake, or (begrudgingly) a Johnny cake, and to this day they cling to the hoe-cake. Early cookbooks demonstrate that cooks tried to shove a crowbar between the recipes to differentiate them. For example, hoe-cakes were to be cooked on a griddle while Johnny cakes were cooked on a board; please refer to “I’m not making that up”, above. This helps to illustrate a few points:

  1. Corn is ubiquitous to the American way of life.
  2. These cakes are low-rent food meant to fill people up for as little cost as possible.
  3. The North and the South still can’t agree on what to call these things. Though to be fair, New England also can’t agree with the rest of the country on chowder or bowling, so maybe this is par for the course. Also to be fair, they’re not the only place where local beliefs hold strong. But I digress.

Purists aside, most recipes have merged into one overarching ideal–that hoe-cakes and Johnny cakes are now the same thing, though I’m committing to a Southern bias here in using the name hoe-cake and serving them with okra. Whatever you call them, they are cornmeal mash pancakes, cooked on a griddle (a/k/a a “hoe”, a colloquialism that dates back to the 17th century), can be bangin’ if they are done well and are American AF.

So how do you make them?

[Click here for a printable .pdf file for hoecakes]

This is a pretty basic pancake recipe when you get down to it. So make a pancake. Mix together your dry ingredients, and use the cornmeal of your choice. Some folks will insist on finely-ground meal. I like a little texture so I generally choose stone-ground meal. It’s your kitchen, you decide.

In a large measuring cup, measure your buttermilk, and then crack your eggs into the buttermilk and whisk them together. Whisk the honey in with the milk and eggs. I prefer these on the sweeter side so I use two big ol’ tablespoons of honey in my mix, but feel free to use less honey than I do if that’s what you prefer. Pour the milk/egg/honey mix into the dry ingredients and stir together. It will be very thick and lumpy and not appetizing at all, but that’s OK. You still have to add oil and water. Many recipes will tell you to use a neutral oil, like canola or corn, but I like the taste of olive oil so that was my choice.

Once the oil and water are mixed in the batter will become very sloppy, so stir slowly at first, and make sure you deep-dive your spatula to the bottom of your mixing bowl to pull up all the flour/buttermilk mix. It will eventually combine into a relatively smooth batter, but don’t sweat it! A few lumps are OK.

And then cook it on your hoe. I mean griddle. Pan. Whatever you have.

Heat a non-stick or cast iron pan over medium heat. Get some cooking fat in the pan; traditionally, people use butter, or even bacon drippings, which would be tremendous but would make it impossible for my vegetarian husband to eat. Since I’ve already declared my love of olive oil and used it in the pancake mix, that’s the oil I cooked them in too because why not. When the oil is hot scoop out about 1/8 cup batter (half of a 1/4 cup measure, if you don’t have an 1/8 cup in your kitchen set) and let it rip. Like any pancake, watch for the bubbles to form and the edges to start to dry as it cooks.

When the cakes start to look like this, give them a flip.

And if you’re very good, they’ll be golden and delicious. Note the edges, which are brown and crispy, and do indeed have a little snap when you bite into them. The pancakes should take about two minutes per side.

Since we were enjoying this specialty of the Southern United States, we served it with roasted okra, which is the easiest thing in the world to make.

BONUS RECIPE! [Click here for a printable .pdf file for roasted okra]

In a nutshell: Heat oven to 450°F (230°C). Clean about a pound of okra by washing, and trimming the stem cap and pointy end. Split down the middle. Ignore the slime, because it will bake out. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, a few shakes of cayenne pepper and about a Tablespoon of fresh thyme. Put in your hot oven and check it every seven or eight minutes. It’s done when the pods start to brown along the edges and are dry, which should take around 25 minutes total. Enjoy!

They would also be good with collard greens, bacon, maybe some baked beans. God, I love Southern food.

Take your beautiful, golden hoe-cakes and serve. Top them with a little butter and maple syrup, because that’s a winning combination on anything.

If you wanted to gourmet-ize these a little, you could add some fresh corn, sliced right off the cob, into the pancake batter. And corn loves thyme, so fresh thyme would work here too. Or you could just enjoy these hoe-cakes for what they are–simple ingredients made delicious, and a little piece of historical Americana, right on top of your table.

Dutch Baby, Savory Style

We’ve embarked on the SS Pancake Project to travel the world while we’re stuck at home through the marvels of pancakes and flatbreads. There are plenty of kinds of cakeybreads from all over the world that will suffice! One of my friends suggested the Dutch baby, a giant pancake that you bake in the oven and top with either savory or sweet things. OK, great! Dutch! Global! Travel! World! Only…

It’s an American creation.

One thing that can be hard to come by in the history of food is universal acceptance of a food’s origins and yet, it is universally accepted that the Dutch baby, neither Dutch nor small, was created in Manca’s Cafe in Seattle, WA, some time around the turn of the century. The 19th into the 20th century. I guess I have to specify this. Anyway. Based on the traditional German Apfelfannkuchen (which I totally plan to make on this journey), the Dutch baby was so named because restaurateur Victor Manca’s daughter was too young to say “Deutsch”, German, correctly. It’s the same jacked-up speech issue that gave us the term Pennsylvania-Dutch for PA German immigrants, but I digress. As goes the way of all things, Manca’s Cafe has now become a Starbuck’s. Moving on.

Want to just read the recipe with measurements and directions? Click below.

[Click here for printable .pdf file of Dutch baby, savory]

This recipe comes together relatively easily, so be ready to move. Heat your oven to 425°F (220°C) and move racks so that there is nothing over the middle rack. The Dutch baby will rise while it bakes and you don’t want anything to impede it as it cooks. Put a cast-iron/oven-safe pan in the oven (I really recommend cast iron here) and let it heat up too, because you want it to be hot and create lots of steam, which will aid in the Dutch baby’s rise.

Chop the mushrooms, mince the garlic, finely dice the onions, de-stem the thyme and chop your fresh herbs. Hold to the side.

Mix eggs, flour, honey, and milk into a smooth, fairly thick batter. Add half the thyme and fresh herbs, the salt*, and the pepper. Stir together.

*Keep an eye on the salt. Since I’m also adding salty cheese to the batter, and tossing more cheese on at the end, I don’t feel like this needs a bunch of salt in the mix.

Then, when the oven dings its ready hello, take the pan out and swirl two tablespoons of butter around the pan. If you don’t like butter you can use the oil of your choice, but the important thing is to coat the hot pan in cooking fat so it may then receive the Dutch baby batter. Pour it into the hot pan, and then top with about half of the grated cheese.

YUMMMMM. This is the Platonic ideal of “off to a good start”.

Put your Dutch baby back in the oven, and then get the mushrooms going. Heat a large (very large) pan, and the two tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is nice and hot and ready to receive, add the mushrooms.

A few things about mushrooms.

  1. Yes, this pan is more crowded than I would like. But I also didn’t want to cook the mushrooms in batches because I am impatient. When mushrooms are this crowded they will more steam than caramelize. Which is still OK, since they will still release all the water in their cells and concentrate their mushroomy goodness. They just won’t turn caramelized and get as brown when they cook.
  2. If you are trying to caramelize the mushrooms, DO NOT TOUCH THEM. Leave them alone for 3, 4, 5 minutes. Don’t stir them. Don’t poke them with a fork. Don’t even breathe at them. Just leave them. If you start to turn them before they caramelize they will, as above, release the water in their cells and not get as brown as you’d like.
  3. This looks like a butt ton of mushrooms. Don’t worry. They cook down.

Once they have started to cook down, add the onions and garlic and let them all saute together. Then, add wine or broth and let that cook in for a few minutes. You’re almost there when you can’t really smell the alcohol from the wine, and/or the broth is nearly cooked out if you move things around in your pan. Should you need a few more minutes for the Dutch baby to finish baking and you don’t want to take the mushrooms off the heat, then drop the heat in your pan low and add broth or water in very small increments and stir, to prevent sticking.

Right before you are ready to take the baby out of the oven (that sounds alarming), stir in a nice big handful of greens, like spinach or arugula, and let it wilt in the pan. Finish the mushrooms and greens with the final tablespoon of butter and take them off the heat.

Now. Here comes the fun part.

Remove the Dutch baby from the oven. What you should, hopefully, see before you is a glorious shell that climbs upward toward Heaven because it is just that good.

Say hello gorgeous and thank your lucky stars that you have been given the ability to eat magical food like this. Add the mushroom mix in the middle and top with the remaining fresh herb of choice and Parmesan cheese.

Serve quickly, because this is essentially a sort-of flat souffle and it will start to fall as soon as it’s out of the heat. Cut that baby into slices and serve. This would go nicely with a simple green salad; we served ours with slow-roasted tomatoes because we had them in the fridge, and that will be a recipe for another day.

Now, it’s time to eat! Enjoy your food, and go check out what sort of delicious things the world has to offer.

Whole-Wheat Pita Bread

I grew up in a white-bread household, and I mean that literally as well as metaphorically. The bread of choice from my childhood was generally super-white and super-squishy, which occasional nods to loaves like rye or pumpernickel.

Hence my surprise when my mother came swanning in from the grocery store with this crazy flat bread with a pocket. It was, like, diet bread, and IMAGINE! We could stuff it with vegetables and lettuce and just the tiniest bit of dressing and it would be like eating a sandwich only more diet-y. What will they think of next, I wondered?

Hence my further surprise when I learned that they’d thought of it long ago. Nascent forms of pita have been around for more than 14,000 years and by 4,000 years ago, flat pita bread (maybe minus the pocket) was a staple in Babylon and Mesopotamia. This easy to make, easy to transport kind of bread then spread through the whole Middle East/Balkan/Mediterranean region because deliciousness transcends borders.

I’m making whole-wheat pita primarily because I prefer the taste, and this is my kitchen. We will get to all white flour pita in another post.

[Click here for a printable .pdf file of whole wheat pita bread]

Here’s what you need:

  • 1 cup warm water, shoot for around 105°F
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 Tablespoon honey or agave
  • 1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour plus extra if needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for proofing

Here’s what you do:

Mix your water and honey so the honey is thoroughly dissolved in the water. Pour your water and honey into a large mixing bowl (if you have a stand mixer, feel free to use it), and add yeast. Combine it all together, and the mix will look cloudy and unappealing. Just wait. In a matter of minutes it will start to look like Bayonne Beach at low tide, as the yeast starts to bloom.

The good news is, it’s supposed to look this way. The better news is, you should start to smell that yeasty, bready smell as the yeast wakes up. I always get ravenously hungry at this point because it’s a Pavlovian and that smell triggers my nom response.

Add the flours, salt, and Tablespoon of olive oil, and stir it all together.

I am new to the dough hook and it has become my favorite thing, particularly because I have some mild carpal issues in both wrists. Inverted yoga positions are pretty much off the table for me at this point, but I digress. What is this device that wants to help knead on my behalf so I may enjoy homemade baked goods without crippling myself? I’ll use it!

Anyway. Knead for five minutes or so by hand, or two minutes or so if by hook, on speed 2. Remember, you’re looking for a fairly smooth ball. If you’re using the mixer, it’s pulled away from the sides of the bowl and if you’re kneading by hand, it stays generally together and doesn’t want to remain attached to the table. Don’t be afraid to add flour as you’re mixing if it’s too sticky. It should still have a little bit of stick, and a pretty good amount of elasticity. Put your ball of dough in the proofing bowl you have waiting, that’s coated in olive oil.

Cover with a plastic wrap or towel and place your dough in a steady-temperature, draft-free spot in your home for one hour. It should double. Also the smell will likely drive you insane with hunger. Or is that me, again?

At the end of that hour, start heating your oven to 450°F (230°C) and of course, if you proof in the oven take the dough out before preheating. Put your baking sheet in the oven to get hot, too. The mystical bread reaction that creates the pocket requires a very hot oven, which will turn the moisture in your dough into steam and cause the signature puff. So you want everything–the oven, the baking surface–to be as hot as you can get it. You can even use a pizza stone with your baking sheet if you’d like, but I always find them hard to manage. That’s just me. You do you.

Take your big puffy mound of risen dough, deflate it a bit, and turn it out once more onto your floured work surface. Cut it into 8 relatively equal chunks (I tend to gently roll mine into kind of a log and cut in half, and then cut the halves in half, and so on) and roll them into a ball. Try not to fold the dough together, because then you’ll get folds on the insides of your pockets. Then roll them all out into rounds about 1/4 inch thick, and try not to roll them thinner than that or they won’t puff properly while they cook.

When your oven is hot, put your pita rounds on the baking sheet. I usually bake them off three at a time, and they don’t need any oil or anything on the sheet. Just lay them on so they don’t overlap each other, and close the oven door. Four minutes, or maybe five later, you’ll have beautiful, fresh, hot pita. Set them on a cooling rack and bake off the remainder. Eventually, you’ll end up with a glorious stack of bread that, if you’re anything like me, won’t last more than a few days in your house.

I’m not kidding when I say I am going to make a fresh batch of these as soon as I finish this post.

And what can you do with these pitas? Enjoy them with hummus. Top them with sauce and cheese and enjoy personal pizzas. We served them stuffed with a lentil salad a la Yotam Ottolenghi, and it was…

…extraordinary.

Enjoy the pita! Have fun in the kitchen! Flatbreads and pancakes are your friends, especially when they’ve been around for 4,000 years or so.

Homemade Pizza Crust

Is there a mightier flatbread than pizza crust? Is there one that is loved more universally?

I don’t think so.

Most of us love pizza. I love pizza, and it’s pretty safe to say I never don’t want it. During the coronavirus shutdown, though, it’s been…not as easy…to get our hands on the pizzas we want. At least, it hasn’t been that easy in central PA. Thankfully, now I have The Pancake Project and can explore the world of pizza to my heart’s content.

I grew up in New Jersey so my comfort food pizza is built on a nice thin crust. Strong enough to support toppings, flexible enough to fold and eat, delicious enough to keep eating until there ain’t no mo’. And thin crust means it’s diet pizza*, right?

*There is no such thing as diet pizza.

Here’s what you need:

  • 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons instant or other active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 1/3 cups water, room temperature
  • Olive oil, for greasing

[Get a .pdf file for crust directions here]

[Convert to metric measurements here]

Here’s what you do:

Select a nice big bowl that you’re going to use to proof your dough. Pour enough oil in it to coat the bottom of the bowl, and set it aside.

Put all your dry ingredients–flour, salt, sugar, yeast–into a mixing bowl. Whisk them together, and then add water. The water should be room temperature or slightly warmer, and no higher than 100°F (37°C); if it’s warmer than that you will most likely kill your yeast, which will make for non-rising bread and what would the point of this be, then, really? Mix all of this together and turn it from the kind of bubbly slush you will initially see, into a nice, round, smooth ball. As you can see from the photo, I started with a spoon, but it didn’t last. I finished the dough thanks to my (impeccably clean) hands, which really are the best tools for getting in and working dough. Just don’t overwork it; get it into shape but don’t have to knead it or anything, or you’ll toughen up the dough. It should be relatively dry, not sticky or tacky.

Then put your ball o’ dough into your proofing bowl, and roll it through the oil until it’s entirely coated. Cover the dough with a towel or some plastic wrap and put in a draft-free space. I proof in my oven–obviously unheated, of course.

A word about my kitchen towel: Among other things, I teach SilverSneakers classes at a local YMCA, and I don’t mean to brag but my students are the best. One of those students gave me this towel for Christmas, and it was embroidered by her 90-some-year-old mother. Her mother (I bet you see where this is going, don’t you?) passed away not long after the holidays, so I have one of the last items she ever made. I will treasure this towel forever.

So. Into your proofing area (oven, cabinet, protected corner of your counter space) it goes! And don’t touch it for two hours, even if the smell of blooming yeast starts to drive you wild with hunger. At the end of the two hours, turn your dough out onto the pre-floured countertop, cut in half, reshape into a nice little ball, and cover again with a towel for about ten minutes. They will rise again, slightly, and poof out anew. Once that happens, they are ready to use.

At last! This is where the fun begins! When you’re ready to cook your dough into a delicious crust, preheat your oven to 450°, and put the oven rack on, ooh, probably one step away from your heating element (up if you’ve got an electric stove, low if yours is gas).

Make sure your workspace is ready for a large piece of dough to be rolled out. Toss a light layer of cornmeal (if you have it; if you don’t, it’s not critical) along the bottom of your roasting pan to help prevent the dough from sticking as it bakes into crust. To roll the dough out, I took two pieces of waxed paper and taped them together in the back, and dusted the untaped side with flour. Then I rolled the dough on top of the waxed paper.

Why on waxed paper? Because that allowed me to invert the waxed paper, lay the dough down on top of the pan, and peel the paper away.

Plus, it made cleanup a breeze.

Trim any overhanging dough and re-smoosh it into the corners and wherever there is a spare spot. Then get a brush and some oil, and lightly oil the dough. This will help prevent your dough from absorbing too much sauce and getting soggy, and I swear to GOD this works and it has changed my life forever.

Add sauce, and then your choice of toppings. Remember, the general idea as far as sauce goes is that less is more, because you don’t want a soupy pizza. And the beauty of a pizza is it can be a way to use things that you need to get rid of. Our sauce was the remainder of a batch I made for spaghetti a few nights before, we had a ton of provolone that we over-bought at the grocery store, the shallots were on hand, and can you ever go wrong with shallots? (Answer: No.) As for the seitan chorizo (or, fauxrizo, as I like to call it), that was in our freezer and just begging to get used. Oh! And the romano. I always have a wedge of hard cheese in my fridge. It comes in handy at times like this.

Put the pizza in the oven and let the magic happen. We checked this beautiful creation at 15 minutes, and then left it in the oven for another seven. When we took it out, browned and crisped and a little bubbly, we topped it with the baby arugula that needed to be eaten before it went to the dark side (again, fridge-clearing and non-wasting).

And then oh. Oh, my.

It was thin, it was chewy in the right places, crispy in other spots, delicious, not soggy, easy to make and easy to use. No wonder this is such a popular flat bread-based meal. And bonus! I have another batch waiting for me in the freezer. All I have to do is defrost.

Feta-Honey Griddle Bread

I have often had the idea, when thinking of the ancients, that their food was, you know. Meh. Probably kind of boring, the equivalent of eating a bowl of wallpaper paste with some weak beer. And I know that’s not true, logically. They figured out how to cure olives! (Which is no small feat, I tell you.) They invented wine! They ate cheese! Since at least the 8th century B.C., cheeses like feta were in process, and some of that? Went into a griddle bread.

This recipe, for bread made of flour, honey, and feta cheese, rocked out with some oil in a hot pan, dates from about the second century B.C. I found a variation of this recipe that uses rice flour and feel free to go for it if you have gluten issues. I made my bread with regular AP flour.

Here’s what you need:

  • 4 oz. feta cheese
  • 2 Tablespoons of honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup flour (plus additional flour for rolling)
  • Oil for the griddle/frying pan

Here’s what you do:

Put cheese, honey, and salt in a mixing bowl and mash them all together. It takes a little work to smash down the feta, but perseverance does the trick.

Add the half-cup of flour and mix until a ragged dough starts to form. This won’t take very long. Turn it out onto your work surface, that you’ve already dusted with flour.

Knead, just for a few passes. It should come together pretty quickly and smooth out into a nice round ball. Bonus if you can get the dough to look like it’s smiling at you.

I can’t unsee it.

Wrap your dough in plastic and let it rest for twenty minutes. You can just leave it on the countertop; you don’t have to put in a proofing spot or the fridge or anything. Just let it sit.

After twenty minutes, unwrap the dough and cut it into twelve equal-ish chunks.

And roll them out into thin discs about 3 inches in diameter.

To cook, put them in a medium-hot pan with a little olive oil, and fry until golden and delicious. They should only take about a minute or so per side, so don’t go wandering off.

And there you have it.

The recipe that I worked off of suggested serving them warm with an additional drizzle of honey (which sounds amazing) or wrapped around something savory, like…roasted asparagus.

Bonus recipe: Roasted asparagus!

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Take one bunch asparagus and snap off the woody ends. Place the asparagus in a roasting pan and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and the seasoning of your choice; today, I used herbes de Provence. When the oven is ready put the asparagus in for 20 minutes. While it’s roasting, toss a handful of pine nuts (if you have them) into a dry pan and toast on your stovetop until they are golden-toasty and even more deliciously nutty, and then remove them from heat lest they start to burn. Which they will do, easily, so don’t walk away while they’re toasting. If you don’t have pine nuts that’s fine, your asparagus will be perfect anyway. And that’s it. When the 20 minutes are up, remove the asparagus from the oven, wrap a few stalks in a piece of feta-honey griddle bread, and enjoy.

OMG THAT’S HECKIN’ GOOD.

Strawberry-Rosé Pancakes

 

Since this is “The Pancake Project”, I’d better start with actual pancakes, eh? These beautiful pancakes are mixed with a little fruit and a little rosé, for an elegant take on America’s favorite breakfast*.

* I don’t know if it’s America’s favorite breakfast.

Here’s what you need.

1 ½ cup chopped strawberries
1-2 tablespoons of sugar (depends how sweet your berries are)
2 cups whole wheat pastry or all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons ground flax seeds
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup rosé (if you don’t drink, just add an extra cup of your choice of milk)
1 cup almond or other nondairy milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon rosewater
And here’s how you do it.
1) Cut your strawberries into bite-sized chunks, and mix them with sugar. Let them macerate while you prepare everything else. The longer they sit, the sweeter the strawberries will become, so plan your time accordingly.
Combine your dry ingredients. If you have ground flax seed…well done, you. If, like me, you do not, then grinding it yourself is the way to go, and it’s time to dig out either your herb grinder or your trusty mortar and pestle. IF, also like me, you use a mortar and pestle, take some of the salt and/or sugar from your dry ingredients and toss it in with the flax seed. It will provide a bit more grit and make the seeds easier to grind; otherwise, the seeds are slippy and will just squeak out from under your pestle, making the whole process more frustrating than it should be.
Once your dry ingredients are mixed, create a well in the center and pour in your milk, the vanilla, and the rosewater. Drain the strawberries and pour as much as 1/4 cup of the strawberry liquid into the rosé, and combine that with the other ingredients.
Mix this together into a smooth batter, and then re-chunk it by adding in 3/4 cup of strawberries. Set the rest of the strawberries aside until you’re ready to eat.
Take your non-stick pan and get it to about a medium heat. You’re good to go when you flick some water on the pan and it sizzles. If you don’t have a non-stick pan, coat your least-stick pan with some cooking spray. Scoop out about 1/4 cup of batter and pour it in. Wait until bubbles form across the top of the pancake and the sides look firm.
Then flip.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see that beautiful caramelization on the strawberries. That’s when you’ll know your meal is on track.
This meal might be a little intense for breakfast, but you can have it as a lovely brunch or breakfast-for-dinner, and finish that open bottle of rosé in the process. Top with the rest of the strawberries and some maple syrup. We had ours with watermelon, but bacon’s good for the carnivores in the house.
And that’s it! All you have left now is to enjoy it. I know we did.
Find the original recipe on Thug Kitchen.