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:
- Corn is ubiquitous to the American way of life.
- These cakes are low-rent food meant to fill people up for as little cost as possible.
- 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?
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.