I really wanted to follow a true colonial recipe for my first blog post, and what could be more authentic than hoe cakes in their oldest, simplest form. I scalded cornmeal with boiling water (a technique settlers learned from Native Americans), then baked the batter in small cakes on a pan greased with bacon fat. My source was a recipe in The Williamsburg Art of Cookery said to date from 1776:
“Scald one pint of Indian meal with enough boiling water to make a stiff Batter (about three Cups). Add one Teaspoon of Salt. Drop on hot greased Tin and bake in hot Oven thirty Minutes.”
“Tastes like rocks and sand,” pronounced my seven-year-old daughter. I didn’t think they were quite that bad — not as bad as they looked, anyway…
They probably turned out better when made by people who knew how to cook things on a hoe, or with split-wood planks propped up near a fire, or whatever. (According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, the term “hoe cake” may actually derive from the old English word “hoe” meaning hillock, for the shape of the cake.)
But back to my hoe cake dilemma. I thought about redoing them with some minor upgrades, like milk and baking soda, but decided to go with an adaptation of Paula Deen’s recipe on foodnetwork.com, which uses eggs and buttermilk.
My somewhat finicky daughter thought these were an improvement but wasn’t a huge fan. “But they would be good to other people with different tastes,” she said. People like me — I think they’re great. And my pancake-hating husband even ate a few.
Recipe adapted from Paula Deen, foodnetwork.com
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup stone-ground cornmeal (I used white)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
oil or butter for frying
1. In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients well. Beat the eggs and add to the flour-cornmeal mixture, along with the buttermilk, water, and vegetable oil. Blend well.
2. Heat the oil or butter (I used a combination) in a large skillet over medium heat. For each hoe cake, drop about two tablespoons of batter into the skillet. Fry the cakes until brown and crisp on the bottom, about three minutes.
Turn with a spatula, and brown on the other side another few minutes. Remove cakes to drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Add more frying butter or oil to pan as needed to make the remaining cakes.
Serve with butter and maple syrup or jam. (Leftover batter will keep in refrigerator for up to 2 days.)