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.)
The preparation of the first batter sounds quite like corn meal mush. Is that a recipe from colonial times, too?
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Yes, mush is colonial. The only difference is that hoe cakes are cooked over a fire, or baked, or cooked on a griddle.
Just found your blog and have really enjoyed browsing it! Today here in Kentucky we still eat a version of hoecakes, only we call them fried cornbread or johnnycakes. The modern recipe is basically one for cornbread, with a little less baking powder, so the little pancakes don’t puff so high.
I mix my own batter without any recipe at all, using half cornmeal, half unbolted, unbleached soft wheat flour, a little salt, a spoon of sugar, a small spoon or so of baking powder, melted butter or shortening, perhaps a quarter cup for 2 cups of flour, and enough milk to make a batter. Mix til just blended. Heat a cast-iron skillet until water will dance on it, grease it with butter, and drop the spoonfuls on the griddle, just like you did. They should be browned on each side, but not tough, and definitely not greasy.
Sometimes for fun I will add chopped onion, or apple, or corn, to the batter.
We eat these with meat-and-three (1 meat and three veggies) or vegetable plates, and one picks up the cornbread rounds with the fingers, as if it were a corn stick or slice of ditto.
Lots of people still eat cornbread in quantity, just as they did when the state was settled in the 1780s, as thefried rounds, or their cousins the cornstick and cornbread.
I’ll be making your salmagundi for a picnic next week. Thank you for your history lesson on it and your experiments in making it!
Natalie in KY
Thanks for visiting, Natalie! It’s interesting to hear that johnny cakes and other cornmeal-based foods are still common in Kentucky. (I think colonial-era recipes in general have survived better in the South.) I love your idea of mixing onion, etc. in and will try that one of these days. Good luck with the salmagundi!
Just found your recipe for Hoecakes and your history lesson. Here at the Pioneer Heritage Center in Northwest Louisiana we have a different reason for them being called hoe cakes:
They were a very popular food with our early American pioneers, but they did not invent them. The Indians were cooking them before the settlers arrived. These “Appones” were made of ground corn and water, shaped into cakes, and baked in ashes. When they were ready to eat, they were washed off with water and the heat of the cake was allowed to dry the crust. Early settlers called them “pones.” Some cooked them in skillets, others on the stoves eyelid. Field hands and workers carried the dough with them if they were working far away from the kitchen. The hoecake dough was cooked in the fields of the Southern Plantations usually on the blade of a hoe in a fire that was usually made in a hollowed out stump.. They were also supposedly popular with travelers in the pioneer days. Travelers carried the prepared cakes or the meal so they could make their own. These cakes were called “journey cakes or “Johnny cakes.”
The pioneers ate hoecakes fried in bacon grease, and dipped in molasses, syrup, or fruit preserves. Hoecake is made of cornmeal, lard, water, and salt.
Recipe for Hoecake:
1 cup corn meal 1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon shortening
Mix the cornmeal and salt. Make a well in the center. Pour in enough boiling water to moisten. Form dough into a ball. Divide in to 2 balls. Cool for 20 minutes. Pat into a thin circle on waxed paper (dough must be cool or it will stick to the paper). Get skillet hot, so that a bead of water dropped on it forms a bead and sizzles. Put Hoecake in skillet and brown, turn once.
Hi Debra, many thanks for all this information and the recipe. This was my first blog post and I tended to write very short ones at the time (now I do the opposite, for better or worse). I knew that Native Americans made these, but I didn’t know that the dough was carried around or that the fires were made in hollowed out stumps — interesting! Thanks for writing.
It’s a possibility the hoecakes didn’t turn out quite as they could because corn meal and maseca are two different things. Masa Harina (corn flour as opposed to corn meal) or brand name Maseca, a corn meal that has gone through a process called nixtamilization which alters the consistency of the corn meal. It makes a better dough and is used in all true native corn flour cooking. You mentioned “ash” in conjunction with one of these recipes. It is thought nixtamilization was discovered by cooking with ash as the ash creates one way of nixtamalizing the corn…thus the name “Ash Cakes.” It would be interesting to pick up some Maseca and try the Hoe Cakes again. I will be getting some too as I have been learning this is a critical factor in Native American and Mexican/All Central American cooking. I imagine the Pilgrims and Colonists learned it from the Indians. I may be off base here but I would think the outcome of the hoe cakes with the Maseca would be closer to what we would think of as early pancakes. kimberly
Thanks, Kimberly. I will look for Maseca and make another attempt at these sometime.
My family’s 100’s of years old recipe. ( your daughter will love them.. 11/2 cups Martha White Buttermilk Cormeal. 1 egg. 2 tablespoons cooking oil. 2 tablespoons sugar. Add milk until mix is almost soupy. Spoon into skillet ( we use iron) with bottom covered in hot cooking . Lower heat to medium. Fry bread adding grease as needed to keep bottom of skillet covered. Enjoy. We eat these with all vegetables and soups..
Thanks for the recipe, Terri! I will try it.