These updated “johnnycakes” are festive breakfast fare
Who doesn’t like pancakes for breakfast? Or lunch or dinner? They’re wonderful anytime.
And they seem particularly suited to festive occasions. Such as Thanksgiving morning (or the morning after).
Cornmeal makes an especially succulent pancake, as colonial Americans discovered. Early European settlers practically lived on a version of cornmeal pancakes called “johnnycakes.”
So what could be more appropriate at Thanksgiving time? Bet you never knew that history could be so tasty.
Recipe: Cornmeal Pancakes
Although we often make wheat flour pancakes, we love using other grains as well.
Most recipes for pancakes are pretty similar: Make a batter using flour (corn, wheat, buckwheat, whatever), along with eggs, baking powder, and water and/or milk. Spoon onto a hot griddle, cook until the first side is done, then flip and cook until done throughout. Smother with maple syrup or butter and chow down.
Cornmeal is the predominant grain in these pancakes, but we also add some all-purpose (wheat) flour to make them a bit more tender. You can use either white or yellow cornmeal, in a fine, medium, or coarse grind. The coarse grind produces a slightly more textured pancake (which we happen to like).
The recipe we post about here is a classic that we found in The Joy of Cooking.
Prep time for this recipe is maybe 12 minutes. Cooking time for each batch of pancakes adds 3 or 4 minutes.
This recipe yields about one dozen 4-inch pancakes. Leftovers keep well for a day or so if refrigerated in an airtight container. Just microwave them to rewarm.
- 1 cup cornmeal (white or yellow; a finer grind produces a smoother pancake)
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt (or to taste; if using regular table salt, reduce the amount by half)
- 1 tablespoon sugar (very optional; see Notes)
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 large egg (preferably pasteurized; see Notes)
- ½ cup milk (whole milk yields gives a richer pancake, but skim works too)
- 2 tablespoons melted butter (cooled to almost room temperature)
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder (see Notes)
- ~1 tablespoon fat (if needed) to grease the griddle or skillet (butter, lard, or bacon grease are our favorites)
- pure maple syrup, butter, and/or jam to top the pancakes (optional)
- garnish of seasonal fruit (optional)
- Heat the griddle or skillet. If using an electric model, turn it on to 350 degrees F. Otherwise, place a regular griddle or skillet (preferably nonstick) on medium stovetop heat.
- Add cornmeal, salt, and sugar (if using) to a large, heatproof bowl. Mix to combine. Then add boiling water and mix again. Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes (longer is OK; see Notes).
- In a separate bowl, beat together the egg, milk, and melted butter. Once the cornmeal mixture has stood for 10 minutes, add the egg mixture to the cornmeal.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour and baking powder. Alternatively, you can put these ingredients in a jar (with a lid) and shake them. Mix until the baking powder is thoroughly integrated into the flour. Add the flour mixture to the cornmeal and milk mixture. Stir briefly to combine—don’t overmix. It’s OK if the batter is somewhat lumpy.
- Test the griddle or skillet to make sure that it’s properly heated. When it’s ready, a water drop will skip off the surface.
- If your cooking surface isn’t nonstick, use a tablespoon of fat to lightly grease it.
- Using a ¼ cup measure, or a spoon that holds about that amount (exact measurement not important—see Notes), spoon the pancake batter onto the hot cooking surface. Cook until the edges of the pancakes seem firm and cooked; bubbles should form and break in the middle of the pancakes (this usually takes a couple of minutes). Turn the pancakes, then cook them another minute or two, until they’re cooked through.
- Plate each round of pancakes (they hold well in a 250-degree F oven for 30 minutes or so) while you cook the rest.
- Serve the pancakes with maple syrup, butter, jam, or whatever you fancy. We often add some seasonal fruit to the plate.
- Why add boiling water to the pancake batter in Step 2, and then let it rest for 10 minutes? Because hot water helps the cornmeal swell and fluff up, which results in lighter, better-textured pancakes.
- Sugar is optional in this recipe. Its primary purpose is to help brown the surface of the pancakes (it adds very little sweetening). We generally use it. But when we omit it, the pancakes don’t seem to brown appreciably less.
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. We suggest using pasteurized eggs when making any type of batter that you plan to taste raw. Although it’s unlikely the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk?
- And we do taste this batter, just to make sure we have added enough salt. We use Kosher salt, which is less salty by volume than regular table salt (its crystals are larger, so a teaspoon of Kosher salt weighs less than a teaspoon of table salt). If you’re using regular table salt, use about half the amount we suggest.
- Almost every baking powder you’ll find on your grocery shelf is “double-acting.” It’s called double-acting because you get a first reaction (the bubbles that help cause a rise) when you mix the powder with wet ingredients. Then there’s a second reaction when the batter hits the heat of the griddle.
- It’s a good idea to shake baking powder before using it to make sure all its components are well mixed.
- Baking powder consists of baking soda, an acidic ingredient (which reacts with the soda to produce leavening), and a neutral substance (usually corn starch) to provide bulk.
- Baking powder becomes weaker over time (and most baking powder tins have an expiration date). So replace your baking powder when necessary. We usually replace ours once a year, when daylight saving time ends (so we remember to do it).
- It’s important not to overmix pancake batter. When you mix it too much, the gluten in the wheat flour begins to develop, which can lead to chewy pancakes. Admittedly, this is less of a problem with cornmeal pancakes, because cornmeal is gluten free. But the all-purpose flour in this recipe does contain gluten.
- If the batter produced by this recipe is too thick for your liking, simply thin it with additional milk. But note that thin batter tends to produce flatter, less fluffy pancakes.
- You can make pancakes any size you want, from dollar-size up to the circumference of your griddle. We find that a ¼-cup measure of batter yields a nicely sized pancake, but it’s fun to experiment.
- An electric griddle is a real convenience if you regularly prepare foods that need to be turned over during cooking (such as pancakes, toasted cheese sandwiches, large quantities of bacon or sausage, or hamburgers). The low sides on the griddle make it easier to turn food with a spatula. Our electric griddle can hold 6 large pancakes or 8 medium-sized ones, which makes preparing pancakes quick work.
- Pure maple syrup pairs beautifully with cornmeal (or any) pancakes. We like to add a bit of butter, too, for extra lusciousness.
- If the bottle doesn’t say “pure” maple syrup, it’s not 100% maple syrup. Most “breakfast” or “pancake” syrups contain only a bit of maple syrup; the rest is flavoring and other sweeteners. These cheap knockoffs taste dreadful to us, so we always avoid them.
- In the United States, maple syrup is graded as “A” or “B.” Grade A is further subdivided into Light (or Fancy) Amber, Medium Amber, or Dark Amber. Grade A is what you almost always find on store shelves (grade B generally is used as an ingredient in cooking). We prefer the Dark Amber because we like its color and flavor.
- Corn (also known as maize) has long been a staple food in the New World. Legend says that Native Americans taught the early English settlers how to cook ground cornmeal into griddle cakes. These came to be called johnnycakes (or journey cakes, hoecakes, or johnny bread).
- Johnnycakes were a staple in all the American colonies, although they were particularly popular in New England. They’re still a favorite in Rhode Island.
- Many traditional recipes for johnnycakes do not contain baking powder or eggs. If you’d like to make this version, here’s how: Combine boiling water with cornmeal. Add some salt and melted fat (lard is traditional) to the mix. Let the mixture sit a bit, then cook the cakes on a hot griddle. Johnnycakes typically are quite thin (because remember, no baking powder or eggs).
- BTW, even though pancakes made with cornmeal were known only in the Americas before Europeans reached the New World, griddle cakes made with other grains were common in many other areas. In fact, griddle cakes date back to prehistory—they are one of the oldest grain-based cooked foods.
“The weather has suddenly turned gloomy and rainy,” sighed Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Good day for comfort food, like these pancakes.”
“Yep,” I said. “Autumn just creped up on us.”
“Careful with those puns,” said Mrs K R. “I could make like a pancake, and flip.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Guess I should butter you up.”
“That syrupy sweetness won’t fool me,” said Mrs K R.
“Then how about another round of griddle goodies?” I said. “Looks like you’ve blown your stack.”
“Sure,” said Mrs K R. “A-maize me with some more of these cornmeal cakes.”
“Batter up!” I said, flourishing my flat spatula. “Pancake batter, that is.”
“Whoa, buddy,” said Mrs K R. “You look like the turn-inator.”
“No,” I said in my best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. “I prefer to be called the flapjock.”
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