Johnnycakes

The Rhode Island legislature will not approve of this, spelling, but neither will they approve any cornmeal other than white flint. Other parts of New England are rigorous in their own way. Judy McConnell remembers her grandfather’s breakfast, which was always corned beef hash and johnnycake made of yellow corn. Ruth Rose Barrett, in The Block Island Cookbook (1962), compiled by the First Baptist Church, remembers her father’s directions for No Cake, “handed down by the Indians on Block Island.” “No Cake must be made on a clear day when the wind was from the Northwest,” Ambrose said. On such a day he would shuck year-old field corn, parch it in a heavy iron skillet with sand to keep the kernels from scorching, stirring the while with a corn cob until the kernels turned cocoa brown. He would then sift out the sand, cool the kernels in the northwest wind, and grind them in a coffee grinder.

Pretty Flower at Dovecrest remembers when they had “johnnycakes in the morning, johnnycakes for lunch, and if there were any leftover johnny-cakes, johnnycakes for supper.” Jamestown grows some flint corn, she tells me, but flint was so expensive they used white dent. “Some swear they can tell the difference, but I can’t,” she says, “as long as it’s stone ground.” She gets her grain from a grist mill in Maryland and sifts out the finest meal in a hopper her husband designed. Her cakes are white, light, crisp, and browned at the edges, three inches in diameter and an inch thick, and served with venison steak as one might serve potato pancakes.

In the recipe below, I’ve compromised between the “Thin East-of-Narragansett Johnnycakes,” as June Platt calls them in her New England Cookbook (1971), and the “Thick West-of-Narragansett Johnnycakes.” East means a rather elegant and Frenchified thin cake with a lacy edge, almost like a crepe, which uses milk in addition to water. Eliza Leslie calls this a “Nice Johnny Cake,” in contrast to a “Plain Johnny.” In her nice cake, she adds to the meal and water “A small teacup of molasses (West India is best)” with two tablespoons of butter and a teaspoon of ginger. Her plain johnny, like the cake of the West, is simply meal, water, and salt, although she concedes, “You may eat molasses with it.” A plain johnny best reveals the taste and texture of the grain, but I believe with June Platt that a little milk with the water does no harm. A useful tip from Pretty Flower is to put your cakes as you finish them on a cookie sheet in a 400° oven to puff slightly as the grains expand.

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal (preferably of white flint corn)
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • ¾-1 cup cold milk

Method

The cake will be lighter if you warm the meal, mixed with the salt, in the oven before you begin. Gradually stir in the boiling water and then the milk until you have the dilution desired (these cakes will be medium thin to very thin).

Heat a griddle or cast-iron skillet, grease it lightly, and pour on a large spoonful of batter to make a 3-inch cake. Repeat until the pan is full but leave room to turn the cakes. Brown about 6 minutes, then turn carefully and brown 4 to 5 minutes on the other side. Serve with lots of butter.