In New England, these little flatbreads have a long history from the indigenous population to today’s dressed-up tables.
In New England, these little cornmeal pancakes are called jonnycakes (no “h”), sometimes jonny cakes, two words; in the south, they may be referred to as journey cakes or hoe cakes. They are also known as ashcake, and Shawnee cake, and probably a few more names. Everyone does agree that they originate in various forms with the native American populations which used corn as a mainstay of their diets.
There are lots of stories about jonnycakes and their name, but few actual facts to stand in the way of those many good stories.
Originally introduced to the pilgrims in Massachusetts, the form of this simple flatbread slowly evolved over time. The wheat flour the pilgrims brought from Europe spoiled during the long voyage, and the story goes that the settlers found a stash of the native’s corn and were shown how to grind it into a meal. There are lots of stories about jonnycakes and their name, and few actual facts to stand in the way of those many good stories.
White flint corn meal
The original corn cakes made by the native population in the northeast for probably hundreds of years before the European settlers arrived. They used the Narragansett’s white flint corn meal and water, no leavening, no sweetening. Wheat did not grow well in New England, so corn was an important staple grain to the early settlers as well as the indigenous people.
Through the centuries, butter and milk were added, and in more modern times, the additions of wheat flour, eggs, and baking powder added fluffiness and a more pancake-like texture to the cakes. In some areas of the country today, cornbread, baked in a loaf, cake pan, or cast-iron skillet is also referred to as jonnycake, and delicious as they are, I doubt the purists would agree!
The jonnycake capital
If you come from Rhode Island, todays epicenter of jonnycake lore and expertise (they even have festivals) you many insist the only cornmeal to use in making a jonnycake is the traditional white cap flint corn. It is unique, with a slight bitter edge, erratic growing habits, and low yield, which is one of the reasons it is no longer widely grown, even in New England. Most often, these cakes are made with the more common and easily found cornmeals.
For the traditional cakes, I used the heirloom Narragansette white flint corn, the original corn used by the natives of southwestern New England. I purchased it on-line from the Grays Grist Mill in Adamsville, RI. It is a beautifully textured meal, stone-ground in one of the country’s oldest continually operating grist mill, established before 1700. Their granite stones have been at work for over 300 years.
Little variation in recipes
Most, but not all, of the traditional recipes call for boiling water. Some used milk, but this would not have been the original used by the pilgrims. Most add a little sugar, again, not the first settlers or native population. Almost all suggested drizzling with maple syrup, and that was all right with me.
I made both the thin and the thick versions using just the meal, water, and salt. The thin cakes were really thin! They were difficult to turn without breaking, but got nice crispy edges. When cool, they were still a bit pliable, and were quite tasty.
The thick method cakes were easier to work with and would most probably have a wider range of uses.
One ingredient, so it had better be good!
There is not a lot of wiggle room when playing with a recipe that has for all intents and purposes just one ingredient! So my option was to add a few flavors. My own contribution to the cakes was some minced scallions, which game them a lovely flavor, and just a touch of minced Serrano peppers. I made a few in the two-inch size, but made a batch in little silver dollar size and dressed them up for a party. I still drizzled the maple syrup to add just a bit of sweet tradition.
You can serve these savory or sweet, hot or room temperature, as a stack, or a wrap filled with just about anything. They are gluten free, and if you don’t use milk, vegan as well.
Since the white flint cornmeal is difficult to find, any good quality stone-ground cornmeal can be substituted, but you will have to adjust the liquid content. Look for an heirloom variety if possible.
Recipe from Grey’s Grist Mill
1 cup stone-ground white flint corn meal
1/2 tsp. salt
1 7/8 cup water or milk
2 tsp. sugar, optional
Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Let sit for a few minutes while griddle heats to 375. I found I had to reduce this a little. Drop by spoonful onto the lightly greased griddle and cook until the edges brown.
Carefully turn. I used a very thin spatula and ran it slowly around the entire cake before attempting to flip.
Cook the second side for a few more minutes and plate
Dot with butter and drizzle with maple syrup.
Recipe from Kenyon’s cornmeal company
1 cup stone-ground corn meal
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup boiling water
Combine the dry, then pour boiling water over the mixture very slowly, adding just enough to swell the meal. Let it sit several minutes, then add enough milk so mixture will drop from a spoon.
Heat greased pancake griddle or iron skillet to 380 and spoon batter onto hot surface. Again, I had to reduce this a bit, but perhaps my griddle just heats too hot. Let cook until the edges turn brown. Turn to brown other side. Serve with maple syrup and butter.
Jonnycake Party Bites
Make the thick jonnycake recipe above but add 2 tbsp. of finely minced scallions and one of finely minced hot pepper of choice.
Drop by the heaping measuring teaspoon, and cook until browned on the edges, then flip to cook the other side. The time will depend on how big you make them and how thick your batter. You want small, bite-sized cakes.
Top with a small dollop of half sour cream and half grainy mustard, add a slice of cherry tomato, and tuck in a few herbs.
Drizzle with the traditional dark amber maple syrup.
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