Pancakes at our house have risen to the level of communion – a quiet place amid the coming and going of kids and adults. Sleepy faces resist waking with as much fervor as they formerly resisted sleeping and, in this moment we pause. We set aside plates of commitments (with side helpings of commotion) in order to honor the intersection of melting butter, good syrup, coffee, and family.
I do have a standard pancake recipe – it makes fluffy cakes with 100% whole wheat flour – but I often swap it out for a special treat: hoecakes.
The hoecake has Southern origins. A thin mixture of coarse cornmeal, water, and salt, hoecakes were once cooked on a fatback-greased hoe over an open fire. While I’ve adapted my own version to eliminate the need for open fires or farm tools, I would argue that the simple result is no less delicious, or worthy of a pause.
And pausing and simplicity are good.
I spend much of my time as the head bread baker at King Arthur Flour working on complicated things, from competition breads to artful loaves to freshly-milled flours. And while each of these areas has its own attraction, in this exploration I find myself looking for deeper connections with what I make and its relationship to who I am and where I came from.
I fully explored this process in a book I recently wrote that traces my baking path from its roots in the Ozark Mountains to far away and onward to the home I’ve created with my wife and children in Vermont.
And so the circle completes itself, in a way: I’m back to hoecakes. And although I don’t go to Johnson’s Mill in Johnson, Arkansas to buy cornmeal with mama like I used to, I can mill the grain myself. Or rejoice in the delivery of a bag of heritage grits from Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill in South Carolina. Both work to connect me, they enable a view up the family tree and also down, to my children and those beyond them, all breaking bread on their own baking journey.
Start with the following ingredients:
3/4 cup (160g) boiling water
1 cup + 1 tablespoon (160g) grits,* instant or regular
2 tablespoons (28g) unsalted butter
*Note: For best results, grits with a finer grind tend to soften more easily and thoroughly. Very coarse grits may need to be brought to a boil over heat and cooled before use.
Combine the boiling water, grits, and butter in a bowl and stir thoroughly.
While the grits soak up the water, gather and measure the remaining ingredients:
heaping 3 tablespoons (28g) yellow cornmeal
scant 2 tablespoons (28g) sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (125g) buttermilk
In a small bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk, then add the soaked grits and butter mixture. Stir until smooth.
Add the dry ingredients and stir until smooth.
Set the bowl to rest while preheating an electric griddle to 350°F, or a frying pan over medium heat.
Butter the griddle or frying pan, using a paper towel to fully distribute it while also removing any excess.
Pour the batter onto the pan; 2 rounded tablespoonfuls of batter will make medium cakes, 1 rounded tablespoonful will make small cakes.
Cook the cake, flipping gently when the edges are set and the cake holds its shape. Cook for an additional 1 to 2 minutes on the other side. Be aware the cakes are gluten-free and very tender until fully cooked; flip carefully, in order to keep them from breaking.
Enjoy hoecakes with molasses, maple syrup, honey, or fresh jam.
Yield: 10 to 12 medium (3" to 4") hoecakes.
If you’d like to see more recipes from my baking journey please have a look at the book. And, in addition to those recipes I’d also encourage you to consider your own baking narrative and how it might be expressed with your hands at your home hearth and beyond.
Thanks to fellow employee-owner Julia Reed for her amazing photos.