You’re Doing It Wrong: Cornbread

Slate's Culture Blog
July 2 2014 8:50 AM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Cornbread

Hoecakes with syrup.
Hoecakes with syrup.

Courtesy of Eliza Adam/Flickr

One of the better byproducts of the nationwide fascination with Southern food is that Southern ingredients—grits, cane syrup, sorghum, and, most especially, good cornmeal—are getting easier to find outside the South. What this means for non-Southern cooks is that you can quit diluting your cornbread with tons of flour and sweetener, and start making cornbread with some bones. You can, in other words, make hoecakes.

The first challenge with hoecakes is getting across what they actually are. Though they look something like pancakes, they are not pancakes, which are made pliable and fluffy with leavening, milk, eggs, and flour. Hoecakes could also, at first sight, pass as corn tortillas or arepas, both made with meal from pre-treated corn. But looks are deceiving.

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A hoecake is cornbread made minimalist—a thin, unleavened round made from the simplest batter (cornmeal, water, and salt), crisp at the edges, glistening on both sides from the fat it was fried in, golden in patches. Inside, it’s dense but creamy, a foil for its best partners—creamed corn, silky braised greens, honey. A hoecake should be sturdy enough to work as a shovel for whatever is on the plate, but delicate enough to be appealing on its own.

According to a popular story, hoecakes got their name from the slave practice of cooking them on field hoes. If you've ever made hoecakes, this sounds like a near impossible task, and the appeal of this origin story is surely its evocation of the industriousness, fortitude, and resilience that defines much early American cooking, particularly African-American cooking. But the story’s power as a metaphor is stronger than its case as historical fact. As Rod Cofield, author of the paper “How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got its Name,” explained to me, hoe was a colloquial term for griddle dating back to at least the 1600s in parts of England, where baking cakes on boards or griddles was commonplace.

Hoecakes didn’t come about because someone thought a bread made of cornmeal, fat, and water, sounded like a riot in the pan (although if you’re doing it right, it is). The most primitive family of cornbreads—generally called pone, of which hoecakes are just one example—probably wouldn’t have persisted in early American cooking had there been much more for cooks to work with. As colonists saw it, corn was just a crude, ill-behaved substitute for the wheat flour they were accustomed to. Its dough was unwieldy and stubborn, unwilling to respond to yeast or other leavening agents, and it produced dense, earthy-tasting breads beloved by few. In The Story of Corn, Betty Fussell recounts the colonial cook’s perception of cornmeal batter as “the sad paste of despair.”

But over time that sad paste of despair became a point of regional pride. And while there are now innumerable variations on corn-based bread, hoecakes show how far some of those variations (most notably, ahem, those north of Virginia) have strayed from their origins, becoming light, fluffy, and sweetened. They are often more cake than bread, and less about the corn than the ingredients accompanying it. Hoecakes celebrate the flavor of corn without fanfare. Once you get the hang of making them, they are a tasty, no-nonsense response to hunger, as they always have been.

To ensure your hoecakes make it out of the pan intact, it’s essential to use boiling water in the cornmeal mixture. Not only does it encourage greater release of flavor from the cornmeal, it ensures the cornmeal will soak up the water properly; otherwise you’ll be dealing with a loose slop that’s prone to break apart in the pan.

It’s also crucial not to add too much water—hoecakes should have a little heft, so you’re aiming for something like a wet dough (or a thick batter). Linton Hopkins, who occasionally serves hoecakes at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, advised me on this point. “Once you get something like a pancake batter, that's when you get in trouble,” Hopkins says. He also advises letting the dough rest for a bit after combining.

Start small at first. My granddad makes one giant ½-inch hoecake in a 12-inch aluminum skillet, but this is quite a feat, as far as I can tell. Easier to manage is using a nonstick or cast-iron skillet to prevent sticking, and making fewer, smaller, hoecakes—I’ve found 6 inches is a good target diameter. Make them as small as you want; you’ll get more crisp crust the smaller you go.

Finally, use good cornmeal. Please. There are so few ingredients here that it is a waste of effort to use anything that’s been sitting around staling away, ready to lend your hoecakes all the flavor of sawdust. Freshness is paramount, and if you can get your hands on stone-ground, cold-milled grain, even better. White cornmeal is traditional, but yellow cornmeal works just as well.

Hoecakes are best at their warmest and crispiest, but leftovers can be re-warmed in the oven. They make for fine dessert drizzled with cane syrup or crumbled into buttermilk.

Hoecakes
Yield: Two 6-inch cakes (2 to 3 servings)
Time: About 1 hour, partially unattended

1 cup fine-ground white or yellow cornmeal
Scant ¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons peanut oil

1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Put the cornmeal and salt in a large bowl, and whisk in 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the boiling water. Let rest about 10 minutes.

2. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil. The mixture should be just pourable, but thick enough that you’ll need to use a spoon or spatula to help spread it out once it’s in the pan. If it seems too thick, add another tablespoon or two of hot water.

3. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in an 8- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, spoon in about half of the cornmeal mixture, and, using a spatula or the back of a spoon, spread it into a round about 6 inches in diameter. Cook until the hoecake is golden around the edges and looks set throughout, about 10 minutes, then begin to loosen the edges with a spatula. When you’ve fully released the hoecake from the pan, gently flip it. Cook another 8 to 10 minutes, then transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining cornmeal mixture. Serve warm.

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