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Issue #117: Fluffy Cornmeal Pancakes
Congrats to a Friend, NYS Breadbasket, Not Johnny Cakes, No Grit
The Internet is abuzz with the welcome news that Jamila Robinson has been named the new Editor in Chief of Bon Appétit magazine. I had the pleasure of working with Jamila at the James Beard Foundation in her volunteer capacity as chair of the James Beard Journalism Awards Committee, where she helped us begin the process of untangling systemic bias in the structure and administration of the awards. Later, on my suggestion, Jamila succeeded me as an Academy Chair of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. She’s an enthusiastic food lover, a great baker, a figure skater, a devoted aunt, a traveler, and a wonderful colleague. How exciting for everyone that she will now have a chance to put her imprint on an iconic magazine. Jamila was also one of the first interviews I conducted for my What’s Burning podcast. Have a listen. —Mitchell
As you know if you’ve been reading Kitchen Sense for any length of time, this is a pancake household. If I ever ask Nate whether he wants pancakes for breakfast, he inevitably replies, “I always want pancakes for breakfast.” Though I usually rely on a couple of tried-and-true pancake recipes (see and singalong to Issue #9), every once in a while I try out a new one to keep myself interested in the subject. I’m also looking for ways to add some nutrition to the average pancake, usually in the form of whole grains, but sometimes also with ricotta and/or fresh fruit.
This past Sunday I thought about cornmeal pancakes. Up in the Finger Lakes, where we we’ve been renting a country house for a couple of years, there’s a local grain ecosystem that gathers under the umbrella brand Farmer Ground Flour. You can read their whole story on their website, but basically there are farmers, millers, and even a baker, who are working in concert to return grain production to New York State, once a breadbasket for the northeast. I use their berries and flours for most of my bread baking. And I usually have their cornmeal and polenta on hand, too. In the city I used to be able to buy their products at the Union Square Greenmarket. Now in Ithaca, the Greenstar Co-op keeps a constant supply and also allows me to make special orders of 25-pound bags.
The other day I spotted some particularly appealing looking Farmer Ground Flour cornmeal in the bulk section of the co-op. I can’t tell you what was different about it exactly, but it looked light and fluffy. Perhaps it was freshly ground. Or maybe the bin had just been replenished. But I could smell the cornmeal’s corniness through the bag as I pushed my cart around the store. Once home, I stored it in the fridge to keep it fresh and decided Sunday we’d have cornmeal pancakes for breakfast.
One thing that bothers me sometimes with cornmeal pancakes is that because they cook for such a short period of time, the cornmeal can remain gritty. Finding a finer grind of cornmeal is one way to combat this. Another is to create a hot-water porridge with the cornmeal before you make the batter, which jumpstarts the cooking process both by gelatinizing the starch and by tenderizing any tough bits of the kernel. Made with my fluffy cornmeal and this porridge technique, these cornmeal pancakes were excellent.
You’ll sometimes see cornmeal pancakes referred to as Johnny Cakes. This is a reference to an old American pancake, likely made only with cornmeal (i.e., no wheat flour) and water, adopted from the Native Americans by early settlers. As with many foods, the etymology of the name is disputed, as is the precise origin, and even the definition. Light and delicate, this recipe produces something more like pancakes with cornmeal than any true Johnny Cake. Whatever you call them, they are delicious.
A Note About When They Are Done
Because the texture of this batter is rather thick and gloppy, it isn’t always easy to know when these pancakes are ready to flip. The telltale bubbles and holes that indicate a regular buttermilk pancake is ready can’t seem to push their way through. Undercooked, they will have a pasty texture. To avoid that, I cook these at a lower heat than I normally would use for pancakes, more medium than medium-high, and a little longer than usual. When they are about ready to flip, you’ll see whisps of steam rising from the pan (maybe a little smoke from butter about to burn, too). To be sure, I also let them sit for a few minutes in a warming oven set at 250°F. before I serve them.
RECIPE: Fluffy Cornmeal Pancakes
(Serves 4 to 6)
¾ cup cornmeal, fine or medium grind
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup boiling water
1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons butter, melted, plus additional for cooking
In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal with the salt and add the boiling water, stirring with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to make a thick porridge. Let sit for a few minutes to cool. In another medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda, and use a whisk to blend. Into the cornmeal mixture, whisk the buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla until blended and smooth. Using that same rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir the flour mixture, into the cornmeal mixture, along with the melted butter, just until blended. Don’t overmix. A few small lumps are fine.
Heat a cast-iron pan or griddle over medium high heat. Grease with butter and then drop spoonfuls of the batter onto the griddle. Use the back of the spoon to flatten the pancakes somewhat, as the batter doesn’t spread much on its own. Reduce the heat to medium and let cook until the edges are set and the bottom begins to crisp and brown nicely. Flip the pancakes and cook the second side for 3 or 4 minutes until also nicely browned. Remove the first batch to a tray in a preheated 250°F. oven to keep warm and cook through while you finish cooking the rest of the batter. Serve warm with plenty of syrup.
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