17 February 2011

17 February - Fornacalia; Johnny Cakes and Hoe Cakes

Not what it sounds like (you should have got that out of your system three days ago), but the ancient Roman festival honoring bread, ovens, and Fornax (the oven goddess) of which this is the last day.  Read about Fornacalia here and Ovid's explanation of it here, then be heavenly yourself and bake bread today.

An easy bread is Johnnycake (Johnny Cake, Jonnycake), also known as Hoe Cake, a member of the pancake family.  The origin of the name is unknown, although its use was attested in the 18th century. One etymology claims that they were originally called "journey cakes," as they were carried for sustenance on tedious journeys.  This is not as far fetched as it sounds, because New Englanders (especially) are known for dropping r's from words where they legally should be (cah, bah, and hahbah come to mind - car, bar, and harbor for those who pronounce the correct letters) and "journey" does become 'jawnee' under those circumstances.

[But don't worry.  Thrifty New Englanders don't just toss those unused r's.  They add them to other words, like 'Americar' and 'Bermudar'.]

Of course, it could be another pronunciation of Shawnee Cake or of jonikin... or they all might be mispronunciations of each other.

What makes it different from most pancake recipes is the absence of eggs or any other leavening.

The Newport Cookbook (Ceil Dyer, 1972) delicately hints that jonny-cakes were invented in Rhode Island, and downright declares that to be authentic, they must be made with white-cap corn which has been ground with fine-grained millstones, producing a flat meal.  That the Smallest State could have regional differences within its borders as to the proper way to fix the cakes is rather amusing, but so it would seem, and the debate was carried all the way to the state's General Assembly.  Does one pour scalding water over the meal first, before frying the cakes on a hot griddle, or is it more proper to mix the meal with cold milk into a thin batter before frying?  I don't know for sure, but it is possible that one might be invited to leave the region for another part of the state if one gave the wrong answer.

If you want to try your hand at making Rhode Island Johnnycakes (water or milk), allow me to send you to the website of Kenyon's Grist Mill, where you can find recipes and the authentic white cornmeal needed. [They also have Blue corn meal and Red corn meal - which would make some colorful pancakes for Independence Day]

The New-England Cookery of Lucy Emerson (1808) gives three ways to make "Johny Cake, or Hoe Cake".  The cook has the choice of:
"Scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of indian meal, and half pint flower"
"Scald with milk two-thirds of the indian meal"
"Wet two thirds with boiling water, add salt, molasses and shortening, work up with cold water pretty stiff"
bake before a fire.

Originally, the batter was thick enough to hold its shape as it was baked on a board propped up at an angle before the fire.  When the upper part was brown, the cake was turned over to allow the underside to bake.  Later, the batter was thinned to something more resembling gruel and dropped by spoonfuls onto a hot griddle.

Hoe Cakes is more of a Southern term, although Miss Lucy used it as an alternate name for her Johny Cakes above.  They were also thicker cakes, being shaped by hand before being baked on a well-greased griddle, or, as the name implies, a hoe.

Put 2 cups of white cornmeal in a bowl and pour over it 2 cups of boiling water.  Then stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 cup of milk, and 1/4 cup of melted butter. (Add more water if necessary, so that the batter is soft, but not thin.)  Bake on a well-greased griddle, turning to brown both sides.  Serve with butter and maple syrup. 

(contributed by Mrs. W. P. Trotter in Mountain Makin's in the Smokies (1957), available at the Great Smoke Mountains Association website):
Mix thoroughly 2 cups of cornmeal, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 cup of boiling water, and 1/2 cup of cold water.  Shape with hands in oblong cakes.  Bake on a well greased griddle [she calls for bacon fat], turning when partly done so both sides will be brown.

Mmmm... good eating, north or south.