Newfangled Johnnycakes, or Polenta Pancakes

I woke up in less-than-mint-condition after a late night last weekend, and I awoke craving pancakes. But as I rummaged through my cupboard, coffee still in hand, I was disappointed to  discover I was completely out of maple syrup, and down to only a half cup of flour. Nowhere near ready to change out of my pajamas to hunt down either of the above, but not willing to be thwarted by insufficient ingredients, I took stock of what I DID have on hand: garbanzo beans, canned tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, polenta flour, tea, rum… Wait… was that polenta flour? Surely you can make pancakes out of that!

Introducing the Johnnycake: Since they were born out of scarcity and hardship in pioneer times, I couldn’t think of a better solution to my Saturday-morning ingredient shortage. Corn was unique to the Americas, always a cornerstone in the Native American diet, though unfamiliar to the first, starving European settlers. The original Johnnycake recipe, which was probably taught to the pioneers by Native Americans, contains no leavening agent at all, resulting in a thin, tortilla-like corn patty. Over the centuries the recipe has been modified countless times, often combined with other ingredients to resemble more of a pancake. The following is one of those newfangled versions, soft and fluffy like a pancake but rendered golden and crunchy by the cornmeal.

The maple syrup was my next challenge; there really is no descent substitute for the real thing, but I had to drown my pancakes in something sticky and sweet… So I whipped up an emergency substitute out of honey and molasses with a hint of vanilla and nutmeg to round out the flavor. While it couldn’t possibly rival real maple syrup in terms of flavor, it’s a good standby recipe to have for Saturday-morning pancake crises. The resulting brunch was leisurely and comforting, just what the doctor ordered to get out of my pajamas and face the day… or, actually, by that time, to face the rapidly-encroaching evening!

Polenta Pancakes

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/4 cup (300 ml) buttermilk, or substitute*
  • 1 cup (200 g) yellow cornmeal
  • ½ cup (75 g) all purpose flour
  • 2 ½ Tbsp (30 g) sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 Tbsp (50 g) butter, melted – plus more for frying

Preheat oven to 250°F/130°C. Beat eggs in large bowl to blend. Add buttermilk, cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Beat until smooth. Mix in 6 tablespoons melted butter.

Add a small amount of butter to large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, pour batter by 1/4 cup-fuls into skillet, spacing apart. Cook pancakes until golden brown on bottom and some bubbles begin to break around edges, about 2 minutes. Turn pancakes over; cook until bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer pancakes to baking sheet; place in oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more melted butter by 1/2 tablespoonfuls to skillet as necessary. Serves 4.

* Buttermilk substitute: Stir together 3 parts yogurt, 1 part milk and 1 tsp lemon juice. Let rest for 5 minutes then use according to recipe.

Fake Maple Syrup

  • 5 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Mix all ingredients together in a small pan over low heat until well combined. Serve warm with polenta pancakes.

Photo by Emilio Scoti


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