Whether you call corn cakes, hoecakes, johnnycakes, or cornmeal pancakes (corn cakes go by many different names), they’re a joy. While I can’t remember the first time, I tried corn cakes, the most memorable ones I ate were in New Orleans. The corn cakes were served warm with a spoonful of lightly sweetened whipped cream and macerated strawberries. While I’ve stuck to a similar sweet theme, I also like them with seafood like shrimp, crab, and lobster. I’ll go as far as to say that if you make a mussel stew, make a batch of these corn cakes and use them in place of bread. This recipe has you covered if you’re looking for something sweet and simple for a Mother’s Day breakfast or brunch.
The Anatomy of a Corn Cake
My goal with this corn cake recipe was to achieve two things – a tender, lighter texture on the inside and a crisp outside combined with a strong flavor. I tried a bunch of different ways when testing this recipe out, which is what I learned.
- I first used milk to see how the batter performed. The pH of fresh milk is about 6.7 (very close to the neutral pH of 7.0). The cakes rose, but there was nothing remarkable about their height. I then tried kefir and buttermilk, which are acidic in nature, and as expected, the corn cake rose much more nicely, and the texture was lighter. The tanginess from these fermented dairy products was also much more noticeable and helped the flavor of the corn stand out. I preferred the kefir over buttermilk; I always keep some on hand in my refrigerator, making it an ingredient I use often for cooking.
- Cornmeal contains no gluten-producing proteins, so it needs some help to hold a light, airy structure. Adding wheat-based flour in the form of all-purpose or cake flour provides that help. I tried all-purpose flour in one round, and, in another round, I added cake flour. Cake flour has a lower protein content than all-purpose flour, and though batters from both flours rose well, the cake flour version had a well-risen but much tender texture.
- Overall, the flavor of the corn cakes depended on two things, the tanginess from the buttermilk/kefir and the cornmeal flavor. We’ve dealt with the tanginess but not with the flavor of the cornmeal. Use good quality cornmeal that’s fragrant. You can toast the cornmeal slightly until fragrant before making the batter to bring out some of those aromas, but to be honest, I don’t always do it and don’t think it is necessary here.
1 cup/165 g medium grind cornmeal
1 cup/120 g cake flour
1 tsp fine sea salt
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
1 cup/240 ml buttermilk or kefir
¼ cup/50 g packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
4 Tbsp/60 g unsalted butter or ghee, softened to room temperature
For finishing off the corn cakes
Maple syrup or honey
2 cups fresh fruit like blueberries, strawberries, mangoes, etc.
- In a large mixing bowl, dry whisk the cornmeal, cake flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
- In a small mixing bowl, whisk the buttermilk, brown sugar, and eggs. Melt 2 Tbsp of the melted butter and whisk it into the liquids. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth and there are no visible dry flecks of flour.
- Divide the batter into 4 equal parts. Add ½ Tbsp of the butter to an 8 in/20 cm cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat and swirl the pan to coat evenly. Spoon out the batter into the skillet, cover with a lid, and cook until the corn cake starts to release from the sides of the pan, turns crisp on the edges, and the base golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip carefully with a spatula and cook again until golden brown and crispy, 3 to 4 minutes. Prepare the remaining corn cakes.
- Transfer to a plate. Dab with butter and drizzle with maple syrup. Garnish with fresh fruit and serve warm.
- Cast-iron pans produce a better crispier textured corn cake than stainless-steel or non-stick pans. You can make these corn cakes on a big griddle or skillet, but I love to make them in my small 4.75 in/12 cm wide cast-iron fry pan. Because of its smaller size, you end up using less butter to grease the pan and force the batter to rise higher, and the corn cake will be taller. With the smaller-sized skillet, there are two issues you will run into, and that will require a little bit of careful attention to technique (so practice a little). It’s hard to find a cover for a small pan (if you do, you’re in luck), so cook the cake on low heat for longer to avoid burning. The second issue that props up is flipping the corn cake. If the top is somewhat loosely set, it will be easy to flip the corn cake in a small pan without making a mess. An offset spatula is your friend. The pan I use is the Staub Mini Frying Pan.
- You can use all-purpose flour instead of cake flour, but the cakes will come out denser.
- Kefir is a fantastic substitute for buttermilk. I use the Lifeway and Green Valley Creamery (1% and 3.25% fat work well here) brands because they aren’t as thick as others. If the kefir you find is too goopy and thick, loosen it up with 2 Tbsp of water.
- I’m intentionally not listing amounts for the ingredients used to finish off the corn cakes. Have fun with how much and what you use. Go wild!