Friday, February 26, 2010

HOE CAKES - simple living at its best - fast food with a homestead heritage

As I try to find a simple way of living, I find myself drawn to simpler ways of cooking. A great old heirloom recipe is hoe cakes. I remember them with my nanny’s collard greens and I still relish my mom’s hoe cakes with lots of butter and dipped into homemade soups. I can think of no easier or quicker way to prepare homemade bread.

But, what exactly are hoe cakes? As our memories grow fainter and homemade food becomes more and more rare, recipes are blurred and forgotten. Many of the old recipes went by nicknames and these were muddled to start as different regional cuisines used the same label for items which sometimes wildly differed. Now, with the passage of time many names and recipes have become almost hopelessly tangled.

Hoe cakes are a perfect example. Although almost any southern family can provide you a recipe, you will also find recipes from New England and the Cherokee Indians. Frustratingly, these recipes seem to wander all over the place. Well, I am going to clarify this a little and give you a purist recipe straight from colonial times and then a slightly modified version that is great if you’re not trying for historical recreation.

Hoe cakes got their name because they were cooked on the blade of a hoe heated by a small fire. The farm hands would not always be able to return to the house for lunch. So they would carry a small pouch of cornmeal out with them to the field. When lunch time came, they would mix the meal with a little water from the fields and place the thick batter on a hoe blade that was being heated by a small hot fire of twigs. This quick, filling meal could be prepared in this manner with no fuss and get the farmer back into the field as soon as possible. This is the true hoe cake and it is similiar to the New England Johnny cake, learned from the native americans. Almost certainly, the Johnny cake was the ancestor of the southern hoe cake.

So, the simplest basic recipe for hoe cakes is plain corn meal and water. This was how they were made in the field. But, the recipe seemed good and serviceable enough that it began to be prepared at home as part of a regular meal. Once it ceased to be an outdoor fast food, the recipe began to be tweaked and improved. First came a pinch of salt. Eventually, different ingredients work their way into recipes. Flour appears in many, since it makes the cakes lighter and more cohesive. Eggs appear for much the same purpose. Milk or buttermilk become substitutes for water. All these recipes share one thing in common: they are basically thick heavy pancakes made from cornmeal as the primary ingredient.

By the way, I have found flour based recipes that do not even call for a dusting of corn meal and are cooked in a cake pan as a large, well… cake. Ok here, I have to draw the line. These are clearly not hoe cakes – they may be someone’s treasured recipe – but they are not hoe cakes. Could you have ever baked that runny batter on a hoe blade over an open fire? - No. In a world of cultural diversity, it is here that I am making a stand

Hoe cakes are southern, pure and simple. Johnny cakes are from New England even though they are almost identical. But, if you are gonna call them hoe cakes, then you will be using a southern recipe and southern cooking style. They must be made from corn meal – you can add a touch of flour if you like, but the vast majority of the cake must be corn meal. Of course the inside version was and is cooked on a griddle or in a large cast iron skillet. Since, most of us eat our hoecakes sitting down at a dinner table instead of stooping next to a fire in the hedgerow of a cotton field; we can certainly feel free to use some of the improved recipes. My nanny and my mom both taught me how to make hoe cakes and here is the recipe and technique.


2 cups corn meal

¼ cup self rising flour

¼ teaspoon salt

2 eggs

Enough hot water to make the batter about the consistency of a thin cake batter – up to 2 cups!

Note: Start with 1 ¼ cup water then continue to add water until it reaches cake batter thickness you will be amazed how much it takes –you will have to let it sit a while to absorb all the water – otherwise, towards the end you may need to add a little more water as the cornmeal soaks up a great deal.

Mix all the ingredients, by hand. Take a griddle or large skillet – cast iron is best, place 2 tablespoons of oil in the pan and heat to medium heat. Drop the batter in – about 2 tablespoons per cake. Leave them alone until you see some bubbles form, then flip with a spatula. Cook until light golden brown. Remove from the pan and dry on clean paper towels.

Note: If you like lacey crispy edges, you can make the batter a little thinner and use a little more oil in the skillet. The first batch tends to need the oil, but I have found no need to add more oil to the pan for later batches, unless I am looking for those crispy edges.

You can eat these so many ways. Of course they are great just substituting for regular corn bread. They are great for peas and greens – you can dip them in the juices for a real southern treat. You can eat them in the morning with molasses, honey or jam. They also make great little sandwiches, stuffed with ham or cheese. They keep for a very long time and I often make a large batch and nibble on them for 2 days.

So, there it is, an heirloom recipe from the past that can become a easy and quick way to add homemade bread to any meal. Nothing could fit in better with the concept of simple living.


  1. This may need to be my next attempt at cooking, easy and delicious? I'm there! LOL I may not have said it yet but I love reading your posts and this one is no different. Keep it up, you're a great inspiration!

  2. Thank you so very much. It is an amazing thing to have people read your work. You have no idea how much sastisfaction and bloody near joy I had to see a comment appear! Thanks and keeo reading

  3. I grew up with a Cherokee father and a southern bred mother. She wasn't much of a cook at first from what dad told me but after awhile she picked it up. She got her hoe cake recipe from my dads nearly 100% Cherokee Indian mother. The story you told is absolutely true. It has been tweaked just as many times as cooking eggs has. My moms recipe for hoe cake was:

    1 cup SR flour
    1 cup water
    1/4 cup crisco

    Thats it. She would butter the iron skillet frying pan, place on stovetop and pour mixture into a fairly hot pan. Would let it cook until bubbles stop and then using a wide spatula would flip it. I always had trouble with the flip so she said to slide it out onto a plate, put pan over plate and then flip. Finish 2nd side and then let cool. Slice or break off and slab butter all inside. It was absolutely delicious...


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