There’s nothing better than a Sunday morning spent in bed with a good New York Times article. This last Sunday we came across a fascinating piece on how we are breeding the nutritional content out of our foods in favor of sweeter, less nutritious varieties (New York Times article). Blue corn, for example, has almost 65 times more phytonutrients than the super sweet white corn we’re all familiar with. We began to brainstorm what we could do with blue or purple corn and immediately thought of Johnny Cakes.
If you’re not familiar with Johnny Cakes, they’re a simple breakfast food made from corn meal, salt, sugar, and boiling water. You drop them into a cast iron skillet with a nice layer of bacon fat (or oil) and fry until crispy. Elliott’s grandmother brought them to the west coast from her childhood summers spent on Cape Cod, and would make them every year at her cabin on Whidbey Island. While Grandma Ruth, or Nonni as she’s known to her eight grandchildren, was adamant that they be made with white stone-ground corn meal, we think the yellow and purple varieties are just as good. The white corn meal has an almost floral aroma to it when warm, but the alternatives are nearly identical in flavor.
Elliott has vivid memories of waking up to the smell of bacon wafting from the main cabin out to the red barn where all the grandchildren slept. While Elliott would place Johnny Cakes high in his top five all time favorite breakfast choices, most of his relatives are on the fence about them (at best). Maybe like any weird family tradition, they think of Johnny Cakes as a strange anomaly of the yellow cabin on Bell’s Beach, rather than a tasty breakfast option. Here’s our perspective: if you like rich, crispy, chewy, salty, and sweet breakfast treats with a home-cooked feel, then you’ll like these.
Before we give you the recipe, there is a very specific way to eat these cakes. After you’ve fried them in the skillet, cut them lengthwise down the middle, exposing the soft, steamy middle. Arrange the discs on your plate and add butter followed by warm syrup. And don’t forget the bacon.
For this variation, we picked up a bag of Bob’s Red Mill stone ground yellow corn meal and a box of Peruvian heirloom purple corn flour. The purple corn flour was ground far too fine to use exclusively, so we mixed the two together, three parts to one – We were both shocked at how PURPLE the corn flour turned as soon as it got wet.
3/4 cup yellow corn meal
1/4 cup purple corn flour
1/2 teaspoon salt (more if using oil instead of bacon grease)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 – 1 1/2 cup boiling water
Cook as much bacon as you feel comfortable having in front of you in an edible format. We like to heat the cast iron skillet in the oven to 350 and then add the bacon and bake for about 10-12 minutes a side.
Meanwhile, mix the dry ingredients until well combined, then slowly pour in the boiling water while mixing with a spoon. Continue to add boiling water and mix thoroughly until the batter makes a “splop” sound when falling off the spoon into the bowl. It should be relatively thick, but still able to fall off the spoon easily – thicker than pancake batter, thinner than cookie dough. Once it’s just right, let it sit for at least a few minutes before making the cakes.
When the bacon is done, pour off the grease but keep it nearby. Move the pan to the stove and turn it on to medium heat (you want the surface to be about 370 degrees). Add back enough grease to cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer. Start spooning balls of the batter into the pan and adjust with the spoon to flatten a bit and shape loose circles. Cook for a couple of minutes until the edges begin to brown. Flip and press down on each one with a spatula, then cook for a couple more minutes. If you use white or yellow corn meal you will actually be able to see each side turn golden brown and crispy. Using the purple corn flour made this nearly impossible so we had to improvise a bit. After the first couple it got really easy. They turn darker, then black. Dark purple = good, black = burned.