Occasionally, I retreat to a friend’s cabin in the West Virginia Appalachians to rest and cook with what is there: a rudimentary kitchen and what the local store offers me. These constraints are a pleasing challenge that deconstruct my city self. I’ve improvised roasting pans out of tin foil, and made a soufflé with local cheese in a cast iron skillet. I’ve used that same skillet to smoke trout using dried twigs from a nearby apple tree and steel forks as a rack, and picked local dandelions to dress with bacon fat and cider vinegar.
Hankering for pancakes one morning, I decided to wing it and see if I could make them out of my basic corn bread formula, which I keep in my head. I mixed up the recipe with a slightly greater proportion of corn meal, an additional egg, and enough milk mixed with plain yogurt to simulate buttermilk, to make a batter. I fried bacon in my one skillet, both for crisp strips to accompany the cakes and for the fat to flavor them. Local maple syrup dressed the barely sweet, corny cakes: perfect.
Here was a lesson in essential formulas being a good basis for improvisation: corn bread became cornmeal cakes. In addition to making fine breakfasts or brunches, these cornmeal cakes have many savory applications. I use them as a bed for warm shredded slow-cooked meat like Seven-Hour Spoon Lamb, with a dab of sour cream or crème fraiche (see recipe). They are also great topped with crème fraiche and smoked salmon or caviar for an elegant hors d’oeuvres, appetizer, or late-night NewYear’s Eve supper.
The batter itself has lends itself to improvisation. Lace it with finely chopped chives, rosemary, lemon zest, blueberries, even leftover wild rice, or Pimenton de la Vera, a sweet, smoky chile powder. It can sit in the fridge for a few days, waiting for whatever big idea strikes you.
Recipe: Sweet or Savory Cornmeal Cakes
Makes 24 to 30 griddle cakes
1 2/3 cup corn meal, preferably medium grind (polenta corn meal is perfect)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon plus a pinch of salt
1 1/2 to 2 cups buttermilk* (less will make a puffy 1/4-inch thick cake, more, a thinner crisper one)
2 beaten eggs
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or bacon fat, plus extra to grease the skillet
In a medium bowl, combine the corn meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir in the buttermilk, eggs and melted butter.
Heat a large, well-seasoned griddle or skillet over medium heat until a drop of water bounces across the surface. Brush the surface lightly with melted butter. Drop the batter, 2 tablespoons at a time, onto the surface, leaving enough room for pancakes to spread (The cakes will be about 3 inches in diameter). Adjust the heat if necessary to keep butter from burning. Cook the cakes until the surface is bubbled and set and edges on underside are brown. Flip the cakes and cook until second side is brown. Repeat until all the batter is used, brushing the pan with butter before each batch.
Serve the cakes as they come off the griddle or keep them warm, layered in (and covered with) clean tea towels in a slow 200’F oven.
*If you don’t have buttermilk, substitute 1 cup milk mixed with 1cup plain yogurt
Recipe: Cornmeal Cakes with Leftover Seven-Hour “Spoon” Lamb (or Other Slow-Cooked Meats)
I had some batter left over from a breakfast of cornmeal cakes and about a cup of Seven-Hour “Spoon” Lamb. So I heated the shredded meat in a saucepan with some of its juices, fired up a skillet and cooked up a few pancakes. The only assembly required was to put them on a dinner plate, top them with a small dollop of sour cream as a creamy liaison between the two parts and then a spoonful of the warm meat. Perfect.
If I’ve got no cornmeal, I’ll pile some of the warm, shredded meats onto a thick slice of toasted bread rubbed with a cut clove of garlic or shallot, still with a little dab of sour cream to smooth the way.
This is a rough formula that you can tailor to the amount of meat or cakes you have:
Leftover slow-cooked meat such as pot roast or Seven-Hour “Spoon” Lamb, shredded, with its juices (about 1 cup per person)
Sweet or Savory Cornmeal Cakes (4 or 5 cakes per serving), see recipe above
Sour cream or creme fraiche (about 1 tablespoon per cake; about 1/3 cup per serving)
Chopped fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, or chives (optional)
Place the meat and some of its juices in a saucepan; cover and heat over low heat while you make the cornmeal cakes. You can either make all the cakes and keep them warm in the oven (layered in, and covered with, clean tea towels in a slow 200’F oven) to assemble at once, or assemble and eat them a few at a time as they come off out of the pan.
To assemble, place some cornmeal cakes on a plate, top each with about a tablespoon of sour cream, followed by a couple of tablespoons of meat. Sprinkle with herbs if desired. Serve at once.