One of the subtler lessons of food blogging is that everything is connected. Influences range far and wide, ingredients travel the globe, and especially in mixing places like North America, our foodways inevitably coalesce out of a mix of origins and practices. So, today I’m going to tell you about how I made gluten-free johnnycakes.
For the unfamiliar, johnnycakes are cornmeal-based pancakes. Their history in North America is long, going back at least as far as pre-contact Algonquian recipes from the Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, and their true age may never be conclusively known. After European settlers began making extensive use of corn, the cakes became widespread in Anglophone North America, taking on other names as the practice spread and diverged across the continent. So, versions of this venerable and classically American dish include “hoecakes” and “Shawnee cakes,” and recipes have varied to incorporate additional ingredients and alter cooking technique. English-speaking immigrants to Latin America have created additional variations, including the deep-fried yaniqueques of the Dominican Republic and coconut-flavored variations from Puerto Rico. Many versions incorporate wheat flour for a doughier consistency or even replace corn entirely as an ingredient, retaining the form rather than the substance of the original.
The Puerto Rican spin would certainly fit in my oeuvre, but today’s lesson is a different sort of fusion cuisine, that ties into a lesson about corn that North America’s European settlers took far too long to learn.
It is not rare knowledge that milled corn does not work the way wheat flour does. Corn is naturally gluten-free, which makes it safer for many people to eat but which prevents it from forming the kinds of elastic dough that wheat flour forms naturally. Corn-based breads are dense, crumbly, and moist, quite different from the consistency of most wheat breads, and usually serve different roles in people’s diets. It’s not surprising that adding wheat to older johnnycake recipes can lead to a more unified, less crumbly product, or that this admixture is common. Similarly, milling wheat for flour unlocks most of its nutritional value, but milled corn is not as accessible to the human digestive system. The indigenous people of the Americas use a process called nixtamalization to increase corn’s nutritional value, treating the corn with calcium hydroxide before milling or eating it. This process especially unlocks corn’s niacin content. When European settlers adopted corn cultivation, they did not also adopt this practice, and corn-heavy diets in the American south led to outbreaks of the vitamin deficiency pellagra. Pellagra eventually became a historical footnote in the United States (but not elsewhere) thanks to more varied diets, but nixtamalization has one other useful consequence: it helps milled corn form dough.
Nixtamalized corn meal remains a curiosity in Anglophone kitchens, but I know it by another name for its utter ubiquity in Latin American cooking: masa harina, or “flour for dough.” The base material for corn tortillas and other Mesoamerican specialties, masa harina can act as a substitute for ordinary flour in ways totally impossible for ordinary corn meal, allowing corn-based breads and chips that aren’t the classic “cornbread.” Masa harina isn’t a universal substitute for wheat flour, but it is a far sight better than corn can usually be in this role, and it is gluten-free.
So I thought, why not a masa harina johnnycake?
This recipe serves two generously and reheats well.
You will need a stovetop or similar bottom-up heat source, a mixing bowl and two smaller bowls, a whisk or fork, a frying pan, a spatula for flipping, and your favorite measuring tools. This recipe is well suited to a griddle instead of a pan.
- Masa harina, ½ cup
- Yellow cornmeal, 1 cup
- Honey, 2 tablespoons. Substitute granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons. Leave out for a more savory johnnycake.
- Baking powder, 1 teaspoon
- Salt, 1 teaspoon.
- Vanilla, 1 tablespoon
- Egg, 1
- Water, 1 ¼ cups.
- Butter, 3 tablespoons, plus more for frying
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten free.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: The use of honey and corn makes incorporating this recipe into a low-carb diet challenging.
- Low-FODMAP: This recipe is reasonably safe for a low-FODMAP diet.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Substitute out honey for sugar, butter for coconut oil, and egg for a vegan-friendly binding agent to make this recipe vegan. It otherwise contains no animal products.
- Mix masa harina, yellow cornmeal, honey, baking powder, salt, and vanilla in a mixing bowl.
- Beat the egg in a separate bowl and set aside.
- Melt the butter in a separate bowl and set aside.
- Add the water, egg, and butter to the mixing bowl and thoroughly whisk to combine all ingredients into a batter.
- Heat a generous amount of butter in the pan on medium-high.
- Pour enough of the batter into the hot butter to make a 6-inch / 15-centimeter cake.
- Let cook until the edges look solid, then flip.
- Continue until both sides are golden brown.
- Repeat steps 6 through 8 for the remaining batter, adding additional butter to keep levels uniform.
- Serve with maple syrup alongside sausages, bacon, eggs, or other classic breakfast foods.
These johnnycakes have scratched my gluten-free pancake itch, while adding the joy of cornbread to the experience. Especially with how difficult it is to consistently source green plantains in Ottawa for my other favorite gluten-free pancake recipe, this will become a mainstay of my kitchen. I hope you enjoy them.