I imagine that one of the great things about being president of the United States is getting to have whatever you want for breakfast. In George Washington’s case, according to written accounts by his friends and family, it was hoecakes — pancakes made with cornmeal, egg and water. He liked them served with plenty of butter and honey.
Hoecakes were the food of enslaved people and Native Americans in early America. Cornmeal was cheaper than wheat flour, and cooking the cakes on a hoe or griddle in the ashes of a fire did not require cooking utensils or even shelter.
In 1796, when Amelia Simmons’ recipe for hoecakes appeared in “American Cookery” — the first American cookbook — corn had been the staple grain in America for centuries. Simmons’ recipe was a little fancier than just cornmeal and water; she called for scalded milk, mixed some wheat flour in with the cornmeal, and instructed her readers to “bake before the fire.”
Culinary historian Adrian Miller’s new book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas,” tells the story of the African-American people, many of whom were enslaved, who cooked for the presidents, and he includes a number of recipes including this one for hoecakes. It’s not exactly the same recipe written by Washington’s step-grandaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, but hers required a large stone pot and an overnight ferment next to a warm fireplace, conditions that are tough for cooks today to reproduce.
To see whether I liked the hoecakes thinner or thicker, I experimented by holding back on the amount of water I added at the end. The thicker ones were best, tender and delicious, especially when served hot.
Hoecakes from ‘The President’s Kitchen Cabinet’ by Adrian Miller
Makes eight 4-inch pancakes
½ tsp. active dry yeast
2 ½ cups white cornmeal, divided
3 to 4 cups lukewarm water
½ tsp. salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Melted butter for drizzling and honey or maple syrup for serving
Mix the yeast and 1 ¼ cups of the cornmeal in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of the lukewarm water, stirring to combine thoroughly. If needed, mix in ½ cup more of the water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
When ready to prepare, preheat the oven to 200F.
Add ½ cup of the remaining water to the batter.
Add the salt and egg, and blend thoroughly.
Gradually add the remaining cornmeal, alternating with enough additional lukewarm water to make a mixture that is the consistency of waffle or pancake batter.
Cover the bowl with a towel and set aside at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.
Heat a griddle on medium-high heat, and lightly grease it with lard or vegetable shortening.
Preparing one hoecake at a time, drop a scant ¼ cup of the batter onto the griddle and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the bottom is lightly browned.
With a spatula, turn the hoecake over and continue cooking another 4 to 5 minutes, or until the bottom is lightly browned.
Place the hoecake on a platter and set it in the oven to keep warm while making the rest of the cakes.
Serve the hoecakes warm, drizzled with melted butter and honey or syrup.