Someone who isn’t from New England might hear the words clam cake and wonder who would put shellfish into a cake. New Englanders, however, know these treats are not only a regional favorite but just one of the many ways cooks have discovered to use the muscular marine bivalves. Clam cakes combine a flour, milk, and egg-based batter with quahog, littleneck, or other hard-shell clams and then are deep-fried in the shape of little balls, similar to Southern hush puppies.
New England clam cakes, or fritters, are ubiquitous along the coast, available at almost every fish shack, take-out snack shop, and upscale restaurant. While a true New England cook prides him- or herself on crafting clam cakes to be proud of using little more than fresh clams and batter, minor variations might feature one or more herbs or spices added to the mix. When clams are more plentiful and inexpensive, visitors and natives alike will be delighted by clam cakes rich with chewy meat. During leaner times, however, a serviceable clam cake can be made with more batter and fewer clams, especially when they are served as edible mops to accompany a brimming bowl of creamy New England clam chowder.
For cooks who are preparing cakes made with fresh clams, a few tips should be kept in mind. First, any clam that is wearing a partially opened shell or shows a crack or break in the shell must be discarded; the clam is most likely dead, and cooking its meat with that of fresh clams could make diners ill. Clams that are dug on the beach or purchased from a fishmonger will fare best if they are unwrapped once they reach the kitchen, allowed to breathe, and put in a cool area until they are to be used. Soaking them for a half hour before cooking allows the living clams to exhale the dirty seawater out of the shell and into the soaking water. Removing them from the dirty water and scrubbing the shells of any leftover muck is all that is needed before they are dropped into simmering water to steam open.
If fresh clams aren’t available or are too expensive, a passable clam cake can be made using canned minced clams. The broth should be reserved as it will help flavor the batter and partially make up for the lesser quality and quantity of clam meat. As with fresh cakes, serving with a creamy or tomato-based tartar sauce or a simple squeeze of lemon makes a perfect accompaniment to a bowl of seafood soup or at a clambake featuring lobster, crab, and mussels steamed in an ocean-side pit and served piping hot.