Hoe cakes are small cakes or breads made with cornmeal. They are often associated with the American South, where hoe cakes are served with a variety of sweet and savory foods, although their origins actually lie in Native American communities, along with many other corn-based foods. Hoe cakes are very easy to make, with a number of different recipes in use.
Also known as ash cakes, johnny cakes, or shawnee cakes, hoe cakes are traditionally made with cornmeal, salt, and water. The ingredients are blended into a thick slurry which is cooked on a griddle in oil. However, many recipes also include milk, yogurt, or other dairy products, and sometimes baking powder and eggs are added to give the hoe cakes more loft and texture, turning them more cakey and less bready. Some cooks also blend in wheat flour or other types of flour, although other cooks treat this as a crass adulteration of the traditional recipe.
Historically, hoe cakes were made by molding the batter into rounds on hot stones next to the fire, explaining the name “ash cake,” as they were often ashy. Hoe cakes could easily be made and carried on the run, which made them popular with travelers and hunters. Southern cooks supposedly adopted the technique of cooking these breads on the blade of a hoe in the fields, allowing them to heat a quick meal during lunch breaks. Today, cooks make hoe cakes in the pan, on the griddle, and sometimes in the oven, depending on their preferences and the recipe being used.
Hoecakes, as they are also known, are often treated as a sort of pancake. Hoe cakes certainly can be eaten as pancakes, with toppings such as fruit and syrup, and sometimes cooks mix fresh fruit into the batter. However, they can also be eaten with savory ingredients, and they are not exclusive to Southern cuisine. For example, someone could serve an Indian curry with hoe cakes as a side.
People who are interested in making this traditional food can find a number of recipes on the Internet. Some cooks have strong feelings about what does and does not belong in a hoe cake, and it may be wise to experiment with several different recipes to find a version which is enjoyable. For example, some cooks like the very simple and plain traditional recipe, while others find the basic recipe bland and dull, and may prefer recipes with additional ingredients which add texture and flavor.