Thursday, June 20, 2013

Open Hearth Cooking: Johnny Cake AKA Polenta

Last week I shared one of my recipes with Dominque over at Dominique's Desk for making Johnny Cake.  I thought you folks might like to see it, as well.  We cook this over the open hearth with students and families who visit our 1800's Mill House at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture.  I have another recipe, applesauce, that I shared earlier that you can see HERE.  

I hope you enjoy this glimpse back in to cooking from New England's past.  Thanks!


New England women had a difficult job before the electric/gas stove.  Long before the wood stove,  they cooked over an open fire.  Not only was it difficult, it was dangerous.  Imagine the clothing they wore: the large, layered skirts, swishing around them.  Then think about a roaring blaze, contained only by the hearth that held it.  Getting burned was one of  the most common causes of death for women in the early days.

Before we talk about making Johnny Cake, the recipe I would like to share with you, I thought you might like some thoughts on cooking on the open hearth.

About the fire... if you've never cooked on an open flame (camping counts - we talk about that all the time here) you take for granted several things: timing and amount of heat.  Timing means several things to me: how long it takes to GET the fire going and then to have coals to work with and then how LONG it takes to cook something!  With hearth cooking you can find both of those things a challenge.  Let me just say that you will appreciate the ability to walk over and turn your oven on after you've experienced this!

When I am cooking for demonstration purposes, I start the fire 45 minutes before my group arrives.  That seems to give me sufficient coals to work with by the time we need them.  If you've never tried cooking this way, you might not realize that COALS are what you are looking for - flames, tend to scorch and burn, we need the steady heat of coals to warm the cast iron cookware and properly cook our food.

This is important with Johnny Cakes as we cook them in a spider pan, over coals. You can see the coals building at the bottom of the photo.

This is a two step process.  Here's how we do it:

Johnny Cakes
Ingredients for Day #1
3 cups of water
1 tsp salt
1 cup cornmeal

Ingredients for Day #2
Johnny Cake loaf
maple syrup

I do THESE steps the night before:
1. Spray a loaf pan with oil and set aside. (I was preparing this for a group who had some gluten intolerance and since I bake bread in that pan I lined it with aluminum and sprayed that.)
2. Bring your water to a boil.
3. Add salt.
4. Add cornmeal.
5. Stir constantly at this point.  You will watch the mixture go from water and dried cornmeal to a mush and then a semi-solid VERY quickly.  (GREAT for kids to watch!)
6. Once it's mixed together (this happens pretty quickly) pour into the prepared pan.
7. Let it cool.  Once it's cool enough to do so, cover with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.

The next day (it's good and solid then...much like a roll of Polenta) here's what you do:
1. Cut the loaf into slices 1/2-3/4" thick.
2.  Pull out a pile of coals and set your spider pan on top.  Allow it to heat the cast iron.
3.  Once the pan is heated, add a tablespoon of butter - it should sizzle, then add 3-4 slices of Johnny Cake.
4.  Let it cook about 8-10 minutes (keep an eye on it!) and then turn.  It should be golden brown.
5. Repeat for the other side.
6.  When cooked to you liking, remove and eat with maple syrup.

Like the applesauce recipe we did, you can do this on the stove as well.  Method is the same and I found the taste similar.
Finishing the loaf on the stove at home.

Those of you who buy Polenta, if you've never tried making your own, YOU SHOULD!  It's so easy and costs pennies to make!  I can't wait to try again and see about adding some interesting ingredients...stay tuned, we'll see how it comes out!

Thanks so much for stopping by today!  Have you made your own before?  How did it come out?  What do you add?  We'd love to hear.

Enjoy your day,


  1. Carrie, what is a 'spider' pan? Thanks!

  2. If you look closely at the very bottom of the second image, you'll see a leg on the pan.

    "Spider pans" have 3 legs to keep them up off the coals. You pull together a heap of coals and place the pan on top. The 3 legs keep it stable so it doesn't tip as they cool. A rather cool invention! My guess is that before they added the legs, there was some spilled dinners!

    Thanks for stopping by, Carri

  3. Wonderful! I make a version of this on our electric stove and in a cast iron skillet, but it would be wonderful to taste this authentic version of the dish! Fun post, Carrie!