As a child I absolutely loved the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, based on her life as a girl in a pioneer family. I read them to my kids a couple of years ago and was struck by the different foods mentioned in them and wondered if I could try making some myself. One food we tried was ‘johnnycake’ – I found a recipe in an old American cookbook that was originally given to my Mum and it has become a staple in our house. The recipe I originally followed involved baking a simple cornmeal, salt and milk mixture in the oven. I have since realised that it seems more commonly fried than baked today, but we have stuck to the baking method as it is easier than standing over a frying pan. I have adapted the original recipe that I followed to use just water in ratios that work for the cornmeal options available to me in New Zealand. We really enjoy pairing it with this Mexican inspired bean soup, which is ideal as New Zealand’s weather turns colder. This serves about 4 adults.
The ingredients to make this cost me less than NZ$20 (based on the actual amount of each ingredient used), including everything required except salt and pepper. If making gluten free, check all that all the ingredients, especially the spices are actually gluten free. To make more johnnycake, just increase the ingredients, keeping a ratio of 1 part cornmeal to 2 parts water, with salt to taste.
Reduce the cost:
Switch the sour cream for natural yogurt. If your yogurt is not thick and you’d prefer that as the consistency is closer to sour cream, you can thicken the yogurt by placing a sieve over a bowl, and then lining the sieve with muslin or other fine cloth, and then pouring the yogurt into the lined sieve and leaving it somewhere cool for a few hours to overnight. Or you could just buy a smaller pot of sour cream, but you’d have to be less greedy with sour cream than me to do that! If you can eat gluten, you could also reduce the cost by substituting the johnnycake for gluten bread – unfortunately I am not aware of any gluten free bread in New Zealand that would work out as cheap as the johnnycake for substituting…
Fancy this up:
We have this with sour cream and avocado, but if you want to make it fancier, put a plate of grated cheese out along with the other toppings for the soup, as well as some roughly chopped fresh coriander leaves (the coriander in the garnish for my pictures came from my garden). If you don’t have fresh coriander leaves, dried coriander leaves would look pretty sprinkled on top too.
Make this vegan:
Use oil rather than butter (following the directions for oil in the recipe) and either serve with a plant-based sour cream substitute, plant-based yogurt or omit the sour cream altogether.
What you need for the johnnycake:
2 cups of cornmeal – I prefer to use white maize meal (most often sold as the ‘Springbok’ brand in the international food aisle of supermarkets) but have also made this with quick cooking polenta
1 to 1 ½ teaspoons of salt
4 cups of hot water
About 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter (this can be substituted for a mild tasting oil if dairy free)
What you need for the soup:
2-3 tablespoons of oil
1 large onion or 2 smallish onions, finely diced
2 ½ teaspoons of garlic powder
2 teaspoons of ground coriander seeds
1 ½ teaspoons of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon of ground cloves
2 cans of red kidney beans, drained
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
¼ cup of tomato paste (paste, not passata)
2 cups of frozen mixed vegetables
1 cup of hot water (or more for a thinner soup)
Salt and pepper to taste (I was quite generous with the salt!)
What you need for the accompaniments:
250g pot of sour cream
1 -2 avocadoes
3 tablespoons of lime juice (the kind that comes in bottles is fine if you have no fresh lime juice)
What to do for the johnnycake:
1. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (this isn’t very strict – to cook this quicker, make the oven temperature higher and then watch the johnnycake to make sure it doesn’t burn, or to cook it slower, make the oven temperature lower).
2. Grease a baking pan with butter or lightly spread oil over the pan (if using oil instead of butter). Be sure to cover both the bottom and sides of the pan. I use a pan that measures about 33 cm by 25 cm in length and width but any pan that is big enough to hold the mixture will do – just keep an eye on it in the even and adjust the baking time as needed.
3. In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, salt and hot water until the mixture is thick. I find this easiest with a whisk to make sure there are no lumps. The mixture should become thick within a few minutes.
4. Tip the mixture into the greased baking pan and carefully smooth out on top with a spatula or the back of a spoon.
5. Dot the top of the cornmeal mixture with small bits of butter. If using oil, lightly drizzle a small amount of oil evenly across the top of the cornmeal.
6. Place the pan in the pre-heated oven to bake until golden brown and crunchy on top and soft in the middle. The time will vary depending on the size of the pan, how thick the layer of cornmeal was in the pan and whether you have adjusted the oven temperature up or down – if not variations to the above instructions are made, this will take about an hour, depending on how golden brown I want the top to be.
7. Once baked, remove the johnnycake from the oven and leave to cool to a comfortable temperature for eating. Once just warm, rather than hot, cut the johnnycake into evenly-sized pieces and serve. If (as is often the case in our house with hungry children), you need the johnnycake pretty much as soon as it comes out of the oven, you can (carefully!) cut it hot and then remove the pieces from the pan, but they will not have a nice shape – they will firm up as they cool down though!
To make the soup:
1. Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat.
2. Once the oil is hot, add the onion, garlic powder and spices to the oil and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft.
3. Add the beans, tinned tomatoes, tomato paste, frozen vegetables and hot water to the pot and stir together to mix thoroughly with the onions and spices.
4. Put the lid on the pot and leave on the heat for about 10 minutes, or until the frozen vegetables are cooked.
5. Once the vegetables are cooked, blitz everything in the pot together with a stick blender until a thick, smooth consistency is reached. If you prefer a thinner soup or the mixture is not blending well, add a bit of extra hot water and then try blending again.
6. Once the soup ingredients have been blitzed together, add salt and pepper to taste, ensuring that you mix them thoroughly into the soup, and then serve hot.
For the accompaniments:
Either slice the avocado and then drizzle the lime juice over the top, to prevent browning, or dice the avocado and mix in the lime juice. Place the avocado separately on the table, along with the sour cream, for each person to help themselves to as they serve their soup.
I hope you enjoy this if you make it!