Dora Charles’ Famous Hoecakes Recipe
Every year, for years and years before the fallout, my friend Mickey and I would make an annual pilgrimage to Savannah—mostly to do fashion stuff at the Savannah College of Art and Design but also to eat delicious things at Paula Deen’s restaurant in town. For 22 years, Dora Charles worked alongside Deen—late in her tenure, she spoke to the press explaining that “she too had witnessed racism and had been treated poorly, for many years making $10 an hour,” after which Charles lost her job. Today, Charles’ first cookbook, A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen, arrives at bookstores and home-cooks around the world can experience Charles’ legendary Southern cooking for the first time.
Here is how to make Dora Charles’ hoecakes—fried cornbread that I can personally vouch for as being one of the most delicious foods I’ve ever eaten. They’re easy—two-steps-and-you’re-done-easy—and divine.
Hoecakes (fried cornbread)
My grandmother used to make these little cornbread cakes for us, and I love to make them for my grandchildren too. People outside Savannah know them as hoecakes, but we just call them fried cornbread. Whatever name you use, you can’t go wrong with them—everyone loves them, and they’re so easy. They’re great as pancakes for breakfast with a little cane syrup drizzled over them, or alongside a mess of greens, or as an alternative to cornbread or biscuits with lunch or dinner. They have a nice crisp crust on the outside and a soft, sweet corn flavor inside.
I like white cornmeal better than yellow for grits or cornbread, and for just about anything. To me, yellow cornmeal and yellow grits have a texture that’s a little too grainy. The yellow also takes longer to cook—a lot of people don’t know that.
If you saved the flavorful frying grease from making fried chicken, you’ll be glad you did when you add a spoonful to this batter.
This recipe makes a small batch. Double or triple it if you need to feed a big family or a lot of friends. The batter will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator.
1/2 cup self-rising white cornmeal
1/2 cup self-rising flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1/3 cup water, or more as needed
2 tablespoons melted fat or oil: bacon grease, fried-chicken grease, butter, or vegetable oil
Butter or mixed butter and vegetable oil, for frying
In a bowl, mix together the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon. Add the buttermilk slowly. Mix in the egg, cutting into the yolk with the spoon’s edge to help it mix in better. Add the water and fat or oil and stir well. The texture should be like thick soup, so you may need to add more water.
I like to fry the cornbread cakes in my grandmother’s cast-iron skillet or on a flat iron griddle, but any skillet or griddle will be fine. Heat the skillet or griddle over medium heat and grease it well with the fat of your choice (butter is delicious, but it tends to burn unless you mix it with a little oil). Once the skillet is hot and the fat is sizzling, drop the batter from a 1/8-cup (2-tablespoon) measure into the skillet, in batches if necessary. Fry the cakes until the edges are bubbling and the centers are set, then flip with a spatula to fry them on the other side until they’re done. Like with pancakes, you can’t say how long it will take, but the second side always cooks faster than the first. If the cakes seem greasy, drain them on paper towels before serving hot.
Tip: If you’re fresh out of self-rising cornmeal and/or flour, add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt to each cup of cornmeal or flour.
Excerpted from A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen, (c) 2015 by Dora Charles. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.