A Pancake For Any Time of Day

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Photo by Maria Robledo


To try sweet or savory corn cakes, click here for the recipe. To turn the corn cakes into a satisfying lunch or dinner, click here for a recipe that serves them with slow-cooked meat and sour cream.

Occasionally, I retreat to a friend's cabin in the West Virginia Appalachians to rest and cook with what is there: a rudimentary kitchen and what the local store offers me. These constraints are a pleasing challenge that deconstruct my city self.

I've improvised roasting pans out of tin foil, and made a soufflé with local cheese in a cast iron skillet. I've used that same skillet to smoke trout using dried twigs from a nearby apple tree and steel forks as a rack and picked local dandelions and ramps to dress with bacon and cider vinegar. The only tool I bring down with me is a folding Opinel picnic knife because it affords so much more pleasure than the cheap stainless and serrated knives I find there, and is easy to sharpen on a piece of metal or stone.

In addition to making fine breakfasts or brunches, these cornmeal cakes have many savory applications.

Hankering for pancakes one morning, I decided to wing it and see if I could make them out of my basic corn bread formula, which I keep in my head. I mixed up the basic recipe with a slightly greater proportion of corn meal, an additional egg, and enough milk mixed with plain yogurt to simulate buttermilk, to make a batter. I fried bacon in my one skillet, both for crisp strips to accompany the cakes and for the fat to flavor them. Homemade raspberry jam, a gift from a friend, dressed the barely sweet, corny cakes: perfect.

Here was a lesson in essential formulas being a good basis for improvisation: corn bread became cornmeal cakes.

In addition to making fine breakfasts or brunches, these cornmeal cakes have many savory applications. I use them as a bed for warm shredded slow-cooked meat like Seven-Hour Spoon Lamb, with a dab of sour cream or crème fraiche.They are also great topped with crème fraiche and smoked salmon or caviar for an elegant hors d'oeuvres, appetizer or late-night New Year's Eve supper.

The batter itself has lends itself to improvisation. Lace it with finely chopped chives, rosemary, lemon zest, blueberries, even leftover wild rice, or Pimenton de la Vera, a sweet, smoky chile powder. It can sit in the fridge for a few days, waiting for whatever big idea strikes you.

Recipe: Sweet Or Savory Cornmeal Cakes
Recipe: Cornmeal Cakes with Slow-Cooked Meat and Sour Cream

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.
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