Saturday, May 12, 2007

RI White Cap Flint Cornmeal: Jonnycakes and Beyond

Some products are so “local” that they are simply not available anywhere else. While some once-local products, like champagne or truffles, have been successfully reproduced elsewhere to highly competitive standards, a few defy replication and remain the sought-out standard-bearers of their kind. Rhode Island stoneground white cap flint cornmeal is such a product.
It’s not just the mythological power of its Native American heritage, or the romance of its pioneering, stubbornly hard-to-grow nature (low yields, promiscuous pollinating habits that result in contaminated strains and demand distant cultivation). It really does taste different. Exactly what that taste is defies easy, or at least accurate, description. I’d like to say that RI cornmeal has a sharp, somewhat bitter edge to it, and while that would not be wrong, it sounds like a negative, which is misleading, and insufficient. Its rich flavor, its edginess, transforms into a wonderfully round flavor in combination with other ingredients, particularly any form of sugar. This unique taste, these inherent qualities, have not traveled well, and many a chef and farmer insist that RI White Cap can only be successfully grown in…Rhode Island.
Fortunately, Rhode Islanders are provincial enough (in a good way) and stubborn enough that this esoteric item remains not only available, but widely available, and every Rhode Islander keeps a box or bag on hand. Not that most people actually use it. It’s more like wearing a St. Christopher’s medal in North Providence: it’s tradition, and you’d feel naked without it. Rhode Islanders do, however, eat a lot of jonnycakes, the principal dish made from our flavorful, silky-grained RI white cornmeal. It’s a sort of state dish, right up there with the clamcake. So unlike champagne or truffles or other special items that may be consumed by a small percentage of the population at their point of production, this one is consumed by everyone of all ages—at diners, restaurants, and May Breakfasts. Popularity has proved a very good preservative for this always-artisanal product.
Jonnycakes are a large topic in and of themselves, one laden with nuances, controversies (thick? thin? water? milk?), and cooking caveats. But jonnycakes are a discussion better for the long, dark days of winter, when a good debate can help keep you warm, and falling back on the usual is a comfort. It’s spring, and I’d like to talk about using jonnycake cornmeal for something other than jonnycakes—in fact, for some of summer’s most satisfying foods. For one thing, it is a superb ingredient in wet or dry coatings for frying, particularly for fish and vegetables. Ah, frying, one of my favorite subjects—and another large topic: the equipment, the fat, the temperatures, the batter or breading, the food. Next month.
Another wonderful, and very Rhode Island, use of stoneground white flint cornmeal is Pao de Milho, a rustic Portuguese table loaf with a rough exterior and a fine crumbed, dense, moist (indeed, damp) interior. This lesser known sister to Portuguese sweet bread is, for me, a summer essential. While it is fine for its traditional uses in soups or as an accompaniment to meals, and it certainly makes satisfying toast spread with strawberry jam or tomato butter, it is the best grilling bread, bar none, you will ever put down on your Weber™. Grilled Pao de Milho makes a superb platform for all kinds of good things, from cheeses and grilled vegetables to meats, and I often use it as a kind of “plate” for entire pick-up meals outdoors. My favorite way to eat.
Commercially made Pao de Milho is hard to come by, and I have never seen it outside of Rhode Island/Southeastern Massachusetts; if you see it elsewhere, please post to let others know where to find this unusual treat. The best I have ever found is made by Fall River Bakery on Williams Street in Fall River, Massachusetts; its distribution is limited and local, but if you stop by the bakery at around 7 on a Saturday morning, you can buy a loaf from the baker. Another source is Silver Star Bakery on Ives Street in Providence, but in the absence of my favorite from Fall River Bakery, I prefer to make my own.
Pao de Milho is easy to make, so if the idea of baking bread scares you, this hardly qualifies. It’s a straight-method, forgiving dough. The recipe below is how I make it, given together with instructions for grilling and suggestions for serving.
But first, a word about the Portuguese in Rhode Island. The Portuguese account for 10% of Rhode Island’s population. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that, according to the 2005 U.S. Bureau of the Census, African Americans make up 13.3% of the U.S. population. And that when I arrived at URI in the 1960s, seven of eight suite-mates (I was the eighth) were Portuguese, my own roommate hailing from Bristol (Portuguese Central), all of whom knew each other. Ah, you see: 10% is quite a lot. Whaling was the lure for the Portuguese, as New England whaling ships, many of them sailing from New Bedford, MA (hard by us here in RI and often funded by Providence owners), fished as far as the Azores, where they picked up willing and able shipmen.
Thank goodness for us. They gave us our beloved chorizo and pepper sandwiches, and taught us how to use kale for food, not just decoration. They share our love for clams, and introduced us to this essential pao de milho. No wonder, here in Rhode Island, June is Portuguese American Month. Visit your local Portuguese Club, and say thanks.
Pao de Milho
1 ¼ cups RI stoneground white flint cornmeal, such as Gray’s or Carpenter’s (latter must be picked up at the mill)
1 ¾ tea salt
1 ¼ c boiling water
1 tea sugar
½ cup lukewarm water
1 pkg active dry yeast
2 ½ -3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 cup white corn flour, plus more for dusting (see Note)
½ c. lukewarm water
Pour boiling water over cornmeal and salt, stir into a mush, and set aside until lukewarm..
Dissolve sugar into ½ c. lukewarm water, sprinkle yeast into water, and set aside. When bubbly, stir with a fork and pour/stir into cornmeal mush. This all takes about 10 minutes.
Add 1 cup of a-p flour and the cornflour to the mush and blend. Gradually add only as much of the remaining flour as needed, alternately with the additional ½ cup water and ending with flour, until you have a dough that will be still-sticky but pulls away from the bowl and can be readily formed into a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead about 5-8 minutes; it is helpful to use a metal dough scraper to aid in folding and turning the dough, as it will remain tacky to the touch. Keep your flour, including what you knead in, to the 3 cup total if possible. If not, so be it.
Lightly spray a large bowl with olive oil, place your dough in and turn once or spray the top lightly, and cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel. Let rise ‘til double, 75-90 min. Preheat oven to 450° F.
Punch down, shape into a round loaf, and roll lightly in corn flour. I prefer to bake this bread in an 8” or 9” pie plate. I use a glazed earthenware plate but you can use a glass or metal one (lightly oiled) if you don’t have one; place the floured dough in the pan and cover with the towel. You can also bake this on a pizza stone or cookie sheet (lightly oil, if the latter) if you like. Let rise until double, about 45 minutes, sprinkle with a bit more cornflour, and place in the oven. Spray the oven bottom and walls with water and quickly shut the door; repeat after 10 minutes (spraying is optional). Bake 30-40 minutes until crusty and the bread sounds hollow when you tap the bottom. Turn onto a rack and let cool completely before slicing.
Note: White cornflour (farinna de milho) is a superfine, very white, pulverized flour that looks like, but is not, cornstarch, so do not substitute. If it is not available at your market, ask them to stock it. Antonio’s is a local brand; organic stoneground corn flours can be purchased online.
Grilling and Serving Your Bread
Slice bread into slices of about 1/2”—a standard bread size. Brush one side lightly with olive oil and place face down on a medium-hot grill; brush the other side with oil. When lightly toasted, turn over and finish toasting on the other side. It should be firm but still yielding, not crisp like crostini. This is possible because of the unique moist interior of this bread.
Serve it just as it is with salad, eggs, or soup, or create a hand-held hors d’oeuvre (cut in halves or thirds for this) or stand-up entrée. A thin layer of a fresh, spreadable goat cheese, either plain or blended with herbs, makes a good, neutral adhesive for holding on other ingredients. Some favorites:
  • Goat cheese and roasted red peppers, a little olive oil, salt, and pepper
  • Goat cheese, roasted garlic, grilled pork, grilled peppers and onions, and tomato chutney (preferably a hot one). This is what’s in the photo below.
  • Goat cheese and portabellos sautéed with finely chopped shallots, a splash of sherry vinegar, parsley, s&p
  • Goat cheese, big leaves of basil, sliced tomatoes, s&p
  • Well-seasoned brandade (salt cod fish pureé) with a little chopped fresh tomato and thyme or tarragon
  • White beans mashed with a little olive oil and white balsamic vinegar, topped with thinly-sliced Vidalia onion, s&p, and basil chiffonade
  • Tunafish salad, pureed in the food processor, with salted capers
  • Grated-corn cream or chopeed zucchini and corn cooked down in heavy cream and seasoned with s&p, nutmeg, and tarragon, sliced grilled steak


Anonymous said...


Love your blog, and also the fact that you actually got a book club to read my book--and also the fact that they didn't get it. I miss Rhode Island! Rhode Island never gets it, and that's why it's so great. It's above all that.


Jincy Willett

Anonymous said...

i luv ur jonnycakes!!!

ejm said...

Please excuse me for commenting on this so long after you have posted about it.

I have been searching on and off for a recipe for Portuguese bread (always seen it labelled as "broa" in the store). I love this bread! We can buy it at the Brazilian bakery but I'd love to bake it at home. Your description of Pao de Milho sounds as if this is the recipe we've been searching for!

I live in Toronto and know that I can get white corn flour and probably white cornmeal as well. But what grind?

Is the white flint cornmeal you use quite finely milled?


P.S. The Brazilian bakery is on College at around Brock. The bread is also sold at the "No Frills" on Lansdowne and Dundas in Toronto. I'd ask the Brazilian bakery staff about ingredients but alas I don't speak Portuguese.

Jane said...

Elizabeth, sorry it took so long for me to reply; I was out of the country. Broa is not the same as pao de milho, although it is possible that labeling is not too precise from place to place, so I think it is worth trying this and seeing if it's what you are looking for. To answer your specific question, the white flint cornmeal is very finely ground; the corn flour is literally pulverized, like powder or the texture of cornstarch (but NOT cornstarch). Good luck in your search, and if you try this, please let us know how you like it.

ejm said...

No need to apologize, Jane! I had seen that you were out of the country (welcome back). And wouldn't you know it, I managed to forget until now to come back to look for your reply.

Thank you! I will definitely try this out (but probably won't be able to get to it until at least next week). We do have easy access to finely ground white cornmeal and white corn flour - both of them available at a Portuguese/Brazilian grocery store nearby.

I'm really excited! And of course, I'll let you know how it goes.


Benjamin said...

I made some substitutions -- using blue corn meal, toasted corn flour (it's Portuguese, but I'm not sure what they use it for) and bread flour, along with delaying fermentation in the fridge for 6 hours. It turned out great, with a very assertive corn flavor compared to the Portuguese corn bread.

The Portuguese also make pao de milho with only corn flour, making a bread that is exceedingly creamy, especially when toasted. It is good for eating alongside a stew or with milk and sugar for breakfast, but it is not sturdy enough for grilling like yours.

You're an excellent writer and I'm really enjoying going through your old blog posts -- a real treasure for those of us interested in heritage foods.

I'm in Fall River, so I'll have to get my hands on some of Gray's Cornmeal.

Jane said...

Benjamin, that sounds wonderful; the slow rise gives a nice texture, doesn't it? I think you'd be surprised how well the bakery pao de milhos grill--try it.

Thank you so much for reading my blog; you are the kind of reader I write for!

Anonymous said...

Can I take stone ground cornmeal and whiz it in my blender to make it finer textured? I'm an old time breadbaker stuck in the midwest. Been baking bread etc since mid 60's when my dear G'ma Angeline taught me. Now I bake for my family and extended family and friends. Love to try old old recipes. Please let me know if this will work. If not, can I mail order it somewhere? We have a state park not far from here that has a very old stone mill with the old water wheel-whole nine yards and that's where I buy my fresh stone ground meal. It's wonderful for corn bread, polenta, etc. Thanks for any help.
Bredbakker in Indiana

Jane said...

Bakerchrisplant: If you mean can you whiz the stoneground cornmeal--which sounds like you have a very good source for--into a substitute for the corn flour, I would say no. The cornflour has a texture practically like talc. If you do not have any Portuguese markets near where you live, I would suggest mail-ordering it. Here is a source: Good luck, and thanks for reading. Your family is luck to have you baking for them!

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi Jane.

I've made this Pao de Milho a couple of times. It's pretty authentic: I'm Portuguese and from New Bedford. I do wonder about the very small amount of corn flour in the recipe. I'd think that such a small amount would have little effect (although I have not left it yet). How did you come to use such a small portion?

Jane said...

Glad to hear you find the bread authentic. To tell you the truth, I don't remember why I decided on this exact amount; I think I put it in for extra corn flavor. You could certainly leave it out, and you could add a little more and reduce the a-p a bit--bearing in mind that corn has no gluten and this is already a dense, low-height bread. If you experiment, let me know!

RodinkasJoy said...

What another world of bread baking! Living in a smaller rural City in Manitoba. But I'm going to try and find the Portuguese Store in Winnipeg! I love baking bread!