The Journey Part of Journey Cake

My mom had surgery two days ago, vertebrae-fusing back surgery that went very well (she was walking within four hours!). I wanted to bring her some breakfast yesterday. We all have our go-to recipes, right? Quick, easy, tried and true? One of mine is Johnny Cake, also known as Cornbread, also known historically as Journey Cake. I love my recipe. Last summer I added fresh summer sweet corn sliced right off the cob and made it into “corn muffins at their best.”

This morning I wanted to make it in my cast iron pan instead. The crust comes out so well this way. If you look carefully, you can see the steam rising from this piece I cut for my own breakfast.

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Some things you stop seeing after a while, but when I looked at the recipe, I realized anew that it is called Johnny Cake. That’s how I knew it as a child. “Corn Bread” is parenthetical.

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Somewhere along the line, “Journey Cake” morphed into “Johnny Cake.

I’m glad it did. No way could my version rightly be called or even thought of as a cake you could make on a journey. Think covered wagon journey. Think doing-the-best-we-can-with-limited-supplies. On such a journey (at least in my 21st-century imagination) the chances of having flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, eggs, milk, butter AND maple syrup at the same time, to say nothing of the proper pans and cooking fire/oven, seem super slim. Maybe they had a cow tied to the wagon (they would need her when they arrived in Oregon); maybe they had some laying hens, though I expect those became dinner when wild game was hard to find. But baking powder, maple syrup, white flour – no way. I expect they felt right grateful to have cornmeal, water (maybe milk), some salt and a little fat for frying the cakes (think cornmeal pancakes).

I for one am very glad to have all the ingredients at my fingertips.

I get to:

1. soften the butter in the microwave to the perfect melted-but-not-hot stage (30 seconds, then work the back of a spoon against any parts remotely still solid);

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2. put the pan in the preheating oven with a pat of butter in it, let the butter melt, then tilt the pan this way and that to evenly distribute the hot, melted butter and feel the solidity of the pan, watch the different paths the butter takes, admire the ways the light glistens. (We all have our thrills, okay?)

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3. look at the eight ingredients in a bowl, as yet unmixed, and anticipate their utter transformation;

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4. blob the batter into the pan and think about what happens to it in the heat, how the batter finds the corners and changes consistency during baking (I do smooth it out a bit before putting it in the oven);

batter in pan

5. enjoy the lovely crust, buttery because of the butter I melted in the pan and as dark as I choose to let it become.

johnny cake in pan

Step by step a thing takes form, simply becomes. It doesn’t matter if it’s the cornbread I’ve made for years or the Ligurian Lemon Cake I found on a found on a fellow blogger’s site recently (doesn’t that look good?!). It doesn’t matter if it’s a friendship or a project. Step by step we walk our unboring paths, touching and serving one another in ways we know and in ways we don’t know.

There were numerous high points with yesterday’s breakfast, including softening the butter, tilting the pan, blobbing the batter. Another was the steaming piece on my plate, fresh out of the oven, drizzled with honey. The best was packing up a basket to take with me to Mom at the hospital. Other people bring flowers – daffodils, begonias and a sweet pink rose adorn her room – but I bring food. How many chances like this do you get? To bring someone a piece of comfort, a taste of home?

I wish the person who wove my pie basket could see how its size and shape were perfect for a large square of my Johnny Cake/Journey Cake/Corn Bread (whatever you want to call it), a wedge of quiche, a couple of real and pretty plates, silverware wrapped in soft napkins, butter in a little dish, jam in a jar and a small cotton towel to serve as a tablecloth. “I feel like I’m in a hotel,” Mom said. My local hospital is great, but they have their limitations 😊.

For me, the journey part of Journey Cake – the journey part of anything – is the fascinating (if at times difficult and maddening) step-by-step that we experience every day.  Any journey has something (or someone) about it that’s wondrous or intriguing or funny or satisfying or lovely. I do not want to overlook that something. The process gets you – if we may borrow images from our pioneer forebears – down the next path, across the next river, over the next mountain. I want to go today where I haven’t been before, do things I couldn’t do yesterday, learn something new, see something in a fresh way. I also want to relish the familiar, embrace those I love, hold onto what matters. Yesterday I got to bake something I’ve baked a thousand times before, enjoy the process, present it in a different setting and watch it work its same old magic – oh, yay and oh, yum!!

Mom is in the hospital after back surgery. She’s not overly comfortable but is facing the mountain in front of her like the champ she is. Each little part of her journey, each big challenge and each little victory, makes her stronger in some way, better equipped for the next step. Whatever I can do, each tiny way I get to serve her – these become steps in my journey, the very journey that I will one day walk through in my memory, like a movie of my life. I want to enjoy the show!

Corn Muffins at Their Best

There are some foods I just don’t buy except at the height of their season. Corn on the cob is one of them. I read a great post by Shaun H. the other day about Grilled Sweetcorn ( and then saw the best looking fresh corn at Yoder’s (Madison, Va) the next day. Yes, need to try that. We got a dozen ears, followed his instructions for removing the silk, soaking the ears and grilling till slightly blackened, and oh how heavenly it was. Thank you, Shaun. The leftover ears I shaved clean with a sharp knife, then put the kernels in the fridge for another day, not having any idea what would become of them.


I love a new day and the ideas it brings. At the moment I have two little granddaughters in the house, Rise and Eppie, ages 5 and 4. “What shall we have for breakfast, girls?” In that moment I remembered three things: the fresh corn in the fridge, my wonderful recipe for Johnnycake (a.k.a. Cornbread) and another recipe I got from an Amish cookbook for “Unconventional Cornbread.”

I vaguely remembered that the “unconventional cornbread” recipe included corn as well as cornmeal. It had been a long time since I looked at it,* but I recall it had other things in it, bacon even – undoubtedly good, but more than I wanted to bother with at the moment.

Keep it simple. How about just a handful of the fresh corn in the cornbread? Use the tried (a hundred times) and true cornbread recipe and add the grilled kernels.

You can always tell which of my recipes date from way back. They are the ones that include shortening crossed out and replaced by butter. Early on, I just copied recipes from wherever I found them and generally followed them to the letter. But it didn’t take me long to discover that butter is far superior to shortening in all but a few applications, so I made corrections. Rule of thumb: Err on the side of butter.

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This recipe is great for two reasons: 1. It’s simple and comes out great every time and 2. the maple syrup. I lived in Vermont for 22 years so I got used to the real stuff. If at all possible, use the real stuff. It is so much better there is hardly a comparison with the product called pancake syrup.

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir them up. A wooden spoon works great. I don’t beat the rest separately, but feel free to follow the recipe. I just mix the dry stuff, then break the eggs onto it, pour the milk and maple syrup onto it and start stirring as I add the melted butter. Stir only enough to blend. This is important. Lastly, if you have it (find a way to have it!), add some fresh corn recently grilled and shaved from the cobs. I think I added about half a cup, maybe ¾ cup. The batter them looked like this, kinda lumpy, just right.


To make things easier (and fun) for the girls, we used paper muffin cups inside my tins. They loved wearing their aprons, helping to stir the batter and having the job of putting the papers in the tins.

paper muffin cups

This amount of batter was perfect for twelve muffins, which baked to a golden brown and smelled soooo yummy.

muffins in tins

The jar to the left is my homemade strawberry jam, which in no way conflicted with the corn, in fact enhanced it. I also put honey and of course butter on the table. The muffins needed a basket for serving, and we were ready.

muffins in basket

I tried to capture the steam wafting up from the hot muffin in this next photo – you might see it, but I don’t. I also know that a photo can’t capture the sweet scent, the waiting jam, our hungry bellies… It was almost 830am by the time we were sitting down, the preparation process taking slightly longer when two little girls are involved – not that I would trade this time with them for the world!

inside of muffin

I haven’t had a good corn muffin in a long time. These were both new for me – never added corn to that recipe before – and beyond good. Outstanding texture, perfect moisture. I’ll make them a time or two again before that stash in the fridge is gone, and then most likely I’ll wait till next year for a repeat. I don’t mind a bit having something so delicious only in its season.

Naturally there were a few crumbs left on the plates when we were done, so guess who else got to enjoy some of this delicious breakfast: chickens! I think they like it too.

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*In case you are interested in the “Unconventional Cornbread”

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