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Congenial grit cakes win admirers in the North

Grit cakes are on the menu at Henrietta's Table in Cambridge. Grit cakes are on the menu at Henrietta's Table in Cambridge. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Hannah Martin
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2009

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For decades grits were designated for Southern supper tables and the occasional greasy diner. Those farther north maintained a cautious apprehension. Yes, Northerners eat bowls of hot oatmeal, spoonfuls of Italian polenta, and plates of Indian pudding for dessert. But grits - a porridge-like mound of cooked ground corn - seem off limits.

But that thick corny substance has slowly crept onto the menus of some trendy local eateries. And tagging along at their granular side is an interesting byproduct: the grit cake. While soft and fluffy grits by the bowl are most commonly suggested for breakfast, grit cakes are firm, golden, crunchy, and easy to like. They’ve been on the menu at Henrietta’s Table for several years, and more recently at Hungry Mother and Tupelo, all in Cambridge. Southern Living’s latest book, “Glorious Grits: America’s Favorite Comfort Food,’’ encourages cooks to branch out and try reworked adaptations of this Southern staple, including creative ways to serve them in cake form.

A grit cake is a centuries-old Southern creation invented to use up cooked grits. Leftovers are chilled, stamped out into cakes or cut into squares, then fried, grilled, or baked. The product is served in the South on both ordinary and fancy tables. “Refried grits, like refried beans, are as old as grits themselves,’’ says John Taylor, a cookbook author and former bookstore owner, who now owns a stone-ground grits brand called Hoppin’ John’s based in Georgia and sold online. Taylor says that wherever a grain is grown, you’ll find it cooked. Pan-frying the cooked grain is the logical next step.

Grits, made from corn that is ground and then boiled, were a Native American tradition adopted by settlers. Taylor has a plantation journal record from the 1770s, and references a recipe for johnnycakes made from hominy (cooked grits), mixed with fine flour spread on a board and baked on a hearth. “This is an ancient technique,’’ he says.

Regional trends dictate what goes onto the cakes, Taylor says. He thinks of grits and of grit cakes the way Italians think of pasta: as a starch to top with something delicious.

“Oysters are really good with grit cakes,’’ says Taylor, “but I’m thinking oysters because I’m really ready for oysters now. And mushrooms - some lovely Chanterelles with a splash of sherry. It’s whatever is in season. Had you asked me a month ago I probably would have said something different.’’

While you can make acceptable grit cakes using a package of Quaker Quick Grits, the key to making truly delectable cakes is using stone-ground grits. Where Quaker Quick Grits have an underwhelming, homogeneous consistency, stone-ground grits are more textured and flavorful with a stick-to-your-ribs thickness.

Chefs in this region like Anson Mills grits from South Carolina. One is Boston native Peter Davis of Henrietta’s Table. “With the travelers [coming] through, it’s just more popular,’’ says the chef. “It cooks so similar to polenta so we tried it as cakes and I liked the consistency.’’ On his dinner menu, Davis serves a grit cake with Vermont chevre. He also makes a cake paired with a saute of mushrooms, which is in his cookbook, “Fresh and Honest.’’

Barry Maiden at Hungry Mother is also an Anson Mills fan. A Virginia native, Maiden uses leftover creamy grits to make the cakes. The dish is offered as an occasional special, served with ham hock, collard kraut, and a creamy mustard sauce.

Growing up, Maiden ate the cakes with country-style ham, eggs, and a coffee-based gravy called red eye. “We always had grits in one form or another, but they weren’t always great,’’ Maiden says. “People get a bad impression of grits from the quick grits you find in diners.’’

Not every chef is using stone-ground grits. Chef Rembs Layman of Tupelo fries his into cubes of “crispy grits,’’ served with Frank’s Red Hot sauce. The grits come straight from that famous Quaker package. It’s not the highest quality grit, says Layman, but it’s what his New Orleans mother raised him on. The key, he says, is to ignore the instructions on the box and let the grits cook for a while longer.

The other secret: “a lot of cheddar cheese.’’

Anson Mills grits ($6- $7 a pound) sold at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750; and South End Formaggio, 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-6996, and online at www.ansonmills.com ($3.20 a pound). To order Hoppin’ John’s grits, go to www.hoppinjohns.com.