Clam cakes. They’re just like crab cakes or fish cakes, only with clams, right? Oh no, my friend. If you think that, you would be terribly, tragically wrong. Because as much as I like crab cakes, a true Rhode Island style clam cake is so, so much more.
Think clam beignet, or donut hole. Only savory. Crispy, golden brown on the outside, pillowy and light on the inside. Steam rises from the first bite. The slightest aroma of brine surrounds you. Tiny chunks of clam nestle themselves in the folds of the pillow, offering surprising bites of chewy meatiness as you down one of these little glories after another. And another.
With the possible exception of the Pacific Northwest, no region can boast mastery of the humble clam like New England. And within New England, it is Rhode Island that does it best. I have never seen these clam cakes any other place. They are a masterpiece of street food. To me, they are why you arrive early at the port of Galilee to await the Block Island ferry.
When I was a boy, I was partial to gigantic plates of fried clams. When I grew a little older, I discovered these clam cakes. And I’ve lusted after them ever since. They are to me the gateway food of Block Island, which is the place I learned to forage and the place whose natural beauty I still hold closest to my heart. My fondest wish is to die an old man in a little cottage on that island. But not just yet.
I am 3,100 miles from Block Island right now, a long way from Galilee and Rhody clam cakes. A few days ago, as I drove home from Bodega Bay, laden with clams, I realized that this was my first real chance to make clam cakes with fresh clams I had caught since I’d moved West years ago. I looked at my bucket of horseneck clams, dug an hour before. While they are certainly not the glorious quahog of my youth, they would do just fine in a clam cake — after all, you grind the clams anyway.
But then I realized that I don’t actually know how to make these icons of Rhody. I mean, I’ve made beignets a couple times, but surely they can’t really be beignets with clams in them, right? So back home I looked up as many recipes as I could find, and this one sounded closest to what I was looking for. And as it happens, yes, they are basically clam beignets.
I changed the recipe a bit to make it more like how I remembered. No corn. More clams, cake flour instead of all-purpose, and a touch more maple syrup. Maple syrup? Trust me. You need it. Sadly, when I made the recipe with the amount of flour suggested, it was a thin soup the consistency of melted ice cream. No way in hell that would form a clam cake. I added another cup of flour and it was perfect.
Now normally Rhode Island clam cakes are served with Tabasco and tartar sauce. As you might imagine, I am more of a Tabasco man. But I could not keep thinking about how much these were like New Orleans beignets. So I decided to break from Rhode Island tradition and add a little bit of the Big Easy to this recipe: Remoulade.
If I thought I loved clam cakes before this, I may now be a clam cake junkie. Holy crap but this was good! The recipe I made was way too much for Holly and I to eat at one sitting, but I decided to make them all anyway. We gorged ourselves on clam cakes until we were about to burst. I put the leftover cakes in the fridge.
And you know something? They fried up almost as good the next day. Popped back in the deep fryer for 2-3 minutes, they came out fine. Premade fried food? Yes, please.
rhode island clam cakes
This recipe is best made with freshly ground clams, although it would still be good with finely chopped clams. Canned would be OK, and better to make it with canned than not at all, but please, please, please make this at least once with fresh clams. You will not be sorry.
Use cake flour if you can get it; it will make a lighter, fluffier cake. All-purpose is fine if you can’t find cake flour. Use a “regular” beer, not a fancy one. Think Budweiser, Miller or Corona. For the remoulade, I used a recipe I developed with Elise from Simply Recipes.
Be sure to keep your oil as close to 350 degrees as you can. The cakes will come out greasy if your oil gets too cool. Fry in batches to prevent this. You can use a Dutch oven with about 3-4 inches of oil in it, but I use a DeLonghi electric fryer, as it’s easier to control temperature with a dedicated fryer. Besides, it’s covered so I don’t get vaporized oil in the air.
If you can’t eat all the cakes in one sitting, leave the oil in the fryer overnight; it’ll be fine. Then reheat and refry the leftover cakes for 2-3 minutes, turning once.
Prep Time: 15 minutes, mostly to let the oil heat up
Cook Time: 15 minutes, as you make these in 5-minute batches
- 1 recipe for remoulade
- Canola or other vegetable oil for frying
- 3 beaten eggs
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup clam broth
- 1/2 cup cold beer
- 2 teaspoons maple syrup
- 1 1/2 cups chopped or ground clams
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 1/2 cups cake flour, or all-purpose flour
- Make the remoulade first and set aside. Heat the oil to 350 degrees.
- Mix all the liquid ingredients together except the beer. Mix all the dry ingredients together. When your oil is hot, add the beer to the liquid ingredients and mix gently. Stir in the dry ingredients just until combined.
- Drop a tablespoon of batter into the hot oil at a time. Do not crowd the pot. Let them sizzle for 30 seconds or so, then dislodge any that are stuck to the bottom with a chopstick or wooden skewer. Fry until golden brown on both sides, about 5 minutes.
- Drain on paper towels and serve while hot with the remoulade, Tabasco or tartar sauce. And beer. Lots of beer.