These johnnycakes, a Rhode Island classic, are lighter and lacier and crunchier and grittier (in a good way) than pancakes and equally lovely at supper as they are at breakfast.
There’s no mistaking the gritty-in-a-good-way bumpiness of johnnycakes. The cakes are lighter and lacier than your typical flapjack, entirely savory and not at all sweet, with a slightly crunchy crust that holds up nicely under a slathering of jam or a puddle of warm maple syrup. These are a breakfast and supper classic in Rhode Island. Make no mistake, pancakes they are not. In order to truly appreciate johnnycakes, you have to go into a plateful with the proper expectations. Johnnycakes are lighter and crunchier and, to some folks, they’re lovelier than pancakes. Instead of pillowy and sweet, they’re gritty and sorta bland in a good way and best stacked alongside bacon or sausage or slid beneath something savory and roasted or braised so as to sop up those juices. It was originally published April 23, 2010.–Renee Schettler Rossi
- Quick Glance
- 15 M
- 45 M
- Makes about 18 silver-dollar-size
- 1 1/4 cups water
- 1 cup finely ground white cornmeal*
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Bacon fat or unsalted butter or ghee, for cooking and serving
- Warm maple syrup, for serving
- 1. Heat a griddle or large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat or preheat an electric griddle to 380°F (190°C).
- 2. Bring the water to a rolling boil.
- 3. Combine the cornmeal, sugar, and salt in a heatproof bowl with high sides. Gradually add a little of the boiling water, stirring constantly, and continue adding water until the mixture is smooth and thick enough to plop off the spoon in a blob. Think the consistency of thick Cream of Wheat. (The thing you want to happen is for the boiling water to scald the cornmeal, which means the cornmeal essentially cooks in the bowl, so the only thing you need to achieve in the skillet is to crisp the exterior.)
- 4. Test your griddle or skillet to make sure it’s the right hotness by flicking a drop of water on the griddle or skillet—it should skitter across the cooking surface. When the surface is sufficiently hot, slick it well with bacon fat or unsalted butter. Drop the batter by the tablespoonful onto the griddle or skillet. Using the edge of the spoon, chop across the surface of the blob of batter to release any air. Let the johnnycakes sit, without budging, until the edges begin to brown, 5 to 6 minutes, then flip them and keep frying until the cakes are cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes longer. (The timing will, of course, vary depending on just how hot your cooking surface is and just how big your blobs of johnnycakes batter are. Best not to turn your back on the stovetop.)
- 5. Flip the johnnycakes onto warmed serving plates and serve hot with maple syrup while you finish making the rest of the johnnycakes, adding more bacon fat or butter to the cooking surface as necessary.
The Right Cornmeal for Johnnycakes
- Traditional johnnycakes recipes call for Rhode Island’s signature white cornmeal, which is ground by a process that leaves the particles flat rather than granular. This recipe, however, comes from Kenyon’s Grist Mill in Usquepaug, where they’ve been grinding it properly pebbly and granular since 1886. You can use whatever coarsely ground white cornmeal you find. Just do not substitute yellow cornmeal.
Recipe Testers Reviews
This is a classic recipe for johnnycakes. The key to success is the boiling water, which scalds the cornmeal and enables the johnnycake to cook through on the griddle. The right cornmeal is also key. You don't have to use Kenyon's, but you do need to use a stone-ground cornmeal. What you're going to end up with is nothing like a typical pancake. It'll have a crunchy crust and be sturdy enough to pick up and eat with your hands. While these are great with maple syrup or homemade apple butter, they can also be taken in a more savory direction and topped with a salsa or relish. Make more than you think you'll need, as these disappear quickly.
Cooking time was fairly accurate. Mine cooked just a little faster at about 5 minutes per side, maybe less for the second side. My yield was lower than specified. I got about 18 johnnycakes. These go down easy, so that just fed 2 of us, and we wouldn't have minded more. The cakes in the photo look more pancake-like than these actually are. And I, for one, can never get my johnnycakes so perfectly round.
I'd never had johnnycakes, but I'm very fond of a cornmeal pancake that we get at this restaurant we frequent. I thought, perhaps, these would be similar. They weren’t but still proved to be very good. I halved the recipe because I thought that I had more cornmeal than I ended up having. I made these in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. I cooked some in butter and some in bacon fat, just as an experiment. We couldn’t tell the difference between the two. I actually didn't need much fat in the pan because of how well-seasoned the skillet is from all its years of use. That didn't stop me from spreading some good butter on the hot johnnycakes after they came out of the pan. If you like butter, I suggest you try that. It was really good. My half-recipe yielded 12 silver dollar-sized cakes. After spreading them with the butter, they somehow made it into our mouths, no utensils necessary. We actually didn't even make it to the table. I don’t think that a full recipe would feed 4 people, unless you were serving the cakes with something like bacon, ham, or sausage.
These tiny cakes gave me a reason to pull white cornmeal out of the freezer. Out of sight, out of mind. I keep forgetting it’s there. To me, cornmeal cakes are a perfect savory alternative to the sweeter flour pancake as part of a breakfast-for-dinner meal, and I prefer them. I had been making cornmeal pancakes with yellow cornmeal, but now I have a new option. Just a few ingredients, always on hand in the pantry (and freezer!), and these were on the table within 45 minutes of starting the boiling of the water. While these johnnycakes came together pretty well, they'd probably be better after more practice with the technique. I’m not sure I mixed in the water gradually enough, and it was difficult to get all of the bottom cornmeal incorporated in my high-sided heatproof bowl. I ended up using the edge of my metal spatula to flatten the cakes in the skillet, as there was still too much batter stuck to the tablespoon to wield it effectively for that step. I think I’d go with a little bit more boiling water (maybe 1 1/3 cups) next time to get a slightly looser batter. The recipe made 18 cakes, which I cooked in 3 batches in a seasoned cast-iron skillet. The 6 minutes per side was right for the first batch and first side of the second batch, but I reduced it to 5 minutes per side after that so they wouldn’t burn. I was a little surprised that the 6 minutes per side did not burn them, given how small they were and how hot the pan was. They came out thin and somewhat crisp. The laciness was mostly around the edges. Again, I think the results would improve with practice, but we enjoyed these, and 2 of us ate almost all of them in one sitting. They were served alongside maple syrup, homemade ginger-cinnamon applesauce, bacon, and avocado toasts. I used Anson Mills fine white cornmeal for this. It seems like it should be the Southern equivalent of the Grist Mill, but perhaps not. I got 18 cakes. I would say this recipe would serve 3 people as part of a larger meal; 24 cakes would serve 4. I used unsalted butter to grease the skillet and re-greased it between batches.
For something that's considered to be a traditional Rhode Island dish, you'd be hard pressed to find johnnycakes on many restaurant menus there. Johnnycakes are made with specially ground white corn, and I highly recommend that you watch the video on the Kenyon's mill website (kenyonsgristmill.com) before attempting the recipe. As the video instructs, these are NOT pancakes. They contain no eggs, flour, or leavening. In fact, the name is derived from the term "journey cakes," as they were made to travel. I followed the recipe directions, adding slightly less boiling water than directed, and my batter was the texture of thick Cream of Wheat. In retrospect, I wish I'd made it thicker, as my johnnycakes were quite thin. It would be nice to have an electric griddle for this, as it took a couple of batches to get the timing right. I finally got the temp and timing right at 5 minutes each side. The recipe yielded thirteen 2 1/2-inch johnnycakes, although the first few were not really edible. We ate them as a side dish with scrambled eggs and bacon. The cakes were buttered and topped with maple syrup. I've attempted to make johnnycakes in the past and found them to be underwhelming. My taster commented that they were quite bland. She said, “They're like matzoh. No one really likes them, but you eat them anyway." As a taste of tradition, they're worth trying, but don't expect a fluffy stack of flapjacks.