These johnnycakes, an old-fashioned Rhode Island classic, are lighter and lacier and crunchier than standard pancakes and are just as lovely at supper as they are at breakfast.
These johnnycakes are a breakfast and supper classic in Rhode Island. Make no mistake, pancakes they are not. Instead of being pillowy like regular pancakes, they’re crunchy and light and lacy and arguably bland but in a good way. They’re entirely savory rather than sweet and go incredibly nicely under a slathering of jam or a puddle of warm maple syrup or slid beneath meat that’s been roasted or braised so as to sop up those juices. –Renee Schettler Rossi
- 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
- Heat a griddle or large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat or preheat an electric griddle to 380°F (190°C).
- Bring the water to a rolling boil.
- In a heatproof bowl, combine the cornmeal, sugar, and salt.
- Carefully and gradually add enough of the boiling water, stirring constantly, until the mixture is smooth and thick enough to plop off the spoon in a blob. It should be the consistency of Cream of Wheat.
- When you flick a drop of water on the griddle or skillet and it skitters across the cooking surface, generously slick it with bacon fat or unsalted butter.
- Drop the johnnycakes 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 bubbles. Let the johnnycakes cook, without budging, until the edges begin to brown, 5 to 6 minutes.
- Flip and cook until the johnnycakes are cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes more.
- Slide the finished johnnycakes onto warmed plates and serve hot with maple syrup while you make the rest of the johnnycakes, adding more bacon fat or butter to the cooking surface as necessary.
*What You Need To Know About The Right Cornmeal For JohnnycakesTraditional 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, depending on how gritty you like it. But do not substitute standard yellow cornmeal.
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Recipe Testers’ Reviews
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Originally published August 19, 2019
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
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.
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.