Lace Hoecakes

A lace hoecake, served with a bowl of soup beans.

Johnnycake (also called journey cakespider cornbread,  shawnee cake or johnny bread) is a cornmeal flatbread. An early American staple food, it is prepared on the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Jamaica.The food originates from the indigenous people of North America. It is still eaten in the West IndiesDominican RepublicSaint CroixThe BahamasColombia, and Bermuda as well as in the United States and Canada.

The modern johnnycake is found in the cuisine of New England,and is often claimed as originating in Rhode Island. A modern johnnycake is fried cornmeal gruel, which is made from yellow or white cornmeal mixed with salt and hot water or milk, and sometimes sweetened. In the Southern United States, the term used is hoecake, although this can also refer to cornbread fried in a pan.

Besides it’s slightly vulgar sounding name (yes, there were lot’s of giggles whenever I talked about this recipe around my wife and our houseguest), most northerners don’t know much about hoecake, except maybe that slaves used to cook it on the blade of their hoe over a fire in the fields.

Turns out that story is probably not true. It’s more likely that in the 1700’s hoe was a term for the type of griddle that settlers brought with them from Europe.

Most hoecake recipes on the internet are essentially cornbread pancakes- often even served with butter and syrup. Nothing wrong with that, but the addition of wheat flour, leavening and sugar seemed too heavily reliant on store bought, imported ingredients to be the traditional recipe for an Appalachian staple food, so I dug deeper until I found lace hoecake, aka lace cornbread.

This is the ultimate recipe for making do with the bare minimum. It has three ingredients- cornmeal, salt and water. Four if you count some fat to fry it in. Now take that another step further- you’re trying to stretch the last of the cornmeal until payday, harvest, or some other future date when you can restock. What do you do? Add more water. The batter for lace hoecakes pours like water. Granted a lot of it evaporates when it hits the pan, but what’s left behind is a delicious, crispy, lacy piece of fried cornmeal.

When making lace hoecakes you can adjust the amount of water you use. If you use less you’ll have crispy lacy edges, with a thicker doughier center, which might be what you want for sopping up the juices from your soup beans or collard greens. The way I wrote the recipe though, using more water, you wind up with crispy, lacy bits all the way through. It’s almost like a tortilla chip, only fresh and addictively delicious.

The majority of the lace hoecake recipes I found were reposts of Paula Deen’s recipe. She will tell you that you absolutely need a special hoecake pan. She will also, conveniently, sell you that pan* for $39.99. I’m here to tell you that I successfully cooked them in my regular old cast iron skillet. Granted mine were not perfect circles. The hoecake pan has very low sides, just enough to contain the oil but allow you to get a spatuala under the edges easily, which would allow you to use more batter per cake, filling the pan to the edges, while I had to keep my cakes smaller to facilitate getting my spatula under the edges.

I did follow Paula’s advice and get some fine ground white cornmeal*. I’m sure that yellow would work too, but I do think that the finer the better for this application.

You also want to use very hot water for mixing the batter so that the cornmeal has had a chance to soften. My tap water gets steaming hot if I run it long enough, so I just used water from the faucet. If you keep your water heater set at a safer temperature you might need to heat water on the stove.

There are a few tricks I learned frying the first few cakes before I got the hang of it.

First of all, you’ll need a lot of oil. I used canola oil, and then avocado oil when I ran out of canola. You could also use bacon grease. Anyway, you want probably 1/16-1/8 inch of oil coating your pan, and make sure it’s nice and hot before you add the batter; the oil should be shimmering hot, if it’s smoking, turn the heat down a little. If you don’t have enough oil the hoecakes will stick and there’s nothing you can do to save them. Make sure you add oil between cakes, as they will absorb some of it.

All that hot oil combined with a very watery batter inevitably means splattering. That’s what makes the lacy patterns which give us all those crispy edges, so that’s a good thing. Just be prepared to clean up a greasy mess and stand back while you add the batter to the pan. Because it’s so watery, the batter will also separte very quickly. Make sure you stir it up thoroughly every time you scoop another cake.

Finally, don’t be tempted to try to flip your cake too early. On my first few cakes I tried to start loosening the edges almost as soon as the splattering died down, which just coated the end of my spatula with sticky corn dough. Wait until the edges start to brown, at which point your spatula should slip right under the edge and easily loosen the rest of the cake. You will want a super thin, flexible spatula for this. My favorite spatula for this kind of application is a fish spatula*. The whole process only takes a couple minutes per side, so be patient and good things will come to you.

I THINK that since there isn’t any leavening in this batter it would work to cook what you need and then keep the leftover batter in the refrigerator for a couple days. I did that with the last couple cakes worth, and didn’t have great luck cooking them up, but I’m guessing it’s because I went straight from the fridge to my hot pan, and it cooled the pan down too much, because while the edges got nice and lacy crispy, they were starting to burn while the center was still almost raw. Next time I will try to let the batter come to room temperature before I start cooking.

Lace Hoecakes

Makes: approximates 12-14 using 2 oz of batter each.
Hands on: ~30 minutes
Total: ~35-40 minutes.

1 ⅔ cups fine white cornmeal
⅞ teaspoon salt
2 ¼ cups hot water 


Bacon drippings in place of oil.

Combine cornmeal, salt and the hottest water you can get out of your tap in a small bowl. Mix until smooth. Allow to sit for a few minutes.

Heat a cast iron griddle or skillet. Add about 1 ½ to 2 tablespoons of oil and swirl to cover. Stir your batter (it should be quite watery)and use a small ladle or measuring cup to pour your batter onto the pan. It will spatter and bubble, creating the crisp lacy edges. I cooked one cake at a time, but if you can fit more you can. Just don’t crowd them. Cook until the edges start to brown, flip, and cook on the other side. When both sides are golden and crispy, drain on paper towel or a wire rack, and sprinkle with a little salt while still hot.

Add additional oil to the pan and stir your batter between batches. If the batter gets too thick add a few tablespoons of water. 

*I receive no compensation for mentioning this product.

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