Taste of the Caribbean: My Friend Karen’s Top Secret Johnny Cake Recipe
Few words solicit greater joy and elation among born and bred Crucians (like me) and those who have been lucky enough to visit my home island of St. Croix. These fluffy-fried, golden-sweet, semi-flattened spheres of pure goodness are THE staple snack food back home, found on every menu at every local restaurant worth anything everywhere across the island.
In fact, if you should ever come across a local restaurant in St. Croix that doesn’t serve Johnny Cakes, you best make a bee-line for the door. Seriously, a Crucian eatery without Johnny Cakes is like a ballpark without hotdogs, a burger joint without fries, or a roti shop without doubles or this sweet stuff…
Johnny Cakes are just a must for local Crucian restaurants, period. End. Of. Story!
So, what’s so great about ’em? In my extremely biased Crucian opinion – everything!
Johnny Cakes are sweet, filling and perfectly fine enjoyed on their own. I personally used to love grabbing them when they were warm, making a small incision, and slipping a slice of cheddar or saltfish in the middle. Pair ’em up with fried fish, BBQ chicken, souse, lechon, buljol, or any number of other island favorites, and you have heaven on a plate.
Now, if you’ve already picked up your copy of The St. Croix Food & Wine Experience Cookbook, featuring the writing of yours truly, then you already know that this local delight was originally known as a Journey Cake, a name derived from the fact that people used to eat them on their way to work.
The name may have morphed into Johnny Cake over time, but the tasty treat itself has always remained the same.
Johhny Cake as we know it in St. Croix is an unleavened fried bread consisting primarily of white flour. Some people also bake them, but to me a Johnny Cake just isn’t a Johnny Cake unless it’s been fried.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsps baking powder
- 4 tbs sugar
- 2-1/2 tsps room temp butter
- oil for frying
- extra flour
Variations on the snack, often substituting cornmeal in place of flour, are found carrying the same name in as disparate a collection of places as New England, Australia, and Newfoundland. I’m sure their Johnny Cakes are good too, but nothing will ever compare to real Crucian Johnny Cakes to me.
This, of course, begs the question: what makes a real Crucian Johnny Cake a real Crucian Johnny Cake?
Like a lot of the best things to eat in the Caribbean, the answer often boils down to who’s table you happen to be sitting at when you get to enjoy ’em. For me, Villa Morales in Frederiksted serves up some of the best Johnny Cakes around. The combination of authentic Caribbean Spanish and West Indian food served up here makes Villa Morales a must-stop for me whenever I’m back home. (See you in a few weeks, Angie + JT!)
Now, if you want to make a batch of Johnny Cakes at home, we have a special treat for you… My friend and fellow St. Croix Country Day School Class of ’89 alum, Karen Chancellor, has agreed to share her “top secret” Johnny Cakes recipe with us!
This is no small coup, people. Family recipes like this are fiercely guarded in the Caribbean, and from what Karen has told me, this one has been vetted countless times over the years as part of her own, personal quest for perfection. It’s not so much the ingredients that are the secret (they don’t change much no matter what recipe you’re following) as it is the technique and tips born of Karen’s relentless drive to create the perfect Johnny Cake.
How important is this recipe to my friend, Karen? Her words:
I value my Johnny Cake recipe more than gold!
Priceless, just like the flavor of my favorite snack in the whole entire world. Here’s how you make it…
Tip: If you want to avoid your dough sticking to the bowl too much, spray it with cooking spray or wipe it with a lightly greased paper towel.
Mix dry ingredients – flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt – in a large mixing bowl using a large fork. Work in the butter with your fingers. It’s like making a pie crust. Add about 1 cup of water by stirring it in with a fork. Add a little more water, about ¼ cup at a time. Keep stirring until the mixture forms a soft dough. Sprinkle flour on the counter and transfer the dough. Knead for a few minutes to allow the ingredients to blend and gluten to form. You may have to add a few sprinkles of flour at a time to keep the dough from becoming too tacky or sticky. If you under knead the gluten will not have a chance to form a good dough. If you over knead the dough will be rubbery. Allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes.
Flour your hands and your counter-top. Make about 12-15 round balls of dough and set aside. Heat your frying pot with oil. While the oil is heating, use a rolling pin to flatten out each ball. Do not flatten them too much or they will be like crackers. When a drop of water pops in the pot it is ready for frying. Fry a few johnny cakes at a time. Do not overcrowd the pot – that will make the Johnny Cakes greasy. When the underside is golden brown, flip it over. Do not flip each over more than once. I use tongs like a preacher uses the Bible. Tongs are great for frying because they don’t poke the food. Fry each until both sides are golden brown. Drain each on a cooling rack.
Tip: Many people reheat johnny cakes in the microwave for 20-30 seconds. This is okay, but 3 minutes in the toaster oven gives them that freshly fried texture.