Jamaica is famous for its johnnycakes, but they're not unique to that island Jamaica—far from it. Versions can be found all through the Eastern Caribbean islands, as well as in places like Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and St. Croix.
They're also well known throughout New England, and American Indians have their own versions. In fact, it's said that American settlers in New England learned of the food and how to make it from the Pawtuxet nation. The bread migrated to South America and the islands courtesy of North American native peoples, or perhaps when U.S. loyalists fled south when faced with the American War of Independence. The first mention of johnnycakes in written records came about in the 1700s.
How to Make Johnnycakes
A johnnycake is a Caribbean version of a fried dumpling. It was originally called a journey cake because it was made and packed as a lunch and snack for enslaved people about to embark on long journeys.
The dough is pretty basic: flour, baking powder, a little sugar, some salt, butter, and water. New Englanders sometimes substitute cornmeal for the flour. How much of each? Most islanders fiercely guard their johnnycake recipes, sharing with no one. Recipes abound on the Internet, but the perfect johnnycake is often a matter of experimentation and personalization.
The dry ingredients are mixed together first, then the butter is worked in with the fingers. Enough water is added to form a dough, which is then kneaded. This part can be tricky and is a matter of touch. If you don't knead the dough enough, the cake just won't be as good, but if you overdo it, your finished product will be too chewy and rubbery.
After kneading, the dough is left to rest for about 30 minutes. It's then formed into small balls and flattened, but not too thinly or the cakes will turn out to resemble potato chips—try to achieve about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. These slightly flattened balls are then deep-fried in hot oil.
The temperature of the oil is critical. If it's too low, the cakes will soak up the oil and be greasy. If the oil is too hot, the outside of the johnnycakes will burn while the dough on the inside will remain somewhat raw. Your finished product should be crunchy on the outside and light and airy on the inside.
Bahamians solve the intricate dilemma of frying their johnnycakes by baking them instead. The dough is placed in a large pan instead of formed into balls and the finished product is sliced into wedges for serving.
How to Serve Johnnycakes
Johnnycakes are a real treat when served with sautéed salt fish in the Caribbean islands. A small slit is made in the cake and a small piece of the fish is then inserted. Johnnycakes can be eaten as is, however, with jam, butter, or cheese. Americans—particularly those in the Northeast—enjoy them with breakfast, along with bacon, ham or sausage, and eggs. Johnnycakes are a perfect alternative to boring white toast.