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Good Johnny Cakes or Fry Bread


In each home across the BVI, and the Caribbean, even with its varied culture, one of the staples, especially on weekends, is Johnny Cakes.  Also, there are very few mobile/stationary food vans that don’t use the Johnny Cake as a side alongside rice, pasta and ground provisions.   The simplicity of producing such flavours in a short space of time makes it a clear winner.  The history of journey cakes (Johnny Cakes) places corn as one of the main ingredients; but within the Virgin Islands UK, corn is less used unless the home has strong Caribbean roots.

There are a few consistencies about this delicacy.  The texture is fluffy but crispy on the outside with a golden hue; the inside tastes more bready and tough on the outside, if no fat is used.  If fat whether margarine or crisco is used, the finished product tends to be a softer, melt-in-your-mouth biscuit consistency.  Let’s face it, Within each village, each household, there is something uniquely created, to the point where people can at times pinpoint who was the creator of the dough. Now there is an ongoing debate as to whether using baking powder or yeast (as the rising agents) makes the best Johnny Cakes.  Either way, the end product is delicious.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Does anyone remember the snackette Popeye’s, which was located by the gas station near UP’s Cineplex?  This memory should make your taste buds jump.  It was a favourite lunchtime and afternoon hang-out for many students and adults after work looking for something to eat.  Believe it or not, this particular Johnny Cake dough was made with yeast, butter for a soft middle and milk for that delicious consistency.  This was not the traditional recipe.  In the BVI community, baking powder (not yeast) was used. Shortening or lard was the most customary fat used until butter or a mixture of both became the norm.  As families began to make Johnny Cake almost into a meal by itself, supplementing milk with the water made the dough richer, so you ate several before you had finished frying a batch.

A simple dough comprised of

2 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon Salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup Water
½ tsp yeast (Optional)


Even though it’s a simple recipe, unless you are considered an expert, there are a few things to remember when making up the dough.  The flour should be sifted to assist in introducing air into the mixture.  The sugar and salt give the flavours, but don’t go heavy on the sugar as it’s not a sweet treat; salt and sugar should be in perfect balance.   Disperse all the ingredients in the flour evenly to ensure a consistent flavour.   Yeast is optional but can be added as an insurance policy, speeding up the leavening process.  Remember that salt kills the action of yeast, so never add them at the same time, make sure and mix thoroughly in between adding these two ingredients to your dough.

Add the butter at room temperature, rubbing it into the flour until it begins to resemble bread crumbs – this is key.  Bring it all together with your liquid, a little at a time.  Slowly moisten the flour; only when it is dry to the touch, would you add additional liquid.  Using the heel of your hand, take it to the counter, and knead gently until you have a nice smooth finish top.  Don’t put too much flour on the board, it changes the consistency of the dough. Also, we want minimal gluten development, so try not to knead it too much, just gently bring it together to a smooth ball.

Place a wet tea cloth over the dough for approximately 15 minutes allowing the yeast time to do its work. It should rise two or three times its volume; airy and soft inside. If no yeast is used, this time can be shortened significantly.

Press out some of the air inside the dough, and lightly dust the counter.  Portion out your dough; tuck in the outer parts of the dough, then pinch the top until you get a nice rounded ball.  If you are using the yeast, you may want to rest the dough for a further 3 – 5 minutes under the damp towel.  Roll them out at the desired thickness; remember that they will rise significantly, especially if the yeast is used.

The frying part of the process is just as technical; a deep enough pan to cover the Johnny Cake would be preferable. 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 Johnny Cakes will burn while the dough on the inside will remain somewhat raw. The desired outcome is crunchy on the outside and light and airy on the inside.   Ensure that the Johnny Cakes don’t overlap in the pan. Use a spoon to bathe the top side of the Johnny Cake with hot oil while the bottom side cooks.   Flip after 30 – 45 seconds, allowing the Johnny Cakes to fry for about 2 minutes. Drain excess oil, and then transfer to a bowl lined with paper towels.

Sister to the Johnny Cakes is the patty.  A patty is a Johnny Cake filled with a combination of meat, and vegetables. The favourite flavours now include chicken, beef, vegetables, saltfish, and conchs.  To save time, families across the BVI have been using the same dough for the Johnny Cakes and patties, but for those who like less dough in their patty and that tender flaky crust, here are a few adjustments.

Instead of using the butter at room temperature, grate it cold.  You will see the same breadcrumbs appearance but it will be slightly bigger because of the clumps of frozen butter.  As the butter tends to soften while you are handling the dough, it is again recommended that it be chilled during the resting period.  This allows the butter in the dough to re-solidify. Additionally, chilled dough is a lot easier to handle/roll-out than room-temperature dough.  Ensure that your filling for the patty is ready beforehand to shorten the time the dough sits on the counter before it is introduced to the hot oil.  The air pockets of butter in the dough give that nice flaky effect.

No matter the method for making Johnny Cakes, the recipe will continue to diversify as the BVI Population has done over the years.