Alimentary, My Dear
New Takes on Journey Cakes—
Variations on an Once-Familiar Theme
By Tamia Nelson
November 18, 2008
What’s in a name? Well, if the name is “journey cake,” it’s a pretty safe bet that it involves adventure, traveling to new places and seeing new things. So if you tell me you’ve whipped up some journey cakes, I won’t be surprised if you show up later with paddle in hand and pack on back, ready to light out for some part of the Territory still unexplored—at least by you. That’s the power of words.
But what, exactly, is a journey cake? Try finding a recipe in a modern cookbook and you’ll probably be disappointed. But don’t give up too easily. You might find what you’re looking for under another name. Try johnny cake. Or johnnycake. Or even jonnycake. They’re are all names for the same thing, a thin cornbread patty similar to the wheat-flour pancake, except for the core ingredients. That list is about as simple as it gets: cornmeal, salt, and water—though you’ll sometimes find a recipe that calls for sugar, as well. These are the same ingredients used in corn pone, corn dodgers, and hoecakes. The upshot? Don’t worry too much about the moniker. A journey cake by any name tastes just as good. The photo above shows one store-bought version. The label on the package reads “Toast R Cakes,” but the contents are pure journey cake.
Let’s cut to the chase before we lose our way in a fog of words. The classic journey cake was (and is) traveling food, plain and simple. Whisk together a thick batter of cornmeal, salt, and water—with maybe some sugar added for good measure—then form a thick, saucer-sized round of dough. Fry both sides in sizzling oil (you can also bake them), and you’ve got a nutritious bread you can put in your pocket or eat out of hand. If this seems eerily familiar, it’s probably because you’ve made wheat-flour flatbread at some time in the past. The resemblance is more than skin deep. They’re family. And it’s a big family, too, big enough to embrace cakes made from wheat and rice, in addition to corn. So why don’t we start…
Exploring the Family Tree
Begin at your local HyperMart. Browse the aisles. You’ll find plenty of candidates. I found the “Toast R Cakes” stacked near the English muffins. Nearby were “Sandwich Thins” made by the Arnold Baking Company—think chubby pita pockets, but scored for splitting. They’re available in whole wheat, multigrain, and “whole-grain white” versions. And there’s always pita bread itself. It isn’t just for sandwiches. Further down the aisle are puffed-rice cakes. They’re thick and boardy, and they can be had in a variety of flavors, from plain to popcorn-and-butter. Walk a little more and you’ll find ready-to-eat waffles, sold in pairs. These could also double as journey cakes, and so could some oatcakes I found on a shelf alongside the crackers. And since we’re pushing the envelope, why not include “mini bagels,” too? Stuff a couple of these into your pockets and head out. Eating and running (or paddling or biking) has never been easier.
Not satisfied with ready-to-eat journey cakes? Me neither. Store-bought is great for convenience, but nothing beats the taste of home-made, especially if home is a waterside camp. An archaeologist colleague from my stones-and-bones days once lived for a year in a Guatemalan village, and he turned me on to wheat-flour pancakes, no bigger around than the span of his hand. He’d make some for his breakfast each morning, then put the surplus into a jacket pocket and nibble on them throughout the day. It worked for him, and it’s worked for me, too, in places far removed from the Guatemalan highlands.
And that’s just the beginning. Here are…
A Pair of Old Favorites
From my food-to-go collection. One is traditional paddling fare. The other—as far as I know—is not. But both are delicious, and either one will fuel your engine for a hard day on the water. Let’s begin with the traditional alternative. The photo on the right will probably give the show away, but if you’re not sure what you’re looking at, I’ll tell you—bannock. Brought to North America by the Scottish “servants” employed in the fur trade, bannock remains a Canoe Country staple. I usually make it with unbleached white flour, salt, baking powder (NOT baking soda), and water, although I sometimes add sugar and raisins or other dried fruit, as well. I whip the ingredients into a stiff dough, knead the dough with lightly floured hands, and form it into a cake about one inch thick, before baking in a lightly oiled, covered skillet. I brown one side first, then flip the bannock over and brown the second. That’s really all there is to it, but if you want a more detailed account you’ll find it in “Our Daily Bread.”
OK. It’s confession time. Bannock is great trail food, but it’s a bit fragile to be considered a true journey cake. The solution? Mini bannocks. (That’s what you’re looking at in the photo above.) Mix the dough as before, then divide it into rounds about half an inch thick and bake. This panel of photos takes you through the steps…
A few tips: Heat a thin film of corn or canola oil in a heavy skillet (well-seasoned cast iron is ideal). When the oil is smoking hot, arrange your bannock rounds so they don’t overlap, then cover the skillet and bake till the first side is golden brown. Now flip the rounds (carefully!) and brown the other side. You’ll want to throttle your stove down for the actual baking—if you’re working over an open fire, just move your skillet to a cooler spot, away from the leaping flames. Some charring is probably inevitable in either case. Don’t worry about it. Your bannocks will taste fine. What’s that? You’re not leaving for the put-in till tomorrow? No problem. Just let your mini bannocks cool and store them in an airtight container. They’ll be a welcome treat on your first day on the water.
So much for tradition. My other favorite is the potato cake. It can’t be just any potato cake, though. Cakes made with mashed potatoes and fried in a skillet are too fragile, as are the thin potato pancakes known as latkes. Not very encouraging, that. But after a little experimentation I found a potato cake that was up to the rigors of life on the trail. Here it is:
Potato Journey Cakes
Makes an 8-inch cake, yielding 9 portions
2 medium russet potatoes
salt and ground pepper, to taste (optional)
dried thyme or rosemary, to taste (optional)
grated cheddar cheese
cooking oil (corn or canola is best)
Grate the potatoes—I don’t peel them, but you may want to—into a large bowl. Add salt and ground black pepper to taste, as well as dried thyme or rosemary. Heat a film of oil in a heavy eight-inch skillet over high heat until the oil shimmers, then tilt the skillet slightly (careful!) to allow the hot oil to run halfway up the sides. Now tamp the potato mixture into the skillet with a spatula and cover with grated cheese, before removing from the stovetop and baking in a preheated oven at 425° Fahrenheit for 30-45 minutes. Once the potatoes are cooked through and the cheese has turned a golden brown, take the skillet from the oven and run a knife around the edge. Then slide the cake out onto a cutting board. Allow to cool. Cut into portions as shown in the right-hand photo below and wrap each individual potato journey cake in foil or plastic.
A larger potato cake can be made in a 10-inch skillet, using four or five medium-sized potatoes and increasing the other ingredients proportionally. Bake as before, allowing a minimum of 40 minutes time in the oven.
Of course, this recipe assumes that you’re making your potato journey cakes in your home kitchen. Could you also do it in camp? Yes—with practice, patience, and a reflector oven. But it won’t be easy. As much as I like potatoes, I’ll stick to cooking bannock when under way.
Whether store-bought or home-made, journey cakes have to pass the taste test just as they are. Even if they hit the spot as-is, however, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider adding…
A Few Grace Notes
For a special treat, pair your journey cake with toppings that will boost your energy and fuel your fire. Just mix and match from the categories listed below.
Spread one of these on your journey cake first:
- Peanut or other nut butter
- Cheese—sliced or spreadable
- Potted meat (e.g., deviled ham)
- Cured meat, sliced
- Jam, jelly, or marmalade
- Maple syrup
- Cake frosting
- Marshmallow whip
Then add something extra, if you wish…
- Grated cheese
- Fresh vegetables, chopped or sliced
- Fresh or dried fruit, whole, sliced, or chopped
- Salad toppings (bacon or soy bits, croutons, etc.)
- Chocolate chips or chocolate candies
- Dried coconut
- Cake sprinkles
That should give you plenty of scope to ring the changes. My favorite combinations? Here are a few:
- Peanut butter, sliced green onions, and lightly salted peanuts
- Cream cheese with marmalade, or…
- Mixed with dried chives
- Goat cheese and chopped dried (or fresh) chives
- Potted chicken, sliced apple, and walnuts
But I’m sure you already have favorite combos of your own. When you get the chance, why not tell me about ’em?
If the urge to see and do new things hasn’t deserted you—and if you’re a paddler, it probably hasn’t—it’s mighty hard to go wrong with something called “journey cake.” The name sounds great tripping off the tongue, and the taste of the real thing is even better. Don’t restrict yourself to cornmeal cakes, though. Experiment. Explore. Try something different. The way I see it, this is what going on a journey is all about. Discovery. Adventure. Pushing out beyond the limits of the known. But that’s alimentary, right?
Copyright © 2008 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.