Oat Cakes

I’m using the recipe for these oatcakes as an example of the pitfalls of projecting 21st century understanding onto 17th century recipes.

Mention the word ‘oatcakes’ and most people will think of small, crisp biscuits that are enjoyed with cheese, pate and the like.

These oatcakes, however, come from an altogether different origin, resembling as they do, what we nowadays would call a muffin. And here is where I have to hold my hand up and make a confession.  Back in 2011, in this post, I had a bit of a chuckle at Hannah Glasse’s distracted recipe for Muffins and Oat-cakes, that never mentions oatcakes beyond the title, and her mistake at the end of the method where she writes

Observe, muffins are made the same way.

However, upon reading this and several other early oatcake recipes, it became clear to me that Hannah’s method had actually been describing the making of oat-cakes, which are muffins made with a significant proportion of oat flour. I’d just assumed she was in error because I was thinking of the wrong kind of oatcake, putting the modern notion of a biscuit onto her 18th century recipe.

Oat Cakes recipe
Oat Cakes recipe, circa 1700, MS7788, Wellcome Library

The manuscript in which I found this recipe dates from around 1700, which makes them of the time of Queen Anne, last of the Stuart monarchs. The spicing and flavouring make them deliciously decadent and aromatic, perfect for an elegant afternoon tea-table. They are best enjoyed warm, with just a little butter. If you’re not eating them fresh from the pan, then the outsides should be lightly toasted under a grill before gently pulling apart and buttering.

These take a little longer than regular muffins in the initial cooking, but my guess is that is down to the oat flour. Speaking of which, I made these by sifting fine oatmeal, which is also sometimes sold as oat flour. It is coarser than wheat flour, being somewhere between brown flour and stoneground wholemeal flour in texture.  I firstly sieve out the coarser particles and then whizz these coarse siftings in a blender/spice grinder (the offset blades are more efficient than a food processor) and re-sieve in order to get the maximum amount of ‘flour’. This process is a little tedious, and frankly, you could just use the oat flour as is and they would be fine, but by using only the finest quality of oat flour ensures the delicacy of their texture matches the delicacy of the flavourings.

Oat Cakes

Makes 14

300g plain flour
300g oat flour
20g fresh yeast
150ml whole milk
150ml water
1 large egg
2 large yolks
2tbs sweet sherry/Madeira/Marsala
1/3 nutmeg, grated
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/2tsp salt
20g caster sugar

  • Put the dry ingredients and the yeast into a bowl. I use my stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
  • Whisk the milk, water, egg, yolks and alcohol together then add to the dry ingredients.
  • Mix thoroughly for 10 minutes.
  • Mix on high for 2 minutes, then and leave to rise for 1 hour.
  • Deflate the dough gently then divide it into 75g portions.
  • Cup your hand over each piece of dough and roll it in small circles, shaping the dough into a smooth ball. Set the ball on a flour-dusted surface to rise. Don’t put the balls of dough too close together, or they might rise into each other.
  • Allow the dough to rise for 30 minutes from the moment the first ball of dough is shaped. They will take time to cook in batches, so with the staggered batch cooking, the last few will have risen just in time to be cooked.
  • Put a heavy-based pan onto a large ring on a medium heat. On my 1-9 induction hob, I use 6.
  • Cook the muffins in batches. Depending on the size of your pan, you can cook 4 or 5 at a time.
  • To transfer the risen dough to the pan, gently slide a thin spatula underneath and transfer it to the pan turning it upside down as you do so, so that the top of the oat cake cooks first. This will help create the perfect muffin shape. If you cook the base first, the top will continue to rise and curve, and since the radiated heat from the pan will dry the surface of the dough as it cooks, this will thus make it ‘reluctant’ to flatten into the traditional muffin shape. Cooking the soft top first, the weight of the dough pressing down allows it to settle like a gently deflating cushion, into the flattened shape, and a partial hardening of the already flat bottom (which has become the top) is fine.
  • Cook for 6-7 minutes, then gently turn the cakes over and cook for another 5-6 minutes. When done, they should sound hollow when tapped.
  • Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
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Wholemeal Oat Bread

For a number of years, my favourite brown bread has been the Grant Loaf, partly due to the almost ridiculously easy method of preparation, and partly due to its deliciousness, especially when either freshly baked, or lightly toasted.

However, even the most ardent of fans will admit that it is not a light loaf. It has certain brick-like qualities not limited solely to its shape. So the discovery of this loaf, which not only uses wholemeal flour, but adds oatmeal to it as well, and which results in a light and airy loaf, is a bit of a revelation. You’d think that mixing heavy, stoneground wholemeal with heavy oatmeal would be a recipe for a loaf of leaden qualities, but no – it’s almost as if these two ‘wrongs’ make a ‘right’. Fickle as I am, this is now my new favourite wholemeal loaf.

Like the Grant Loaf, it also takes advantage of the initial vigorousness of the yeast by being proofed only for two short intervals, making it much quicker than traditional bread.

The second difference is the shape in which it is baked. The recipe’s author, Sir Henry Thompson, was most famous for his expertise in the fields of medicine and surgery. However, as a recognised polymath, he was also knowledgeable in a number of other areas, including nutrition, exemplified by his book “Food and Feeding” (1879) in which he noted (on the subject of wholemeal flour)

it does not readily produce light agreeable bread when made in the form of ordinary loaves : a solid mass of this meal being a bad conductor of heat, will have a hard flinty crust if baked sufficiently to cook the interior ; or it will have a soft dough-like interior, if the baking is checked when the crust is properly done. Consequently the form of a flat cake, resembling that of the ordinary tea-cake, is preferable, since it admits of the right amount of heat operating equally throughout the mass.

4th Edition, p40.

The first edition of Sir Henry’s book suggested a mixture of wholemeal flour and fine flour. Later editions changed this to a recommendation of oatmeal – fine if using baking powder and medium if using yeast. I’ve tried both combinations and much refer the yeast version, as the baking powder version seemed to develop a sour taste quite quickly, although that might have been due to me using Sir Henry’s own version of baking powder which reversed the proportions we use nowadays, i.e. 1 part cream of tartar to 2 parts bicarbonate of soda.

This recipe can be baked in two Victoria Sandwich tins and produces deliciously airy bread, ideal for sandwiches. You can cut slices across the loaf, as in the photo, or cut it into quarters for a simpler, but less elegant, wedge.

You can make this bread with ordinary wholemeal flour, but bread flour gives the better result. If you’d like to try the baking powder version, the quantity recommended for this recipe is 15g.

You can download a free copy of Sir Henry’s book, “Food and Feeding” (4th edition) here.

Wholemeal Oat Bread

450g stoneground wholemeal bread flour
115g medium oatmeal
20g fresh yeast or 1 sachet fast action yeast
5g salt
30g unsalted butter
400ml-ish half milk, half water, warmed

  • Put all the ingredients into a bowl and knead together for 10 minutes on slow using a dough hook, or by hand.
  • If using a dough hook, at the end of the 10 minutes, switch the speed to High for 2 minutes to bring the dough into a ball.
  • Allow to rise for 20 minutes.
  • Divide the dough in half, and mould each piece into a ball.
  • Press the dough into two greased, Victoria sandwich tins (20cm diameter).
  • Set to rise for another 20 minutes.
  • Preheat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan. Depending on how quickly your oven heats, you might want to do this as you set the bread for its second rise, or after it has been rising 10 minutes.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down by 20 degrees and bake for a further 15 minutes.
  • To crisp up the bottom crust, tip the bread out of the tins and return the loaves to the oven to bake for a final 5 minutes.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

Welsh Cakes

I’ve always had a fondness for Wales. The first family holidays were amongst its lush and rolling hills and I became an avid fan of rugby through watching Wales during the glorious days of the mid-1970s.

In terms of its food, I’m constantly frustrated by the existence of so few old books from which to draw recipes. I have on my bookshelves just three in the Welsh language, all dating from the 19th century, and, disappointingly, not one of them contains recipes for either Bara Brith or Welsh Cakes. I have a feeling that there must be a very rich hoard of manuscript recipes lurking somewhere in storage, perhaps in a record office or some archive, just waiting to be discovered.

I have already brought you a couple of Bara Brith recipes, being unable to choose between the rich fruitiness of one and the delicate texture of the other. For years I have been in search of an authentic and worthy Welsh Cake recipe, with no joy. With the best will in the world, the modern Welsh Cake can be a little on the heavy side. The more tactful descriptions suggest ‘close-textured’, other spade-a-spade critiques might go with ‘stodgy’. And the stodginess would seem to be almost necessary, as too long on the griddle and the pastry-like dough of the modern Welsh cake recipe is prone to drying out and becoming tough.

I have therefore been more than a little mollified by this week’s recipe, which I found in the digitised manuscript collection of the Welcome Library. It comes from the recipe book of Dorothea Repps (nee Fountaine) and dated 1703, when she was just 21 and already married to John Repps. I am extremely fond of this manuscript book, for Dorothea’s handwriting is bold, confident and easy to read, and adorned with swooping flourishes. This recipe for Welsh Cakes appears very early on in the book and consequently I feel confident that she must have recorded it  no later than 1710.

What I find curious, quite apart from it pre-dating most other Welsh Cake recipes by at least 150 years, is the fact that Dorothea spent her life in Norfolk, just about as far east and distant from Wales as you can get without falling in the sea. There’s nothing else in her book that is particularly Welsh, so its presence is something of an enigma. Also curious is the form that Dorothea’s Welsh Cakes take: a single, large, layered yeast cake sprinkled with currants and sandwiched with raisins.

Welsh Cakes Recipe
From MS 7788, Wellcome Library Collection

As with many recipes of this age, the quantities of ingredients are huge, and reflect the catering-size amounts required in a large house. I scaled them down to something more manageable and baked it as described and I have to be honest, it was a bit heavy. Nice, but decidedly door-stop. So I had another go, making even smaller, single-serving versions, with just two layers of the currant dough sandwiching the plump raisins. They were very neat, and baked to a lovely golden brown, but…..ordinary. Despite the richness of the mix, the oven heat, even without fan convection,  made the outsides of a crustiness that all the post-baking basting with milk failed to soften.

Having concentrated so much on the presentation, after carefully cutting and shaping these little filled cakes, I found myself left with quite a lot of trimmings. I can’t abide waste, so I decided to gather them together, re-roll and cut them like modern Welsh Cakes. Since the oven was in use baking the sandwich version, I thought I might cook these in a dry pan on the stove top. And this spur of the moment decision provided the secret to revealing the deliciousness of this recipe. For cooked in the traditional bakestone manner, they are extraordinary.

The thin crust that forms from contact with the warm pan (for a gentle heat is all they require) surrounds a yeast-raised interior so delicate and feather-light they almost disappear. They are at their best hot from the pan, sprinkled with a little caster sugar.

This combination of a centuries-old recipe, with a relatively modern form and method of cooking produces a real tea-time delicacy.  Wherever she gathered this delightful recipe from, I’m grateful to Dorothea Repps for recording it in her book so that we can enjoy them today. If you’re in Norfolk, you can stop by and thank her yourself: she is buried in the place where she lived until the ripe old age of 78 and lies surrounded by her family, in a vault in the magnificent church  of St Peter and St Paul, in Salle.

Dorothea Repps’ Welsh Cakes

You can, of course, use your own favourite spicing/flavourings for these Welsh cakes, instead of Dorothea’s suggestion of nutmeg. I suggest no more than a total of 1 teaspoon of whatever spices you choose.

Makes 16-20

225g plain flour
pinch of salt
½-1tsp freshly grated nutmeg
15g icing sugar
80g unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
50-100ml milk
10g fresh yeast
40-60g currants

caster sugar for sprinkling

  • Mix the flour, icing sugar, salt and spices in a bowl.
  • Whisk 50ml of milk and the yeast together, then add the yolk and stir thoroughly.
  • Melt the butter and allow to cool a little before whisking in the milk/yeast mixture.
  • Add these wet ingredients to the dry and knead until the mixture comes together in a soft dough. Add more milk if necessary.
  • Knead for 10 minutes until smooth.
  • Knead in 40g of the currants. If it looks a little sparse to your tastes, add more until the desired level of fruitiness is achieved. Oooh, Matron!
  • Cover and set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size. Due to the richness of the mixture, this may take between 1.5-2 hours.
  • When risen, tip the dough out and pat gently to deflate. Use a rolling-pin to roll the dough out to a thickness of 1.5cm.
  • Use a fluted, 5cm cutter to cut out little cakes, making sure each one contains a sprinkling of fruit. Re-roll trimmings until all dough has been used.
  • Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 30-45 minutes.
  • When ready to cook, gently heat a thick-bottomed, heavy pan on your stove. My induction hob goes from 0-9, and I cook these on 5. I also place the cakes around the edge of the pan, avoiding the concentrated heat of the middle. The dough is rich with butter, so no further oil is required.
  • Bake the cakes until lightly browned on each side and the centre is cooked through: around 7 minutes for the first side, and 6 minutes on the second. Turn them gently, as the uncooked tops will have risen due to the heat and will be extremely light and easily deflated.
  • Remove the cooked cakes from the pan and sprinkle the tops lightly with caster sugar.
  • Serve warm, or allow to cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight box. Warm gently before serving

Sally Lunn

The Sally Lunn is a traditional, enriched tea bread that hails from the West Country city of Bath. It is a completely separate item to a Bath Bun, which is an enriched dough, traditionally filled with fruit and peel, topped with a smattering of sugar nibs.

The Sally Lunn has been likened to a British brioche, rich with dairy and eggs, but not sweet. The traditional shape is round and tall, allowing it to be easily sliced horizontally, usually into three, before being loaded with lashings of butter or, as asserted by Dorothy Hartley in her 1954 book Food In England, cream. More descriptively, she actually wrote:

“This yellow-white bun was an infernal trouble to make, taking from sunrise to sunset to raise, was made gold on top with the beaten yolks of eggs, and split hot and embosomed in clouds of cream”.

I don’t know which recipe Ms Hartley was referring to, but the ones I have read seem straightforward enough. As with all yeast-raised goods, this requires only sufficient time to rise, which involves practically no input from the maker whatsoever.

The first mention of the Sally Lunn bun has for years been accepted as 1780 when, in his publication “The Valetudinarians Bath Guide”, Mr Philip Thicknesse wrote:

I had the misfortune to lose a beloved brother in the prime of life, who dropt down dead as he was playing on the fiddle at Sir Robert Throgmorton’s after drinking a large quantity of Bath Waters, and eating a hearty breakfast of spungy hot rolls, or Sally Luns.

making them arguably the first buns so good they were simply to die for.

Moving on from this grisly-yet-detatched account, I’m going to rock the Sally Lunn world with some newly discovered snippets of information that pushes their provenance back even earlier in the eighteenth century.

Firstly a song, published in 1778 in The Gentleman’s Magazine” the opening lines of which read:

A general Invitation to Sally Lund at Spring Garden

Ye Beaux and ye Belles, who resort to the Wells,
Come to Bath, your loose guineas to fund;
One and all I invite, free from envy or spite,
To feast upon sweet Sally Lund.

Spring Gardens were the pleasure gardens set out across the River Avon, east of Bath, which held public breakfasts twice a week, with musical accompaniment, at sixpence a head.

Just to, if not rain, then certainly drizzle a little, on Bath’s bun parade claim to fame, in 1776, a (long and, to be honest, rather dreary) poem published in The Westminster Magazine contained the lines:

Where Donnybrook surveys her winding rills,
And Chapelizod rears her sunny hills
Thy sumptuous board the little loves prepare,
And Sally Lun and Saffron cake are there.

placing these teatime treats surprisingly, but very firmly, in the Dublin countryside.

And finally, we have a recipe. The only recipe I’ve been able to find that actually dates from the eighteenth century. A recipe which predates all other mentions by several years and comes, not from elegant, regency Bath, but from Newcastle in the north-east of England. Discovered in a book published in 1772 by Mary Smith, it admittedly doesn’t have the exact same name, but it is recognisably similar. In addition, the recipe itself does indeed make a bun that fits the description of a Sally Lunn, right down to the traditional serving suggestion.

Luns Cake

As well as the early date and surprising location of this recipe, there are two further interesting details: the single rise and the bakeware. When a dough is enriched with dairy and eggs, it lengthens the amount of time required for the yeast to do its work. This explains why, in old recipes, the dough is first set to rise, and only afterwards are the enriching ingredients kneaded in, just before the dough is shaped.  Enriching dough can be something of a double-edged sword, because yes, the result is very delicious, but also, without the correct proportion of liquid, or time, it can turn out heavy. The single rise here means that the initial, exuberant frothiness of the yeast is tempered with the rich ingredients, ultimately producing the perfect balance of both richness and lightness.

Luns Cake

The second detail was the recommendation for an earthenware pot to bake it in. It makes sense – a metal tin would get very hot in the brick oven and the enriched dough would run the risk being scorched. Early test batches of this recipe were baked in some red, 10cm, tapas dishes like this. However, on a visit to a French market I found some ceramic mustard jars (shown in the top image) and they proved the perfect shape to allow the dough to really soar whilst still remaining protected from the heat of the oven.

Mary Smith’s (Sally) Luns Cake

1772

450g plain flour
20g fresh yeast
60g unsalted butter
300ml milk, plus more to mix (maybe)
2 large eggs

  • Put the flour into a bowl and crumble in the yeast.
  • Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then remove from the heat and add in the milk. Swirl to mix.
  • Whisk the eggs, add about 2/3 of them to the milk mixture, then pour the liquids into the flour.
  • Mix to a soft dough, adding more liquid if required.
  • Knead for 10 minutes.
  • Divide the dough evenly between your baking dishes (or tins if you haven’t anything else). The mustard pots took 150g of dough, the tapas dishes about half of that. Shape into round, smooth balls and place in the greased dishes/tins to rise for about an hour.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan.
  • Use the remaining egg to gently brush the tops of the risen buns lightly. Make sure the egg doesn’t drip down the sides as it will cause the dough to stick.
  • Bake for 30-50 minutes, depending on the size of your buns, until well risen and golden brown on top.
  • Remove from the dishes promptly and allow to cool on a wire rack.
  • Store the cooled buns in an airtight box and warm gently in the oven before serving.

Malt Scones

My current lack of oven (for those interested the ETA is currently mid-February) has prompted me to delve into my small but eminently interesting collection of Victorian and Edwardian commercial bakery books in search of something to ‘bake’.

Back in the day, there were numerous recipes that could be baked on a griddle, a far more varied selection than the standard trio of Welshcakes, muffins and crumpets generally known today.

Admittedly, these do tend to be variations of a theme of ‘scones’, but the range available with just slight alterations of the ratio of ingredients is delightful.

The recipe I’ve chosen today is for an unusual griddle scone, as it is flavoured with malt, and every other version I have read has been for oven-baked scones only. I’m a great fan of malt loaves,  and have been since childhood, and they’re pretty straightforward to make at home. The 2-5 day wait for them to mature once baked, however, is frustratingly long.

Not so with this recipe. Cooked in just 10 minutes on the stovetop, they can be enjoyed on day of making either fresh from the griddle or cooled, split and buttered. The delicate malt flavour is probably most pronounced when the scones are freshly baked and cooled. Interestingly, these use both yeast and raising agents to achieve their light and fluffy texture, as well as just a single proving.

These are not SWEET sweet scones, although the malt and the sultanas do place them on the sweet side. I was delighted to discover that, with the original quantity of sultanas (30g), they are delicious with cheese. For a sweeter bite, double this quantity and enjoy them split and buttered.

This batch makes twelve, so if this is rather too much for your needs for one day, you can either freeze some, warm them in the oven (just flaunt your oven-ness at me why don’t you!?) or enjoy them toasted and buttered.

Malt Scones

Makes 12

Ferment
150ml warm water
10g    fresh yeast
2 tsp sugar – brown or white
1tbs plain flour

225g plain flour
35g unsalted butter
30g sultanas
60g  malt extract
½tsp cream of tartar
¼tsp bicarbonate of soda

  • Whisk together the ferment ingredients and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes until frothy.
  • Put the remaining ingredients except the sultanas, into a food processor and blitz until the malt and butter are fully incorporated,
  • Tip the flour mixture into a bowl.
  • Gradually stir in the frothy ferment until the mixture comes together as a soft dough. NB Depending on the moisture levels of the rest of the ingredients you might not need all of the ferment.
  • Knead for 10 minutes.
  • Add the sultanas and mix thoroughly.
  • Divide the dough into three (about 150g each, or 170g if using the larger amount of sultanas).
  • Roll into a smooth ball, then pat out by hand to a 12cm circle.
  • Cut into quarters and set the farls onto a floured board to rise for 45 minutes.
  • Heat a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove top. I use a cast iron, non-stick pan on the largest ring set to the lowest heat. Allow the pan 5-10 minutes to come to an even heat before you start cooking the scones. If your pan doesn’t have a thick base, then choose a smaller heat and watch carefully that the scones don’t become too dark.
  • Cook the scones in batches, for 5 minutes per side until risen and lightly browned.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Store in an airtight container once cold.

Staffordshire Oatcakes

Staffordshire Oatcakes are, quite possibly, the best regional speciality you’ve never heard of.

In fact, that is much more of a generalisation than you may realise, because they’re specifically regional to North Staffordshire, centering on the area around Stoke-on-Trent.

It’s historic origins are mixed, with some anecdotes suggesting they originated from soldiers returning from India and trying to reproduce the chapatis they had eaten, with local produce. A more likely scenario, is as one of the various traditional ‘bakestone’ items found in workers cottages all over the country. With wheat being a valuable commodity, most people used flour from cheaper oats and barley, and with a cooking time of mere minutes, they are surprisingly sustaining.

They can be eaten hot from the pan, but as with other griddle bakes such as muffins, crumpets and pikelets, they can be made in batches, and then toasted as required, making, if anything, an even speedier snack.

Oatcake shops used to be small and plentiful, with sales being made through open windows. Alas, the last of this kind of  shop, the Hole In The Wall in Stoke-on-Trent, closed down due to re-development of the area in 2012. Commercial producers are still churning out batches in 6s and 12s, and they are even stocked by some of the large supermarket chains, but they taste best when home-made. Obvs.

Before we get to the recipe, a word or two about ingredients…

  • These oatcakes are made mostly of oats, in the form of oat flour. If you want to hunt out some oat flour, then have at it, but I’ve found, through trial and error, that whizzing some steel-rolled oats in a spice grinder is both easier and cheaper. You could probably use a blender as well, as they too have the off-set blades necessary to chop the oats into a suitable fineness. Whatever is easiest being the main order of the day.
  • You can use instant yeast, but I must admit, the batter made with fresh yeast always tastes better to me.
  • I’ve read a lot of recipes and watched many a documentary clip on Staffordshire Oatcakes and I’m going to confess up front that this recipe might be viewed poorly by oatcake devotees. It makes a batter that is rather thicker than the traditional, which results in a thicker oatcake. In my defence, it makes for a more durable oatcake which I can then turn easily in the pan without it breaking, and it ‘laces’ beautifully, with the surface becoming dappled with the characteristic pockmarks and holes seen also on pikelets and crumpets. The thickness also allows for a wonderful contrast when toasted between the crisp outsides and the fluffy insides. If all this is a heresy to you, feel free to dilute the batter down to your liking after the 1-hour rise.
  • If you have a decent non-stick pan, you can cook these fat-free.

Staffordshire Oatcakes

280g oat flour – ground from steel-rolled oats
110g stoneground wholemeal bread flour
110g strong white bread flour
1tsp granulated sugar
1tsp table salt
20g fresh yeast, crumbled or 1 sachet fast-action yeast
450ml whole milk – warmed
450ml warm water

  • Put everything into a large bowl and whisk together with a balloon whisk. Alternatively, use a stick blender.
  • Cover with cling film and leave in a warm place to rise.
  • Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat. If your pan is in need of a little help, use a sparing layer of fat (bacon fat or lard) to help prevent your oatcakes from sticking.
  • Gently stir your oatcake batter. The yeast and rising time will have turned it into a liquid with the consistency of frothy double cream.
  • Put 1 ladle/cup of batter into the middle of your pan and tilt the pan around until the batter has spread fully. Don’t be tempted to use the back of your ladle/cup to spread the batter out, as it’s very easy to spread it too thin and either make holes in the middle, or edges so thin they begin to burn before the middle is cooked.
  • The moisture in the batter will soon evaporate, leaving a lacy surface of holes and craters where bubbles from the batter burst.
  • Allow the oatcake to cook until there is no moisture visible on the surface – about 2 minutes.
  • Using a spatula or slice, loosen the edges and then the undersides of the oatcake until it is freely sliding around in the pan.
  • Flip the oatcake over and cook for another 2 minutes or until the surface is starting to brown (see photo).
  • When done, slide out of the pan onto a wire rack to cool.
  • Continue until all the batter is used up. This will make a batch of about 10 sturdy oatcakes.

As the oatcakes cool, they will soften and take on the appearance of a floppy pancake. Wrap in plastic and store in the fridge until required.

Oatcakes for Breakfast/Brunch/Snack/Whenever

You can put whatever you like in your oatcakes, but a filling of bacon and cheese is not only traditional but forms one of those rare, simple ingredient combinations that border the sublime.

You will need:

oatcakes
back bacon rashers – 2-3 per oatcake
grated vintage cheddar cheese

Sauce – brown or red (optional)

  • Grill your bacon or cook in a pan until beginning to caramelise. Set aside and keep warm.
  • Take your oatcake and put into a hot, dry pan – ideally the one you originally cooked it in. An oatcake has two very different sides, the pockmarked ‘front’ and the smooth, brown ‘back’. Put the ‘back’ of the oatcake into the pan first.
  • Allow the oatcake to heat through for 1.5-2 minutes.
  • Flip the oatcake.
  • Sprinkle the cheese over the hot ‘back’ (which is now uppermost) of the oatcake. It will melt as the other side toasts.
  • When the underside of the oatcake is warmed through and crisp, lay 2-3 rashers of bacon on top of the melted cheese on one half of the oatcake and fold the other half of the oatcake over (as in the photo).
  • Slide onto a plate and enjoy with sauce, if liked.
  • Repeat as often as necessary.

 

18thC English French Bread

Bread is a curious topic to go a-hunting in the recipe archives because there are relatively so few recipes. Considering how central it was for such a large part of the population, the proportion of recorded recipes is surprisingly low.

The reason for this might be similar to that often cited as being behind Marco Polo’s failure to mention paper money in his account of travels in China: familiarity. It is a theory that Polo was so familiar with its usage after his many years in the country, and since his memoirs were written so long after his return, he completely forgot the surprise and wonder that the concept paper money would have for his readers. Perhaps the ability to make bread was so fundamental, so ingrained, few thought to write down the recipes since it was a skill everyone possessed.

It was also, however, a specialised craft, requiring both skill and equipment to produce on a large-scale, not to mention the unsociable hours and back-breaking work mixing huge quantities of dough without machinery. As such, as hard, manual labour, it was firmly in the province of the labouring classes, however skilled.

The more well-to-do, whose recipes have survived in household manuscript books, seem to have been partial to French bread, and it has been interesting to note the numbers of recipes for French bread consistently exceeding those for anything English. A large proportion of them are variations on this recipe, using egg whites as part of the liquid component.

French Bread recipe

French Bread recipe dating from 1703, MS7788 in the Wellcome Library

I chose this 1703 recipe because of its simplicity – other recipes use whole eggs/butter/milk/cream, and I wanted to see whether the egg-whites had a noticeable effect on the flavour and texture of the loaf without any other distractions. The answer is yes – it is certainly different to a bread made without egg-whites. There’s no way to tell whether this is a genuine approximation of the French bread of the time, but I suspect that it wouldn’t have been too far removed from the sourdough bread enjoying a resurgence today.

Traditional sourdough, baked in a wood-fired oven, is a wonderful thing – insanely crusty with a great ‘chew’. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, though – which is where this loaf might gain favour. After baking, the crisp crust softens as it cools, making it easy to slice without the dangers of crust fragments ricocheting off at alarming speeds that comes with cutting a traditional sourdough. The crumb is open and springy with enough of a chew to make it very satisfying. From the photo above, it would appear that the centre of the loaf actually has a more open texture than the edges. It can be relished spread with just a little butter – and how long is it since you can say you honestly enjoyed a slice of white bread and butter?

I’ve obviously scaled this recipe down from the original and have made just one change: salt. True to my own code of conduct when working with old recipes, I did bake it ‘as written’ in the first instance, and while it had the great crust and texture described above, the flavour was lacking. Finally, I find it amusing to note that 300 years after it was jotted down, this recipe still takes just 30 minutes to bake.

18th Century English French Bread

450g strong white bread flour
1 sachet fast-action yeast
1tsp salt
50ml egg-white whisked with 300ml warm water
Additional warm water (maybe)

  • Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl.
  • Whisk together the eggwhites and the warm water and add to the dry ingredients.
  • Mix thoroughly, adding more water if required (unlikely), to form a rather soft dough.
  • Knead for 10 minutes.
  • Cover lightly with plastic and set in a warm place to rise for 1 hour. If your kitchen is on the cool side, you can turn the oven to 160°C, 140°C Fan for 2 minutes, then switch it off and put in your dough to prove.
  • Tip out the risen dough and pat gently to deflate.
  • Shape the dough into a smooth ball and transfer to a greased 1kg loaf tin. The dough should half-fill the tin. If you’d prefer a taller loaf, use a smaller or longer shape.
  • Set aside to rise for 30 minutes. On cold days I put the loaf into the small top oven while the main oven below warms up.
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, turning the loaf around after 20 minutes to help colour it evenly.
  • Cool on a wire rack.
  • Slice when cold.