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.

 

Fresh Yeast Muffins

Some of you might know that there’s already a muffin recipe on the blog. Nevertheless, I decided to revisit muffins in part because it is now ridiculously easy to get hold of fresh yeast, but also because a lot of muffin recipes and videos Out There™ are just plain wrong when it comes to the method of shaping them. There, I said it. Oh yes, there’s no holding me back when my dander is up.

Because there’s no need to go faffing about with rolling out the dough and using *in her best Lady Bracknell voice of disapproval* a pastry cutter. Apart from anything else, it ruins the iconic shape of the muffin (a flattened top and bottom with a smooth, soft and pale crust around the middle) with an ugly seam where the dough has been compressed as it was cut.

This recipe is adapted from one listed in Florence White’s Good Things in England and dates from 1826, and without being overly dramatic, eating them is like biting into a cloud. To keep them as soft as possible, I’ve used ordinary plain flour and used the whey from some curd cheese I made earlier this week as part of the mixing liquid, as it gives a beautifully soft crumb. Don’t worry about having to use whey, you can just make the mixture equal parts whole milk and water.

Fresh Yeast Muffins

Makes 14

560g plain flour
20g fresh yeast
1 tsp granulated sugar
1tsp salt
300ml whey + 150ml whole milk OR 225ml water + 225ml milk

cornflour for dusting

semolina for cooking (optional)

  • Put the flour and salt into a bowl. I use my stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
  • Crumble the yeast into a small bowl  and add the sugar. Work the sugar into the yeast then set aside for five minutes until it becomes liquid.
  • Mix the whey and milk (or milk and water) in a small pan and warm gently to blood temperature.
  • Pour the yeast into the milk mixture and then pour the whole into the flour.
  • Mix thoroughly and knead for 10 minutes – five if using a dough hook.
  • Cover and leave to rise for 1.5-2 hours.
  • Deflate the dough, knead briefly, cover, and allow to rise for another 30 minutes.
  • Sprinkle the work surface with cornflour. The dough is rather loose and prone to stickiness. The cornflour doesn’t stick to itself, and will therefore act as a non-stick layer between the dough and the work surface.
  • Tip the dough out and divide it into 75g portions. This quantity of dough will, when risen and cooked, make the perfectly-sized muffin – 8-9cm across and 4cm thick. You can make them larger, but remember to adjust the cooking time accordingly.
  • For each piece of dough, fold the edges in towards the middle, then turn over so that the folds are underneath and the top is smooth. Cup your hand over the dough and roll it in small circles, shaping the dough into a smooth ball. Set the ball on a cornflour-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 low heat.
  • Cook the muffins in batches. Depending on the size of your pan, you can cook 4 or 5 at a time. Sprinkle the pan with semolina if you like, although if your pan is non-stick, this can be omitted.
  • Gently slide a thin spatula under one of the risen balls of dough and transfer it to the pan turning it upside down as you do so, so that the top of the muffin cooks first. This will help create the perfect muffin shape, because the base of the dough is already flat and the top is rounded. If you cook the base first, the top continues to rise and curve, and the drying effect of the radiated heat from the pan will dry the surface of the dough and will make it ‘reluctant’ to flatten into the traditional muffin shape. Cooking the top first, the weight of the dough allows it to settle like a gently deflating cushion, into the flattened shape, and a partial hardening of the already flat bottom (which is currently the top) is fine.
  • Cook for five minutes, then gently turn the muffins over and cook for another 5 minutes. When done, they should sound hollow when tapped.
  • Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
  • Wipe the pan free of semolina, then repeat until all the muffins are cooked.

To serve – very important

These instructions are adapted from Hannah Glasse, who insisted that no knife should touch muffins, as they would become heavy. Here is a guide to enjoying your fresh muffins.

You will need:
chilled butter cut into thin slices.
toppings such as jam, honey or sausage, egg and bacon, depending on degree of hunger.

  • Whilst perfectly delicious soft pillows when freshly cooked, unless you are able to eat them hot from the pan, muffins should be toasted on the outside before being served. The insides are best left un-toasted, so you can bite down through the softness to the crunchy outside. The contrast is sensational.
  • Grill  for 2-3 minutes each side until the outsides have crisped, but not darkened.
  • While the muffin is still warm, take a serrated knife – yes, I know Hannah said no to knives, but a little help is needed in order to divide the muffin.  Take your knife and gently draw it around the side of the muffin like an equator, if you will – just breaking the soft crust to a depth of 1-2mm.
  • Once the ‘skin’ (it really is too soft to be called a crust) has been scored all the way around, hold the muffin sideways and with the tips of your fingers, gently pull the muffin apart. The cutting will help it divide evenly into two halves.
  • Quickly lay a slice of cold butter between the two halves and put them together again.
  • Cover with a cloth to keep warm.
  • After about a minute, turn each buttered muffin upside down, so that the now melted butter can seep into the other half of the muffin.
  • Your muffin is now ready to be enjoyed as is, or to drizzle over the toppings of choice. Remember, do not spread your toppings, or the pressure will deflate your soft, billowy muffin.