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