Are oatcakes delicious or dull, what do you top them with – and is it worth making your own?
Oatcakes, a crisp bread native to those northern uplands where the climate is too cold and wet to support much else in the way of cereal, have become popular throughout the UK in recent years – even in Staffordshire, which has its very own version as competition. (The Staffordshire oatcake, also found in Cheshire and West Yorkshire, is more like an oat pancake, and is ideally served smeared with brown sauce and stuffed with bacon – an entirely different proposition, though clearly not one without its charms.)
Originally baked as an long-lasting alternative to bread and stored in the household meal chest, these days Scottish oatcakes are a favourite with cheese. The Queen is reported to enjoy them for breakfast, and I like them mid-morning, with a wodge of butter and (horrors, according to my Scottish brother-in-law) a scraping of Marmite – because, as porridge lovers know, oats really do sit heavy in your stomach till lunch. But despite my enthusiastic consumption, it has never occurred to me, until now, to try making my own. Surely it is possible to improve upon the commercially baked variety?
Oatcakes are made from oatmeal, rather than the flaked oats more commonly used for porridge; essentially the groat, or the inside of the oat, minus its inedible outer husk, chopped or ground to various degrees of fineness. Oat flakes, meanwhile, have been lightly steamed and flattened (hence their other name, rolled oats). Orkney-born F Marian McNeill, whose encyclopedic work The Scots Kitchen was published in 1929, uses medium oatmeal alone, while everyone else combines it with something else: oat flour in Rose Prince's Pocket Bakery book; porridge oats in a recipe given to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall by Bill Cowie, island manager of Rona; white flour in the Macroom oatmeal biscuits in Mark Hix's British Regional Food; and pinhead oatmeal and porridge oats in Sue Lawrence's recent Scottish Baking. (Pinhead oats, which I personally favour for porridge – also on Lawrence's recommendation – are the coarsest form of oatmeal, generally made up of half or thirds of groats.)
I discover that I prefer my oatcakes, like my porridge, to have a bit about them in the way of texture. Both Prince and Hix's versions are too smooth, more oat biscuits than oatcakes, as my dad points out while we munch our way through them on a very wet bank holiday Monday (to be fair to Hix, this is actually how he bills them). A mixture of medium oatmeal to act as a binder and pinhead oatmeal to make them pleasingly chewy, with just a handful of porridge oats for interest, will do nicely. An oatcake shouldn't melt in the mouth, but neither should it require a chaser of dental floss.
McNeill adds a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to her dough, which, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food, is the traditional raising agent, and Prince and Lawrence go for baking powder. Cowie and Hix don't bother, and to be honest I can't see the point either; without an acid to react with the bicarb won't do much, and I don't really want the oatcakes to rise in any case.
Even more traditional, I suspect, is McNeill's parsimonious hand with the fat – one teaspoon of lard, dripping or butter to 125g of oatmeal – in contrast to Hix's recipe, which uses over half the weight of butter to dry ingredients. Like Prince's versions, Hix's are gorgeous, almost like an oat-based shortbread, but too rich to eat with cheese; my dad reckons they'd make a killer cranachan though. Cowie uses extra virgin olive oil in his biscuits and my mum is a big fan, but it doesn't strike quite the right note to me. McNeill's lard is all but undetectable in the finished biscuits, which are dry bordering on the bland – probably the closest to the commercial oatcakes I'm used to. Butter seems to work best with the flavour of the toasted oats, in Lawrence's cautious but not puritan quantities.
Dry oats and fat generally demand something more to bind them together into a coherent dough. Hot water is the most common addition, but Prince also sticks in an egg plus an extra yolk, which makes the mixture very soft and wet, and much richer than I'm used to in an oatcake (though I'd highly recommend her recipe if you're looking for a savoury biscuit to eat on its own – as long as you're not counting the calories). Straight water seems both the traditional and the best choice.
The Macroom oatmeal Hix raves about comes from County Mayo; the husks are roasted before milling, which gives it a "unique, slightly toasted" taste – as is so often the case with cereals, a little heat does wonders in the flavour department. Macroom is sadly hard to get hold of in this country, but toasting any good-quality oatmeal in a dry pan before use will improve its flavour. Cowie adds a good grinding of black pepper to his oatcakes, which you can copy if it appeals; I prefer to stick with salt alone to allow the flavour of the oats to shine. I do, however, like his suggestion of popping in a handful of seeds, which makes them taste even more outrageously wholesome – they're certainly not canonical, but pumpkin seeds work particularly well. Hix's recipe uses a good whack of sugar, even in the savoury version. Much as I love its crunch, and pleasant as the combination of oats, butter and sugar always is, I can almost feel McNeill turning in her Free Kirk grave. A tiny pinch is surely allowed though – the brown stuff does work so well with the toastiness of the oats.
Shaping and cooking
Traditionally oatcakes seem to have been formed into large circles and cut into triangular farls, as in McNeill and Lawrence's recipes, but I find them more practical, and less fragile, in the modern rounds. The former advocates rolling the dough thinly; about 5mm, as Prince and Cowie suggest, seems to supply the right level of crispness. Lawrence explains the oatcake would originally have been cooked on a cast iron girdle, or griddle, over the fire, and gives a stove-top equivalent, finished in a low oven. To be honest, they taste about the same, but such fragile biscuits are tricky to handle, especially when part-cooked; far easier for us amateurs to stick with the oven. That said, do turn them over – carefully! – during cooking, as Cowie recommends, so both sides are exposed to the heat. Make sure they've dried out completely before taking them out of the oven; I had to put Prince's back in for a bit because they were still a bit doughy inside after her brief eight-minute cooking time. Delicious, yes, but crispness should be your watchword with these particular oatcakes – they may be crumblier and more fragile than the bought sort, but what they lack in durability they more than make up for in flavour.
The perfect oatcakes
200g medium oatmeal, plus extra for dusting
50g pinhead oatmeal
25g porridge oats
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp brown sugar
75g butter, diced
75ml boiling waterHeat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark six. Mix together the oatmeals and oats and spread out on a lined baking tray. Bake for about 15 minutes, shaking the tray occasionally, until they start to smell toasted.
Tip into a mixing bowl and allow to cool slightly, then whisk in the salt and sugar. Stir the butter into the boiling water until melted, then stir this into the oats to make a sticky mixture. If it seems too wet to hold together, add a little more of the medium oatmeal, but it should be quite damp.
Butter the lined baking tray. Dust a work surface with medium oatmeal and put the mixture on there. Pack together well and flatten or roll out with a well-dusted pin until it is about 5mm thick.
Cut out rounds of the size of your choice, then use a palate knife to carefully lift each one on to the tray, still in the cutter as they will be fragile. Space them out well, and re-roll any scraps until all the mixture is used up.
Bake for 20 minutes, then very carefully turn them over and bake for 10 more minutes until they feel hard and dry on both sides. Gently transfer to a wire rack to cool, then store in an airtight tin.
Oatcake fans: do you prefer the Scottish crispbread, the Staffordshire pancake or quite another regional sort altogether – or are they one step up from the dreaded rice cake in your pantheon of worthy but dull foods? And what do you like to eat them with (weird and wonderful toppings welcome)?
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