One of my favorite things about Bessie MacClair -- the heroine's Scottish immigrant mother in DANCING AT THE CHANCE -- is her resourceful Victorian cooking.
When Pepper inhaled, she could still smell the savory stews and Scotch broths, the fresh bannocks and oatcakes, even the occasional meat pies."
In their most basic form, oatcakes are simply oatmeal biscuits, but that simplicity -- coupled with the ease in which they can be altered to suit varied tastes -- has made these treats a favorite in Scottish households for centuries.
Since oats were the most prevalent grain in Scotland until the last century, oatcakes were not only easy to make, but inexpensive as well. That made them a favorite with the lower and middle classes, but they also had a place in the upper classes -- including Queen Victoria's household.
In “The Queen at Balmoral,” a memoir published 1893, Mrs. Frank Pope Humphrey recalls an afternoon in her childhood when she was preparing oatcakes and Queen Victoria’s daughters, the Princesses Helena and Louise, came around to play. Mrs. Pope Humphrey’s mother required her daughter to finish her task before she could join her royal playmates. But instead of taking their leave, Mrs. Pope Humphrey remembers the girls lending a hand.
“O, we’ll help,” said the Princesses … And Helena proceeded to tend and turn the cakes that were already baking on the griddle over the fire—the only true and genuine way to bake oatcakes—and became very hot and rosy in the process, while Louise, with that spirit of exploration which distinguishes her, rummaged for an additional cake cutter.”
Though some would argue that an oven is the better way to cook an oatcake, there is no denying that these hearty little biscuits hold a special place in Scotland’s culinary history, and I wanted to give them a try.
I found a simple recipe in “Traditional Scottish Cookery,” by Sheila MacRae, and spent a recent Saturday morning experimenting. The recipe made two oatcake rounds, which yielded 16 wedges when cut. I served them with softened butter and marmalade, and they were, well, fine. Not great, but not bad, either. To be fair, my family prefers bolder flavors, so others might find them perfect as they are.
I do plan to make oatcakes again, but next time I want to add a bit of flour to lighten up the cake, as well as some savory seasoning – rosemary, perhaps?—so they might accompany a brie or other soft cheese.
If you have a suggestion, or a favorite recipe for oatcakes, I'd love to hear it.
2 cups fine oatmeal*
Pinch of salt
Pinch of baking soda
3 T. shortening, melted
3 T. warm water
3 T. milk
Flour (for rolling)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix the dry ingredients together. Then add the shortening, water and milk. Knead the dough gently on a floured surface. Divide the dough in half, and roll out one half of it to about an 8-inch circle. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Place both on a lightly greased baking sheet, score each round into eight segments, and bake until golden, about 25 to 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Yields 16 wedges.
* I pulsed old-fashioned oats in a food
processor until they were fine.