Bits o’ Bread: Oatcakes, Bannocks, and Biscuits

August 14, 2013 in Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century by M C

If you are on one side of the pond bannocks originated in Scotland.  If you’re on the other, bannocks originated with the aboriginal peoples of North America.  If you’re Australian, they are bush tucker.  Bannock is bread cooked on top of a fire and made from whatever grain is indigenous to the area you happen to be in.  If you’re in Scotland, oats.  If you’re in North America, oats, whole wheat, corn, or rye.  The dough can either be formed into small cakes and fried in a pan, or it can be wrapped around a stick to be baked in the heat of the fire.  Bannocks, depending on the fat content and grains, can be chewy, moist, and quite delicious, or hard, dry, tasteless… but excellent for thickening a stew and filling up the empty spaces.

oatcake bannockIn short, slap a label on it and call it bannock.  Likely, you’re close enough.  Bannock is what you make when you have flour, fat, and a fire.

biscuit on the other hand is a bannock with access to an oven and a cookie sheet.

From the humble beginnings of flour, fat, and fire, we get shortbread, luxury bannocks, so to speak, scones, and eventually.. the apex, the pinnacle, of civilized fare.. the McVities Digestive.

love McVities Digestives.

But they’re not oatcakes.  They’re wheatmeal biscuits.

Oatcake recipes are readily available online.  Outlander Kitchen has one that has a very authentic texture and flavor,  And the BBC has one which I think may resemble mine, but I can’t read it.

oatcakes1What I wanted was to reproduce a bannock, or biscuit, similar to the biscuit-type bread you’d have found in a Vermont farmhouse during the last quarter of the 18th century.

It was the Scots who established Vermont’s tradition of a hot oatmeal breakfast and Vermont continues to lead the U.S. in per capita consumption of cooked oatmeal cereal. (1), so naturally any biscuit recipe had to have oats in it.  Morning oatmeal in Vermont is made with maple syrup and sweet spices (ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg).  So my recipe includes maple syrup for sweetener, and my favorite spice, ginger.  If you don’t have maple syrup to hand, add a little extra brown sugar.

During the 18th century the New England farmers also grew wheats uniquely adapted to each state’s climate.  In Vermont this was Cyrus Pringle’s Champlain Wheat (very rare, the package only contains some 25 seeds).  But Maine grew “Baltic” and “Siberian,” and Massachusetts “Red Lammas,” and “Rural New Yorker” developed by Elbert Carmen.  Today these are rare and lost strains of wheat, and only specialty farms grow wheat in New England.  But once we were a bread basket of oats, wheat, barley and rye.

And, of course.. corn.  Not sweet corn, flint corn, sometimes called Indian corn.  Vermont is famous for its Revolutionary War period Johnny Cakes, but cornmeal adds a distinctive texture and crunch to bread or biscuit recipes, as well as stretching the more expensive ingredients a bit further with what would have been cheap cornmeal.

A cook of the period would not have been as dependent on specific measures as we are today.  If she did write a recipe down it would have said “mix equal parts oat and wheat flour and add small hand of cornmeal.  Add leavening, and ginger 2 drachm each. Rub with a goose egg lump of butter and add spoon of maple and sugar…”

Which is how I tend to cook myself.  A bit of this, a bit of that.. close enough.  It was some work to measure out each ingredient to create a “real” recipe.  This isn’t cast in stone.  You can adjust the flours, adjust the sugars, use unsalted butter.. whatever you happen to have around.  That  is what makes a recipe “authentic.”  Your adjustments which personalize it to the ingredients you have on hand, and your personal taste.  Dislike ginger?  Use cinnamon.  Or no spice at all.  Just use plenty of butter.  It is possible to add too much butter, but if you add “too much” butter you’ll end up with “shortbread.”  Which is nothing more than a snobbish bannock who thinks it’s somebody because it ended up with too much butter in it.

Baking Soda is not an authentic leavening for the period.  A cook likely would have used potash, from wood ashes, but I’ve baking soda in the cupboard and likely you do too.  Let’s go with baking soda.


Vermont Oatcakes c. 1775

oatcake bannock

1+ C oatmeal (I use rolled, but whatever you have on hand) pulsed to flour in a blender, or 1 C oat flour
1 C whole wheat flour
2 T cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder**
1 tsp ground ginger or 1/2 tsp freshly ground ginger root, to taste
1/2 C butter at room temp
1 T maple syrup
1-2 T brown sugar depending on how sweet you like things
(or no maple syrup and 2 T brown sugar)
1/4 C milk or buttermilk, bit more or less, necessary for stiff dough

Whisk together the dry ingredients, reserving a bit of the oat flour for rolling out the dough, then cut in the butter to make a mealy mixture.  Add the maple syrup, brown sugar, and milk to make a stiff dough.

Turn out on a floured surface, and knead until smooth.  Split the dough in half if your counter is small (mine is) and roll the dough out to about 1/4″ thick.  Cut into rounds, place on a cookie sheet, and bake at 350F for 20 minutes.

Vermont OatcakesThe thinner you make these (1/8″ thick for example) the crisper they’ll be.  And, given rounds of equal thickness, if you prick the rounds all over with a fork they’ll be crisper as well, more of a cookie texture, and they’ll hold up better in travel. Thicker and not pricked makes a softer, more “bready” biscuit.

Vermont OatcakesIf you want a biscuit you can split for jam cook these on top of the stove on a moderately hot griddle, flipping every 5 minutes or so until golden brown.


(2) Growing Grains in Vermont: Vermont Land Trust

** For years I’ve been using baking soda in this recipe… but I ran out of soda the other day and, based on Outlander Kitchen’s recipe for Mrs. Graham’s Chocolate Biscuits I substituted baking soda.  Well.  The texture is crisper.  It’s a much better biscuit, coming out of the oven.  But if you’re making skillet oatcakes, I think I’d stick with baking soda.

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