Photo by Judith Hausman
I’ve always liked the satisfying crunch of food with dry textures: rice cakes, crackers, matzohs, and muffins and toast without butter. So the ubiquitous oatcakes of Scotland, a country famous for fancying oats in porridge and haggis, were right up my alley. At first I bought the Walker brand in a familiar, red plaid package, which I associated with their widely exported Scottish shortbread. But I was soon comparison-tasting the many local brands all over the country — Nairn’s, Stockan, Moran, J. Donald and others. Some were slightly saltier, some sweeter, some cut in thin triangles and others in thick circles. Traditionally, they are served with either cheese or with jam and butter. But I liked them all, plain and crumbly.
Like the baguettes of France, people rarely make oatcakes at home anymore. Still, I wanted to try. In a vintage cookbook already on my shelf, I found Mrs. David Donald’s recipe. In 1939, she didn’t have a food processor so she suggests putting the rolled oats through a meat grinder. Luckily, our modern tool worked really well to reduce the rolled oats to a finer texture.
I don’t know whether the cornmeal in her recipe is authentic, but it adds more texture to the oatcakes. I also suspect that lard or shortening is more common than the delicious butter I used. I had to assume that she intended me to roll out the dough on a floured surface and that I should try to avoid greasing the baking sheet. Again our modern tool, silicone pan liners, made that easy, but parchment paper would work as well.
The oatcakes came out perfectly: toasty and ragged-edged, neither too sweet nor too salty, addictively crunchy and perfect with a thin slice of Isle of Mull or New York State cheddar, my own tomato jam or Dundee marmalade. Mrs. Donald knew her stuff.
Adapted from Adventures in Good Eating by Duncan Hines, 1939
Mrs. David Donald, Pittsfield MA
- 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (maybe you can find locally grown oats)
- ½ cup cornmeal
- 1 cup flour
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teapsoon baking powder
- ½ cup butter or shortening
- 2/3 cup hot water
Heat the oven to 350 degress Fahrenheit. Whirr the oats in a food processor into a rough meal, not as fine as flour though. Combine the other dry ingredients right in the processor bowl and then cut in the butter with the steel blade until it is completely part of the mix with no large pieces at all.
Add the hot water little by little just until the dough holds together when pressed. Divide the dough into three portions and roll it out on a lightly floured board to less than ¼-inches thick. Cut into triangles or medium-sized circles. Transfer the oatcakes carefully with a metal spatula onto a silicon sheet-lined cookie sheet, or use parchment paper instead.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until just barely browned at the edges. Serve either with cheese or with jam.
Yield: about two dozen triangles.