Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Oatcake

above, Ditty's oatcakes, one of the better brands found in Ulster

I have noticed in my travels that I get served oats from Sligo north into Ulster and then all the way into Scotland. Oats are still a popular food in Ulster and are usually found in two forms 1) oatmeal porridge and 2) Oat cakes. Oat cakes have been around in Ulster for thousands of years, it is truly an ancient food and they are simply delicious.

Oatcakes these days are not known widely outside of the north of Ireland and Scotland. This is a shame as they are one of the finest foods on the planet, bar none. The ingredients are very simple: a fine oatmeal, water, a bit of melted butter, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of baking soda, and just enough oil on a griddle to make them cook right. The flavour is a toasted nut-oat taste. The round flat "cracker" is the perfect thing to serve a bit of smoked salmon or soft goat cheese on. In my home we make them from scratch and often serve them at a céilí or just any gathering. We tend to have them more often around Christmas where we make up an hors d'oeuvre of an oat cake with some soft goat cheese or cream cheese, topped with some smoked salmon and a little sliver of green onion. They are the perfect accompaniment to a little single malt cheer.

Nairn's make a wonderful organic oatcake
They are available commercially in Ulster where you can find both Northern Irish brands and Scottish brands in the shops. Many Americans are totally unaware of this most Ulster of all foods and are pleasantly surprised when they discover them.
If you would like to try them and can not find a commercial brand in your shops, they are not hard to make. The process just takes a little practice. It is an art that requires some experience and they can not be rushed.

2 cups medium to fine oatmeal
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1/2 teaspoon Pinch of salt
enough hot water to make a stiff dough
Additional oatmeal for kneading

A fine oatmeal can be made by processing old fashioned rolled oats in a food processor for just a few seconds. Put the butter in the water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Mix oatmeal, a pinch of salt, and pinch of baking soda together. When the water has boiled, mix it into the dry ingredients. The dough should be stiff. Roll out on a dough board covered with fine oatmeal a round about one quarter inch thick. You can then cut them into rounds with a biscuit cutter or cut the entire thing into farls, or triangular pieces as you would a pie.

These can be cooked on a cast iron skillet or in the oven on a baking sheet. For the skillet method, lightly grease the skillet and cook at a medium heat until the edges begin to curl a bit, the flip and cook the other side.

Our family prefers the oven method as we tend to make them up several dozen at the time.
Use an cookie sheet, a thick one works best. Cook in a medium oven, 350 degrees, for 30 minutes. If you like them crispy, try cooking them at 325 degrees, then reduce the temperature to around 200 and leave them for another 20 minutes. The oat cakes will not change colour much, just a very slight browning around the edges. You can keep these in a cookie tin. It's hard to say how long they will keep, because around my house, they rarely last longer than a day or two. We have two boys who can eat their weight in them.

They are good with just a touch of butter and a cup of good strong Ulster tea beside them or top them with anything from peanut butter to cheese.

If you have a go at making them remember that oatmeal is different than the more common rolled oats one finds in the New World grocery stores. Fortunately, real oatmeal is available in many of the nicer grocery stores and whole food markets these days. You will find them called Scottish oatmeal or Irish oatmeal and often they are an import product. If you simply can’t find any oatmeal, and have to use rolled oats, be sure to run them through your food processor until you get a meal consistency. That will work and I have done this from time to time when I had no oatmeal in the house. You can also these days mail order bona fide oatmeal via the internet.

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