How They Made It: Baking Bannocks in Outlander at Castle Leoch
Welcome to our occasional series, “How They Made It.” We’re baking bannocks the way Mrs. Fitz in Outlander would, then updating them to the present day.
I had never heard of bannocks prior to discovering Outlander, but once I had I was intrigued. What were they? How did they taste? Little did I know the can of…uhm…oats I had just opened! It seems there are as many recipes for bannocks as there are cooks, and not just Scottish cooks neither. Bannocks are claimed by the First Nations peoples of Canada among others, and almost every cuisine around the world makes some form of a flat grain-based bread. I explored bannocks early on in my own blog, Scotch & Scones, from the perspective of what they were and how I could tweak the recipe a little (for the record, I used unfed sourdough starter as a base). For our purposes here I want to explore the difference between how bannocks would have been made at Castle Leoch and how they’re made today. Let the “Battle of the Bannocks” begin![Side note…I like alliteration. Remember the Great Butter Bake-Off Battle where we compared shortbread made with US vs. Irish butter? Me, too. Good times.]
As I was saying, there are many, many bannock recipes, and it’s hard for this California girl to know which would produce an authentic 18th century Scottish bannock (the type Mrs. Fitz would have made), let alone a modern version. Most of the recipes I found online used some form of leavening (usually baking powder), which I didn’t think would have been around then. Also, are bannocks supposed to be hard, thin, and brittle? Soft, thick and chewy? Somewhere in between? Looking at the picture above from Season 1 Episode 9 (and yes, I know it’s Lallybroch instead of Castle Leoch, but it’s the example from the show that I found), a bannock looked like the size of a large cookie, and was thick as well. Lots of online recipes, however, described something thinner and smaller. Thoroughly confused, I decided to use Outlander Kitchen’s recipe for Jocasta’s “Auld Country” Scottish Bannocks simply because Theresa Carle-Sanders did her homework, and she said that this version would be something Jocasta Cameron (née MacKenzie) would have eaten when she was at Leoch. For a modern take, I settled on the recipe from The Guardian’s How to cook the perfect oatcakes because Felicity Cloake compared all the factors that go into a good oatcake and distilled them into a single recipe.
A note about terminology: even Claire mentioned that “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language,” and I realized that comment applied here as well. In the US, “oatmeal” refers to rolled or steamed oats, the stuff with which you make, well, oatmeal. When I made bannocks for that Scotch & Scones post I mentioned previously, that’s what I used — whole rolled oats. However, while researching this post, I realized that in Britain “oatmeal” refers to “oat flour,” i.e. ground up oats (that would explain why my previous attempts at bannocks were so chewy!). Rolled or steamed oats are called “porridge oats” in Britain, and our “steel-cut oats” are “pinhead oats” there. The sum total of this realization was that I needed to grind up the rolled oats I used into a sort of flour before making the bannocks. The things you learn…
As always, I’ll note in italics my comments and any changes I made to the recipes.
Jocasta’s “Auld Country” Scottish Bannocks
- 1 cup rolled oats (180ml)
- 3/4 cup barley, see Notes
- 1/2 tsp salt (3 ml)
- 2 Tbsp butter (30ml), room temperature, cubed
- 1/3 cup milk, room temperature
- Grind the oats to meal by pulsing them 4 or 5 times in a blender, food processor, or clean coffee grinder. Repeat with the barley. (The meals will have some coarser bits to them but should be relatively fine). Set aside ¼ cup of the ground oats for working the dough. (I used my food processor to make my flour, and it worked pretty well)
- Mix the remainder of the 2 freshly ground flours together with the salt. Cut the butter in with a pastry cutter or 2 forks until the mixture resembles coarse sand. A few pea-sized lumps of butter are okay. (I found this method interesting because this implies that a bannock is basically an unleavened oat flour biscuit, just using room-temperature rather than chilled butter)
- Stir in the milk — you should have a very wet dough, but not soupy (add a little more milk if the dough is too dry). Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and set aside for 15 minutes to allow the grains to absorb the milk.(Here is where I think I went wrong…my dough was wet but probably not wet enough. A picture of what the dough should look like would have been helpful)
- Preheat a cast-iron pan over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
- Turn the dough out onto the counter dusted heavily with the remaining ground oats. Dust the dough with more oat flour and knead it gently 5 or 6 times. Then, being careful not to overwork the dough, gently pat into a round disc about ½” thick. (My dough was already crumbly & hard to hold together…I should have added more milk)
- Dust each side lightly with oat flour, mark a cross into one side of the bannock with the handle of a wooden spoon, then carefully transfer it to the dry cast iron pan. Cook until golden, about 15 minutes. Flip and cook until golden on the second side, about 10-15 minutes. (I think my stove was too hot at first as I burnt the first side after about 8 minutes. Flipping it over also proved to be a challenge as the bannock started to break. Overall, I cooked the bannock for about 12 minutes total.)
- Cool on a rack for 5 minutes before cutting into 8 wedges. (Uhm…how do you cut a blob-shape into 8 wedges?)
(Side Note: After this post was written, Theresa Carle-Sanders updated her online version of Jocasta’s “Auld Country” Scottish Bannocks to reflect the recipe published in her Outlander Kitchen cookbook, changing some of the ingredient amounts and the procedure to make the bannocks. I’ll leave you to decide which version to make…I’ll stick with biscuit method myself.)
The Perfect Oatcakes
- 200 g medium oatmeal (about 1 cup) (and by this she means oat flour), plus extra for dusting
- 50 g pinhead oatmeal (aka steel cut)
- 25 g porridge (aka rolled oats), see Notes
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp brown sugar
- ½ tsp baking powder, see Notes
- 75 g butter (about 1/3 cup), cubed, see Notes
- 75 ml water (¼ cup + 1 Tbsp, 2 1/2 oz), boiling
- Heat the oven to 200°C/400°F/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. (I liked the idea of toasting the flours before baking to amp up the flavor, but I didn’t realize at the time the effect it would have on the brittleness of the final product.)
- 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. (The dough was damp, but was it damp enough? I really didn't know then, but probably not.)
- 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 (about ¼’) thick.
- Cut out rounds of the size of your choice, then use a palette knife (or spatula) 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. (I rolled these as indicated and used a 2½" biscuit cutter, and boy, were they fragile…I couldn’t even get them to the tray without crumbling! My theory is that toasting the oat flour dries it out, so it’s really going to absorb the water added.)
- 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. (My baking time wasn’t even close to that 20 minutes...it was more like 10 minutes on the first side and 5 minutes on the second. Turning them also proved to be disastrous. I did like that my kitchen smelled nutty as they were baking, though.)
- Gently transfer to a wire rack to cool, then store in an airtight tin. (Gently transfer, indeed...only 2 made it without breaking up.)
Again, I want to stipulate for the court that I haven’t eaten bannocks in Britain, so I don’t know how they should taste…I’m just going by the pictures I’ve seen. Tasting the vintage recipe bannocks, the outside was firm, the inside was less so (although I don’t know if that meant I undercooked them). They held together (a definite plus), were bland at first but then the salt kicked in and I could taste the butter. Overall, I like the texture better using ground rolled oats than the way I made them in the past. As for the modern recipe version, the couple that survived baking almost intact were crumbly, nutty, slightly sweet, with a crunchy texture from the pinhead/steel cut oats…in other words, really tasty. However, while the flavor was definitely more pronounced, their lack of any cohesion was a disappointment. Maybe making them thicker and using more water would have helped? I’m not sure. I did find a use for them though (see the picture below).
So for me at least the winner of the “Battle of the Bannocks” definitely went to Mrs. Fitz and Outlander Kitchen. I could see putting these bannocks in a saddlebag and heading out to collect rent (assuming I could get the shape right). Their lack of overt flavor lent them to feature the butter and jam with which I tasted them, and I could also see eating them with smoked salmon and blue cheese. Maybe the next time the modern bannocks will come out better because that toasted flavor was really nice. I’m open to suggestions on how to up my bannock-baking game…just remember the language barrier!
Do you have a time-honored recipe for bannocks? A fool-proof technique for keeping the dough together? What do you eat bannocks with? So many questions…hope you’ll answer below so we all can learn!
Discovering Outlander after Season 1 first aired, Tammy quickly went down the rabbit-hole on social media and podcasts and found a world of like-minded fans who not only tolerated her obsession, but encouraged the madness! She combined her Outlander-inspired interest for scotch whisky with her continuing passion for baking and storytelling in her blog, Scotch & Scones…Explorations in a glass and in the oven. Joining the staff of Outlander Cast as the resident baker has brought Tammy full circle, from a podcast fan to a contributing writer. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest at @scotch_scones, and find her on Facebook at @scotchandsconesblog.