Week Thirty-Six: Breads of the United Kingdom
The bread for today, bannock, is one of those delightful breads that has no standard recipe or cooking method, which basically means that you can make it however you want. If anyone complains, you get to protest, “But that’s how I’ve always seen it!” Chances are, no one will challenge that.
Bannock is an ancient bread that hails originally from Scotland, and has since spread across the United Kingdom, even finding a foothold in North America via Scottish traders coming to Canada. It can appear in myriad forms: hard and dry, soft and sweet, or flaky and crunchy, depending on the sort of leavening, fat, or liquid used.
It can be cooked on a dry griddle, pan-fried, deep-fried, oven baked, or even dropped into a stew and cooked like dumplings (though that last one is more rare). There are certain consistencies from bannock to bannock, however; they are never yeast-leavened, though they may be unleavened, and are usually round, flat breads made with whole grain flours. They are generally cut into wedges, or farls, which the Scottish also call a “scone”. Yes, this is where scones come from, no matter what the English say.
Historically, Scots have relied on the girdle (or griddle, as we Americans call it) for the majority of their baking, rather than an oven. Hence, most of their breads have been round and flat, and were mostly unleavened until chemical leaveners became available in the mid-1800’s. The term “bannock” originally referred to any of these girdled breads, and would’ve primarily been made from barley flour, which surprisingly pre-dates both oats and wheat in Scotland.
It seems there’s four major types of bannock in this world, which are regional and based upon the sort of grains available. The Scottish type uses oat flour these days, sometimes exclusively, while the Irish use mostly wheat flour. Wales today brings us the barley flour variation, and the version that grew up across the pond in Canada relies on corn meal. Most types blend their particular grain with wheat flour, to produce a chewier bread.
With so many variations in ingredient and method, it’s nearly impossible to pick a recipe that gives you The One True Bannock; therefore, I’ve decided to give a nod to the bread’s native land, and make a modern Scottish-style bannock. I’m using whole wheat flour mixed with oat flour, made quickly by grinding old-fashioned rolled oats in a food processor. I ground mine finely, but you can leave them a little coarse, if you prefer a more rugged texture. The dough is relatively moist, and is made using the biscuit method (wherein butter is cut into flour, then liquid added).
Unsurprisingly, the resulting bread is something like a hearty biscuit or scone, with a rustic and flaky texture. The crust cooks up crunchy and slightly smoky, if you happen to char it in places. Inside, each piece has a remarkably light crumb, despite the grainy flours used, and the relatively little amount of fat. A split-open farl, fluffy and still warm from the pan, was ideal served with a lashing of butter and a swirl of honey on top, the perfect accompaniment for a spot of tea.
And that’s the way I’ve always seen it.
Adapted from Bread, by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter
Makes 1 round loaf
4 ounces (about 1 cup) rolled oats, ground finely in a food processor
4 1/2 ounces (1 cup) whole wheat flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into very small pieces
3/4 cup cold buttermilk (see note 1 below)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the ground oats, flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the butter, and rub or cut in until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Pea-sized lumps of butter are okay.
2. Mix the buttermilk and baking soda together. It should foam a little. Add to the flour mixture, and mix gently and quickly with a spatula, until a dough forms. If needed, add a little extra buttermilk or flour to adjust the consistency; it should look very wet, but not soupy.
3. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, heavily floured with whole wheat flour. Dust the top of the dough with additional whole wheat flour, and pat into a flat disc, about 3/4 inch thick. Using a bench scraper, fold the dough in half over itself. Pat until flat again, dusting with flour if necessary. Continue folding and patting flat until the dough is firm enough to move.
4. Heat a large nonstick pan or griddle over medium-low heat. Transfer the dough carefully into the pan. Using the bench scraper, score the top of the dough with a cross, taking care not to cut all the way through the dough.
5. Reduce the heat to low. Cook over low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the bottom begins to brown in spots. Carefully flip over (see note 2 below), and cook the top side for 7 to 10 minutes, or until it begins to brown in spots. Flip the bread over if it begins to brown too much on either side, and cook until the interior has cooked through, about 14 to 20 minutes total. Do not cook too quickly, lest the outside burn before the interior is fully cooked.
6. When done, transfer to a wire rack. Cool briefly, and serve warm.
1. If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, you can make an acceptible substitute by adding 2 teaspoons white vinegar to a scant 1 cup milk. Stir, and let stand 5 to 10 minutes, or until clumpy. Use as directed in the recipe.
2. This bread can be tricky to flip over, as the dough is fairly wet, and the bread is larger than most spatulas. Try sliding the bread out of the pan onto a large plate, then carefully inverting it back into the pan.