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Scottish Food: Perkins for Burns Night

I was having a look back at some past posts and I realised that it has been 4 years since I last did a Scottish recipe in honour of Burns Night. I did manage 2 years ago to make some lamingtons for Australia Day, so it’s not been a complete failure, but I did think that it was time to have another go.

So what should I make? I was doing a bit of research and I chanced upon a recipe for perkins, traditional spiced Scottish biscuits made with oats. Super! I could make those! Except I had no clue what they were. I must say, it was an odd feeling to be researching something from my home country, but yes, it turns out there are Scottish biscuits that I have no idea existed. And it seems that I’m not the only one – Amy at Baking with Granny seems to have had a similar reaction to perkins as they were suggested to her via Facebook.


I started looking for some ideas of what they were, and after wading through dozens of websites referring to perkins recipes “like granny used to make” and telling me they were “excellent with a cup of tea” it became apparent fairly quickly that I probably do know what they are, I just don’t know them as perkins. They’re flat, slightly chewy cookies made with oats, syrup and spices – not dissimilar to Anzac biscuits. I guess I would call them “oat biscuits” or “oat crumbles”. Anyway, there are some suggestions that they are linked to the famous Yorkshire parkin which shares many of same ingredients, but I’m sure there are the spirits of many proud Yorkshire housewives ready to haunt my nightmares for suggesting that parkin could have come from anywhere other than God’s Own County. So I’ll just say “those ingredients lists and similar names are such a coincidence”. In fact, beyond the oats, spice and golden syrup, I don’t think they are that similar. I think parkin should contain treacle, which these definitely do not.

As for a recipe, I found on on the website of the National Trust for Scotland. Bingo! Surely if anyone knows about traditional biscuits, it will be these people? I mean, a day out to a castle or a stately home always involves a visit to the tea shop and some cake or biscuits. So, dead cert?

Well…I started to read the recipe and there were a few gaps. It needs “flour” which I assumed would be plain, since there is baking soda in there to leaven them. Then “oatmeal” but what was that? Fine oat flour? Coarse? Oat flakes? Big ones? Small ones? I just improvised – I took jumbo rolled oats, ground them in a food processor so they were about half flour and half chopped oats and reasoned that a bit of texture in a biscuit isn’t a bad thing. I was pleased that they did measure out the golden syrup by weight rather than volume, which in my opinion is the right way to do it. By the time you’re measured 100ml of syrup, you’ve usually coated about 5 utensils with sugar and it is a mess. The size of the egg is also not clear – I went with medium and hoped for the best, thinking that if it was too dry I could always add some milk, but if the mixture gets too sticky, it’s always a pain to add more flour as it can throw off the quantities. Thus, the recipe you see below uses the Trust’s quantities, but is based on my tweaks to ensure it would actually works. I also had to double the number of almonds – the recipe asks for split blanched almonds, which I’ve never seen on sale. By the time I had skinned some almonds, I lacked the will to split them apart with a sharp knife, so I just used them whole.


But the recipe wasn’t the strange part. I was not entirely convinced the picture they used was of the actual recipe they were presenting. Their biscuits looked too big, too smooth, too pale. Mine – and those made by quite a few others, including Baking with Granny – are flatter, rougher and with a deeper golden colour. If I’m making something I don’t mind that it doesn’t look exactly the same, but I’d like some sort of family resemblance as a minimum! Let’s just say there is a Russian website with gingerbread cookies that look awfully, awfully similar.

Making them was actually very easy – throw it in a bowl, and get mixing. Because they are leavened with baking soda, you also get a bit of chemical magic during baking, which gives that amazing golden colour. They go in as fairly pale balls of dough, and during baking they sort of puff up and then collapse. If you look at them about half-way, they look very pale and are only just starting to colour. However the baking soda will work its spell on them and a few minutes later they get a crinkled texture and take on a deep golden colour. So watch them like a hawk, of if you’re feeling very Scottish, like a golden eagle. I actually did a test run with the first cookie to see how it worked and how long it had to be in the oven. I’d rather get one wrong and save a batch than try baking 20 and ruin the lot. How you approach it depends on whether you’re a gambler.

For all that, how do they taste? They’re actually delicious – the oats mean they are substantial, and they have a lovely deep flavour from the syrup and spices. It’s the sort of biscuit that might also be improved massively by the addition of a layer of chocolate if you’re in the mood to start messing around with a thermometer to get that glossy, shiny finish, but all that Scottish restraint perhaps points to keeping them pure. I’ll definitely make them again, and the chocolate option is rather appealing. Views?

To make Perkins (make around 45):

• 250g rolled oats
• 250g plain flour
• 180g caster sugar
• 1½ teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 125g butter
• 1 medium egg, beaten
• 180g golden syrup (*)
• 60g whole almonds, blanched (**)

1. Preheat the oven to 160C (320°F). Line two baking sheets with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the oats in a food processor. Grind until medium-fine – about 2 minutes. Half should be flour, the rest should be chopped oats.

3. In a bowl, combine the oats, flour, sugar, baking soda and spices. Mix well, then sieve to ensure there are no lumps. You’ll have some oats left in the sieve – tip those into the bowl.

4. Add the butter, and work with your hands until it is incorporated. The mixture will seem quite dry – you don’t get a “breadcrumb” texture.

5. Add the egg and the syrup, then use your hands to mix to a firm dough. You should be able to take pieces and roll them into balls – if too dry, add a little milk. If too wet, add more flour.

6. Take pieces of dough “the size of a large marble” according to the National Trust for Scotland (or weigh them – 20g – they’re about the size of a Fererro Rocher, Mr Ambassador). Roll them into a ball, and place on the baking sheet. Press down very slightly, then gently press an almond on top. It should still be more or less a ball, not flat.

7. Bake for around 13-15 minutes, turning half-way to get an even bake. They are ready when they are an even, rich brown colour. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a moment to firm up, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

(*) That’s golden syrup, not corn syrup. You need this for flavour. As a substitute you could use honey or the Swedish-style “light syrup” which has a similar consistency and flavour. Maple syrup is not great here as it is much runnier so you will need to adjust the amounts…

(**) Either buy almonds that have been blanched, or do this at home – bring a pan of water to the boil, add the nuts and simmer for a minute. Drain, allow to cool for a moment, then the skins should slip off when you squeeze them gently.

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Scottish Food: Parlies (after a fashion…)

Hoots! Tonight is Burns Night, the official unofficial celebration of all things Scottish in general, and specifically the life and times of the national poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Up and down the land, people will enjoy traditional fare consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes). Simple stuff, but usually rounded off with a lot of whisky and followed with a poetry recital and some energetic Scottish folk dancing if you’ve managed to moderate the whisky intake.

I’ve been looking around for an interesting Scottish recipe, and from time to time I’ve seen a reference to biscuits called “parlies”. I must admit that parlies are not something that feature in my knowledge of Scottish baking, and it seems that I’m not alone. Most people think about shortbread and Ecclefechan tarts, perhaps with the occasional empire biscuit thrown in there, but parlies don’t feature much on blogs. So when it came to making these mysterious “parlies” I was pretty much guessing how they would turn out.

parlies2
Before I get to the baking, a little history lesson is helpful. The name parlies come from the word “parliament”, and they are also known as Scottish parliament cakes. The story goes that these ginger biscuits were purchased by the members of the original (pre-1707) Scottish Parliament from a tavern on Potterrow behind the University run by a Mrs Flockhart (who was also know as “Luckie Fykie”) , and were enjoyed with a tot of whisky. Parlies themselves were square in shape, and she also sold “snaps” which were round. In fact, you can read more about her in this extract from Traditions of Edinburgh written by Robert Chalmers in 1825. The title pages explain that it concerns itself with “conspicuous characters of the last century” and promises “the old-town ladies of quality”, which I can assume only refers to how they ran their hostelries. But remarkably, this book talks about her, the location of her tavern, and there is even a reference to parlies in there! However, I have not yet found a source that confirms whether these were enjoyed by any particular side of the house or they enjoyed cross-party appeal.

Armed with this knowledge, I knew that I was making some sort of ginger biscuit. I like ginger, so that was a plus. But what I quickly realised is that there is no one single way to make them. Given they seem to be at the very edges of the national baking consciousness, there is no single ideal to bake towards. Eeek! I knew what this meant – I might be facing baking failure, and I might end up in one of those kitchen frenzies when I’m trying recipe after recipe to get something that I deem acceptable. Yes, that happens sometimes!

All recipes I was able to track down used brown sugar, butter, flour, ginger and black treacle in varying quantities. Some used egg, others didn’t. There were also different ways to make them – some involved melting the butter, some involved the creaming method. While I am far from a baking expert, I knew this risked differing results. There was also a dearth of raising agents in the recipes I managed to find, which did make sense as the original parlies first popped up at a time when there was no baking powder, and other raising agents might have been hard to come by.

I bit the bullet and started with a recipe that involved mixing up the dry ingredients, then adding melted butter and an egg to make the dough, but with no raising agent. The dough looked good – it was fairly stiff, and once chilled it could be easily rolled into balls, then flattened and baked. I even added a criss-cross pattern with a fork, which provided a sort of portcullis look on the top of them. While they looked pretty good, and the flavour was decent, the lack of raising agent meant that they were thick and tough – these were not going to melt in the mouth, and I doubt that soaking them in tea or whisky would help soften them. Next!

My second attempt used the creaming method – whipping the butter and sugar, then mixing in the egg before adding the flour, ginger and treacle. This time the mixture seemed lighter and softer, and I assumed that the air I had beaten into it would mean that this batch would come out crisp and light. Well, nope. The spoonful of dough just baked into an unappealling lump of brown. I did try to rescue the dough with a spoonful of golden syrup and a teaspoon of baking soda, but the result looked horrible, and managed to taste worse than it looked. Next!

By my third attempt, I realised that since I had no clue what I was actually aiming for, I should go back to what I know about ginger biscuits. The mixture reminded me of gingernuts, but without any raising agent. I felt that the lack of anything to give them a lift might have been authentic, but it was also grim, and we live in a modern world where we don’t need to eat grim biscuits. I needed something for lift, and decided on baking soda. So my version of parlies are actually gingernuts, but with the sweet golden syrup replaced with the dark, spicy and tangy black treacle, and a bit of chopped cyrstallised ginger for extra spice.

This time, they worked like a dream – just mix all the dry ingredients, work in the butter, then add the treacle. The dough is easy to work and roll into balls, and in the oven, then collapse, take on an attractive random cracked appearance. Once cool, they are light and crisp. Perfect!

parlies1
So there you have it – my take on parlies! They might not be authentic, but I like to think that Mrs Flockhart might have approved (she did sell the round ones too, after all!). And I think they make a passable attempt and the black treacle is a definite nod to the original, and it adds an interesting flavour to them. If you’re not a fan of black treacle, you could use sweeter molasses, or if you like things very sugary, just use golden syrup and call them gingernuts. That still sounds rather Scottish, doesn’t it?

To make parlies (makes 20):

• 110g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger

• 40g soft brown sugar
• 50g butter
• 1 teaspoon candied ginger, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons (50g) black treacle or molasses

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, baking soda and ground ginger in a bowl. Mix in the sugar, then rub in the butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix in the chopped ginger.

3. Add the treacle and mix to a stiff dough.

4. Divide into 20 pieces (roll into a sausage of 20cm, the cut into 1cm pieces). Roll each piece into a ball, then place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly. They will spread out, so leave plenty space between them. It is easier to bake them in batches.

5. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the cookies have spread out and have a cracked appearance. They will be soft when they come out of the oven, but will go hard once cooled.

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Filed under Recipe, Scottish Food, Sweet Things