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.