Sunday, January 01, 2006
Scottish Black Bun - Happy New Year!
I have never participated in Hogmanay, which is the name given to Scottish New Year celebrations, and which has its own traditions and customs. This year with my baking I am doing so, and hopefully by allowing my Black Bun into your home (only electronically unfortunately), I will bring you good fortune for the New Year.
Hogmanay customs are believed to have been brought to Scotland by Viking invaders. Coming from a more northerly latitude, and keen to mark the end of the darkest period of the year, the Norse people would celebrate the Winter Solstice (also known as Yule). The shortest day is the 21st of December, but over time the Winter Solstice and year-end festivities became united.
Everyone celebrates the start of the New Year, but the Scottish do go in for Hogmanay in a big way. Part of the reason for this is no doubt down to the fact that for 400 years Christmas festivities were banned as Popish nonsense, and therefore the Scottish had to channel all their partying into the (Pagan) end of year event instead.
Ideally your Hogmanay should go like this*. You are at home at midnight listening to the chimes of the clock, and after the final stroke of twelve the doorbell rings. When you open the front door there in the doorway is a tall, dark male stranger. I would settle for Pierce Brosnan, although he is a little grey these days, but I would still be pretty pleased to see him standing there. The dark man should be bearing symbolic gifts. This midnight visit is known as ‘first footing’, and if the ‘first foot’ across the threshold is of a dark male, this will bring the home good luck. I read that this is because if back in the 8th century you opened the day to a tall blonde guy, it may well mean that the Vikings were here for your wife and daughter. Not so lucky. Also not so welcome were the flat-footed, cross-eyed, women and redheads. I fall into both the last two categories, but, you’ll be pleased to know, neither of the former! I hope my electronic first footing will only bring you only good luck.
* That is, if you are not dancing the streets of Edinburgh, carousing with other revellers, singing the few lines of Auld Lang Syne that you are reasonably sure you remember and la-la-ing the rest.
The gifts proffered by first footers should be: a lump of coal - to represent warmth throughout the year (and the resources to buy fuel); cake (or shortbread)– for a year of plenty; and whisky – to induce year-long jollity. Black Bun is a suitable cake to receive (or offer). Black Bun is now widely served as part of the Hogmanay rituals (although Laura Mason writes in ‘Traditional Foods of Britain’ that Black Bun may originally have been produced for export to the south – i.e. England), and is representative of the wish for a year with plenty of food to eat.
So what is a Black Bun? Not what you might expect. The 'bun' is a fruit-dense cake, enriched with spices and molasses (hence the 'black"), and the whole is encased is a shortcrust pastry case. Sounds quite a heavy treat. Robert Louis Stevenson clearly thought so, as he wrote in his 1879 notes on Edinburgh life, that 'Scottish bun is a dense, black substance, inimical to life'. I have to admit that I have not previously come across a recipe quite like this, so I was intrigued to see how it would turn out.
For the cake:
200g plain flour
1 tsp ground mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
75g dark muscovado sugar
25g molasses sugar
100g chopped mixed peel
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp brandy or whisky
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 tbsp milk
For the pastry:
200g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
50g butter, chilled and cubed
50g vegetable shortening or lard, chilled and cubed
1. First make up the pastry. Put the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Add the butter and shortening and rub in until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in 4 tablespoons of cold water and mix to form a soft dough. Cover and leave in fridge for half an hour.
2. Preheat oven to 180C/Gas mark 4.
3. Mix all the cake ingredients together in a large bowl, and add just enough milk to moisten the mixture (it will still look pretty dry).
4. Roll out the pastry and use three-quarters of it to line the base and sides of a 900g loaf tin. Use a single piece which is large enough to drape into tin, then press and smooth out the pastry to fit.
5. Fill with the cake mixture. You need to press it down to fit it all in.
6. Dampen the edge of the pastry at the sides of the tin, and then use the remaining pastry to form a lid. Press the edges of the pastry firmly together and trim off excess pastry.
7. Bake for 2 hours, and then allow to cool in tin for 1 hour.
My recipe came from the January 2006 issue of Delicious Magazine. I found plenty of other recipes on the internet (all slightly different), but I liked the fact that the recipe in the magazine had come from someone's mum. A sure proof of success, as this must be a tried and tested family recipe. I followed the recipe pretty carefully, only substituting chopped crystallised ginger for the peel, and a couple of tablespoons of liquid molasses for the molasses sugar (none to be found locally). I also poured a little extra whisky over the top of the fruit mix, prior to popping on the 'lid'. I made sure that I rolled out the pastry nice and thin as I suspected a thick pastry crust might be a bit much. This meant I had a little pastry left over, so I decorated the top of my bun with a Scottish thistle motif. When my bun baked the top cracked a little as the cake swelled inside the pastry crust, so the thistle did a secondary job of distracting the eye from the crack. Well, I'd like to think so anyway.
I made the cake the weekend before Christmas, to allow time for maturing.
I thought my bun was quite a handsome fellow. Although heavy, he was not too hefty, and not suitably weighty for pitching at blonde cross-eyed strangers, should they come a-calling.
Sliced into my handsome golden bun revealed a darkly delicious interior. The moist fruitiness contrasted nicely with the pale flakey shell.
The cake was pleasingly moist thanks to the whisky, and it had a certain dense chewiness to it (in a good way). The addition of crystallised ginger worked well with the spices to give a kick to the dried fruits. It was not a cake you'd need a second slice of, but it was no way as stodgy as I had feared. However, if you were combining it with a dram or three of whisky, it would do a fine job of soaking up the booze.
Happy New Year!!