Friday, November 09, 2007

Parkin (or Perkin or Tharf cake)

To follow on from my Orkney Broonie baking I have journeyed a few hundred miles south to the north of England, with one foot remaining in southern Scotland. Parkin is an oatmeal gingerbread, usually made with the addition of black treacle, baked in the northernmost counties of England as well as over the border. Recipe variations are numerous and parkin can take the form of either a biscuit or a cake. Yorkshire and Lancashire both have their own favoured recipes (Lancastrian parkin has a larger proportion of oatmeal), and so do smaller communities and individuals (some add candied peel or other dried fruits and I have seen recipes with the inclusion of coriander seeds). The thar, tharf or thor cake also baked in the north of England – the word ‘thor’ is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon 'theorf' or 'tharf' meaning unleavened - is parkin by another name. Theorf/tharf cakes were made of oatmeal and water and cooked on the griddle, the ingredients were enlivened at feast times by the addition of spices and sweetening (originally honey). The southern Scottish and Northumbrian perkin is a griddle-cooked variety of parkin (now more usually tray baked in an oven), and elsewhere early recipes for parkin were similiarly cooked. This web-page has some old recipes if you would like to try making the griddle-cooked thar and parkin cakes. Parkin biscuits are a contemporary incarnation of the griddle-cooked cakes, and ingredients such as golden syrup give a modern flavour.

Historically, each community produced their version of parkin to be consumed as part of local events that took at the end of October or beginning of November. The cake was so intrinsic to the celebration that many of these events took the name of the food. In West Riding the first Sunday in November was known as Parkin Sunday. The 1st of November was known as Cake Night in Ripon and Caking Day in Sheffield. In Lancashire, the Monday after the 31st of October was known as Tharcake Monday. The 1st of November is All Soul's Day, and it was customary to give some form of Soul or Soul Mass Cake to callers (children or the poor of the parish) - in these areas the cakes given out were one of the variations on parkin. Over time the national celebration of deliverance from the gunpowder plotters (1605) has taken precedence over smaller events, and gingerbread cakes, already eaten by many in the North of England and Southern Scotland at this time of year, have become a fixture of November the 5th festivities.

I had many recipes for parkin amongst the books on my bookshelves, but I went with one from Sybil Kapoor’s ‘Simply British’ as I have not baked from this book previously (oh, and also, her recipe requires a whole tin of black treacle. This is the sort of excess that I like...).

170g plain flour
3 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons mixed spice
340g medium oatmeal
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
455g black treacle (tins come at a weight of 454g, but I think that overlooking the last gram is acceptable)
115g butter
140ml milk
30g soft brown sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. Prepare a 25cm/10 inch cake tin (this needs to be oiled and fully lined with greaseproof paper).
2. Sift the flour and spices into a large bowl. Stir in the oatmeal and the bicarbonate of soda.
3. In a saucepan over a low heat, melt together the treacle, butter, milk and sugar. Stir occasionally until the butter and treacle are melted, and the sugar dissolved. Black alchemy (see below).

5. Immediately pour the warm and wonderfully dark mixture into the dry ingredients and beat thoroughly. Pour into your prepared tin, spreading mixture to fill tin evenly.
6. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes, or until firm.
7. Leave to cool in tin, then cut into squares. Again this is one of those cakes that need 'resting' before consuming in order for maximum moistness and deliciousness to be attained. In order to do this wrap cake in foil and store in an air-tight box.

I managed to be very obedient and restrained, and I left this cake for almost a week in its foil jacket before cutting a sample square. Although the flavour of the cake was good (with all that treacle it sure should be), the hoped for moistness was sadly lacking. In common with the Holywake Bake cake that I made last November the core of the cake was a little dry, enough to make the consistency cloying. This was disappointing, particularly after the seven day wait for a taste, and I wonder if the problem is down to my recipe, my baking, or perhaps I am expecting these cakes to have a moistness that they just don't have. Does the oatmeal greedily draw in all available dampness, but then refuse to share it round with the other ingredients. Did I treat oatmeal badly in a past life? I love the flavour and texture that oats and oatmeal can bring, but of my three attempts at oatmeal gingerbread, two have been damp squibs rather than fiesty firecrackers. Can anyone provide me with a tried and tested parkin or tharfcake recipe that produces a deliciously moist and flavoursome cake, a sparkler?

I started this post at the beginning of November, and here I am finishing off at the beginning of December. What excuse can I offer? Well, my junior baker is already crawling and keen to move on to the next stage. Looks like he will be heading to the kitchen all by himself very soon. Every morning he puts on his 'active trousers' (in the photo they are just about to go on), and they keep him moving all day long - and me away from the computer, the camera, and the cake tin.


Anonymous said...

My Nana was from Darwen in Lancashire, and I used to love visiting her when there was some parkin in the cake tin. I always associate good cakes and knitting with her. Happy Memories. I need to dig the recipe out right now and make some!!
Love your gorgeous blue-eyed helper, too

isabella said...

Dear Anna,
I will link you for sure, and if you like you can do the same, too. I may translate my recipes in English either, so we can exchanges our recipes . My youngest Jacopo, I think is as old as your wonderful baby. I really love english cake even I am Italian ( I come from Venice)

joellybaby said...

Funny, I came by here in early November hoping for this very post! I was hunting for a recipe to make parkin like I remember from my Yorkshire childhood.

I tried out a recipe that's on my personal blog here. But to be honest I had a similar problem - it smelled and tasted just right, but was somewhat dry and almost gritty in texture, even after resting a week. Excellent warmed up and served with custard though. I wonder if the recipes with less oatmeal work better?

isabella said...

Dear Anna,
I have just found a series of nice booklet about British and regional cusine, which I have already ordered, you can find it on they are called "favourite recipes...."

David Hall said...

Come and collect your award for a top post at Cerys the Well Done Angel Awards! x

Joy said...

Hi Anna,

I'm loving your tour of British bakes. Isn't it funny that you can't go into a shop without seeing an aray of French pastries but finding anything more adventurous than a scone is near impossible!

I made parkin in November for Bonfire Night ( It ended up being nice and moist. I used oats instead of oatmeal which might have helped. Also, I was really wary of overcooking it after a dry result the year before so I took it out before it started shrinking from the edge of the pan.

I was toying with adding extra liquid at the end, perhaps a ginger syrup (in the same spirit as a lemon drizzle) but I'm sure many Yorkshire folk would be turning in their graves at this suggestion! What about soaking the oatmeal first?

anna said...

Hi Joy,

I shall give your recipe a go. I really like the idea of a syrup poured over the top of the baked sponge - that sounds delicious and would certainly up the moistness of the cake. Yum.

Joy said...

Do let me know how you get on as the flavour of parkin is so good, it would be great to get a recipe that is properly sticky!

Valentina said...

Anna, I feel ashamed for not knowing about this type of cake. it made me enjoy this reading even more.Oh, your child is so cute!!

Anonymous said...

Steve says, just like I used to have as a kid in Staffordshire! Could do with some grated fresh ginger; cooked for 60 minutes (foil on top for last 15). We didn't leave it a week - almost an hour! It was just slightly warm when we dug in. Awesome! So moist and treacly, just delicious. Thanks for the recipe.

Anonymous said...

I also have memories of eating Parkin straight out of the oven in Brierfield Lancashire when my Great Aunt Alice cooked it. Maybe it was supposed to keep but we rarely left any! It always had equal parts Golden Syrup and Black Treacle.

Rikki said...

A recipe used by my great aunt is as follows...

1 lb Marge
1 lb Soft Brown Sugar
1 lb Treacle Syrup
1/2 Pint Milk

Put all into a large bowl and heat in microwave till melted.

1 lb Self Raising flour
1/2 lb of medium Oatmeal (medium to ease off the absorbsion of the oats)
4 Liberal Teaspoons of Ground Ginger

Mix these all into the bowl with the melted ingredients

Beat 4 large eggs and slowly add to the mixture whilst stiring briskly to prevent the egg from scrambling into the mixture.

The mixture is very sloppy and wet don't be alarmed at this as it is desired.

Line large roasting tin/s with greaseproof paper and bake at gas mark 2 for 1hour -1hr 30mins. When ready it should be firm to the touch and a needle should be clear after probing.

Store for a week as your other recipe suggests then enjoy a nice moist parkin.

Her recipe so far is the only parkin that I have had that hasn't been dry. Growing up the entire family used to fight to get the scrapings from the bottom of the paper as an extra treat to compliment the cake itself

James said...

For many of the older parkin recipes, you need to be careful of the type of oats used. Pinhead (steel cut) will leave a much dryer/coarser texture than (Scottish) porridge oats (these are abraded oats-stone ground- not rolled oats)American rolled oats do not do well but in the USA Bob's Red Mill makes the scottish stone ground porrige oats. This makes a huge difference in the dryness of the cake. I was disappointed when I could not match my mother-in-laws cake even using her recipe, then we visited and I checked out the oats she was using! I also find cooking at a very low temp of about 250 for 2 hours (various times due to differing recipes, you have to experiment) (like the old aga's that were always on or a cooling stone oven). To produce an evenly flat and completely cooked cake I use wet cake strips wrapped around the pan (Magic strips) this lets the outer rim cook slower, closer to the rate the inner part cooks. And I use a 6" pan. Let's just say my Mother-in-law was shocked and very pleased to have 'her' parkin and amazed I'd solved the not cooked center problem she used to have. Don't you just love being stubborn? The recipe I use has changed the black treacle to lyles golden syrup (aka treacle). It lets the ginger shine through (3tsp). The texture of the result is not cake-like or even american gingerbread (cake like). It is thick, dense, chewy, fragrently ginger and sweet. Very good for shipping or storage in an old biscuit tin for at least a month. Usually doesn't last long for us.

James said...

Yelled from the next room "think oat granola texture but more refined".

Aurelas said...

I thought I knew a lot about British foods from devouring every cookbook I could find (I sit around reading them as if they were novels--I don't get to actually cook from them often because, living in a rural redneck area of Florida, there is nowhere to purchase many of the needed ingredients and the local butchers refuse to save kidneys and suet for me, the sillies!) and of course eating everything I could get my hands on when I visited, but this one was a new one on me. Thanks so much for sharing. The comments are very enlightening too! I can't believe I never discovered your blog until today but what a lovely surprise it was :D