Jocasta’s “Auld Country” Bannock from Drums of Autumn
“I don’t quite understand, ” Brianna said. “Did Mr. Berowne not want to admit that a woman hit him?”
“Ah, no,” Jamie said, pouring another cup of ale and handing it to her. “It was only Sergeant Murchison making a nuisance of himself.”
“Sergeant Murchison? That would be the army officer who was at the trial?” she asked. She took a small sip of the ale, for politeness’ sake. “The one who looks like a half-roasted pig?”
Her father grinned at this characterization.
“Aye that’ll be the man. He’s a mislike of me,” he explained. “This wilna be the first time — or the last — that he’s tried such a trick to cripple me.”
“He could not hope to succeed with such a ridiculous charge,” Jocasta chimed in, leaning forward and reaching out a hand. Ulysses, standing by, moved the plate of bannocks the necessary inch. She took one, unerringly, and turned her disconcerting blind eyes toward Jamie.
Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn, Chap 41
What is a bannock? Well, that really depends upon where you are in the world. The bannock I grew up with here on the Canadian west coast came from the diets of our First Nations; an unleavened dough of wheat flour, water and salt, molded over a stick and toasted over an open fire. In other regions of North America, you may know bannocks as something slightly different. There may be cornmeal and baking powder in the dough, and they could be deep fried, rolled in sand and cooked in a pit, or baked in the oven. Traditional ingredients prior to Europeans included corn and nut flours, those ground from plant bulbs and tubers, as well as seasonal fruits and seeds.
In Scotland, where the term originates from the Gaelic bannach, meaning cake, bannocks were originally round, medium-sized flat breads made from a wet dough of barleymeal and/or oatmeal. (Meal is an unsifted powder, coarser than flour, ground from any grain.) They were cooked on a girdle, or griddle, and were cut into scones, or wedges.
In Scotland today, the term refers to any baked item similar in shape and size to the original bannock, and is also used to describe a large circular scone that has been scored into sections. Wheat flour and baking soda are included in most modern recipes.
Confused? I’ve been researching these for days, and I’m still a little unclear. The most important thing to remember is that a bannock is many things to many people.
So what was Jocasta’s bannock like?
For all that she was a capable and powerful woman for her time, Jocasta was also a woman of tradition. Unlike her older sister, Ellen, she obeyed her father and made a political marriage at a young age with a man she didn’t know. When he died, she formed a second strategic match with another man who, to save his own life, took from her the most important things of all.
By the time we meet her, she is a sightless, two-time widow and the sole surviving sibling of a once powerful clan that has been shattered to rubble in her lifetime. Despite it all, she is proudly (yet barely) managing a massive estate and operation in her newly adopted land. It must all be a little surreal at times for a woman, who, when she was born, would never have been expected to leave the Highlands.
I imagine Jocasta turning to the familiar foods from her childhood to foster an atmosphere of calm in her dark and uncertain world. Because while food nourishes, it can also comfort.
For me, in times of stress, it’s my Mom’s macaroni and cheese. For Jocasta, it’s her auld-country bannocks.
(Click on the title below for a printable version of the recipe.)
Yield: (1) 9-10” Bannock
A dense, but tasty and slightly nutty historical staple of the Scottish diet. Bannocks were originally made from barley or oat flour, as those grains are easier to grow than wheat in the harsh landscape of Scotland.
- Oats (Steel-Cut or Rolled) – 1 Cup (180 ml)
- Barley (Hulled or Pearl) – ¾ Cup (180 ml)
- Salt – ½ tsp (3 ml)
- Butter, room temp, cubed – 2 Tble (30 ml)
- Milk, room temp – ⅓ Cup (80 ml)
Grind the oats to meal by pulsing them in a clean coffee grinder. Repeat with the barley. (The meals will have some coarser bits to them, but should be relatively fine.) Set aside ¼ cup of the oatmeal for working the dough.
Mix the remainder of the 2 freshly ground flours together with the salt. Cut the butter in with a pastry cutter or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. A few pea-sized lumps of butter are okay.
Stir in the milk — you should have a very wet dough, but not soupy – add a little more milk if the dough is too dry. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and set aside for 15 minutes to allow the grains to absorb the milk.
Preheat a cast-iron pan over med-low heat for 5 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto the counter dusted heavily with the oat flour. Dust the dough with more oat flour and knead it gently 5 or 6 times. Then, being careful not to overwork the dough, gently pat it into a round disc about ½” thick.
Dust each side lightly with oat flour, mark a cross into one side of the bannock with the handle of a wooden spoon, then carefully transfer it to the dry cast iron pan. Cook until golden, about 15 minutes. Flip and cook until golden on the second side, about 10-15 minutes. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes before cutting into 4 to 8 wedges.
Serve warm, preferably with butter and honey/jam. Jocasta may have preferred hers plain, but that’s no reason for us not to enjoy ours at their new-world best, aye?
- To clean your coffee grinder, run 3 tablespoons of rice through it for 30 seconds. Discard the rice and admire your shiny, clean grinder…
- Use a small plate as a template and cut around it if you’re having trouble getting a perfect round freehand.
- These bannocks will keep for days, but by no means do they improve with age. They’re really best hot off the pan. Unless you’re serving them to a crowd at this month’s meeting of your Outlander Book Club, I suggest forming the dough into 6 or 8 small discs and refrigerating or freezing those you won’t eat right away. Wrapped well, bannock dough will keep for 2 days in the fridge and 2 weeks in the freezer. Defrost on the counter before cooking.
Ith gu leòir! (Eat Plenty).