My infatuation with oatcakes began during the eight years I cooked at hotels and restaurants in the Scottish highlands, where the word “oatcakes” refers to the savory, cracker‑like flatbreads that served for centuries as a stand-in for bread. (Wheat wouldn’t grow in Scotland’s cool, moist climate, but oats thrived.) The classic recipe requires few ingredients—sometimes just oats, a pinch of salt, a small amount of fat, and water—all of which are mixed to form a dough that’s rolled out, cut, and baked until crisp and dry. Nowadays, oatcakes are often purchased rather than homemade, but they are still eaten all day long in Scotland—with butter at breakfast, with tea for elevenses, accompanying a lunchtime bowl of soup, or topped with cheese and enjoyed with a whisky in front of the fire on a chilly evening.
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Several years later in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I encountered oatcakes again, but they were sweeter and richer than their Scottish counterparts, more like a crunchy oaten shortbread than a modest cracker. Smitten anew, I spent that trip sampling Cape Breton oatcakes at every bakery and café I happened upon. As you may have guessed from the name “Nova Scotia” (“New Scotland” in Latin), the two types of oatcakes are related. Both are ubiquitous in their respective locales but not where I live, so I’d need to make my own.
Savory Scottish Oatcakes
For the Scottish original, I mixed Scottish oatmeal and salt in a bowl and then added hot water and a small amount of butter to form a dough. The mixture lacked cohesion, which made the rolling and cutting steps a struggle. I managed to get them into the oven, but baking didn’t improve things; the crumbly oatcakes disintegrated as I lifted them from their baking sheet.
An examination of the ingredient lists on packets of commercial oatcakes sent by a Scottish friend revealed my error. Though oatcakes used to be wheat-free out of necessity, these days they usually contain wheat flour. For my next batch, I whisked 2 parts oatmeal with 1 part all-purpose flour and some salt. I also added a teaspoon of sugar—just enough to accentuate the toasty oat notes—and a bit of baking powder to encourage browning and crisping. Then, I stirred in the melted butter (more than in the first batch, for added richness) and some water (hot to help hydrate the oats and to keep the butter from solidifying, making the dough less crumbly). The protein in the wheat flour made this dough much more cohesive and easier to roll and cut.
How Oatcakes Crossed the Sea
Up until the mid‑18th century, the Scottish Highlands were controlled by powerful families known as clans, but after their defeat by British forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1743, the clans were dismantled and life became difficult for the newly impoverished Highlanders. Oats—which thrive in northern Scotland’s cool, damp climate—made up a significant portion of their diet, either as porridge or mixed with a small amount of animal fat, salt, and water and formed into plain but filling “cakes” that were baked on a hearthstone.
Before long, the Highlanders were forcibly evicted from Scotland, and many migrated to Nova Scotia, bringing their oatcake-making tradition with them. Over several generations, the descendants of the original Scottish settlers became more prosperous and were able to enrich their oatcakes with sugar and more fat, creating the more cookie-like Cape Breton oatcake.
Scottish oatcakes can be thick and chunky or slim and delicate, and they’re usually cut into rounds, squares, or farls (rounded triangles made by cutting larger rounds into quarters). I opted to use a biscuit cutter to portion the thinly rolled dough into rounds, gathering the excess dough together and rerolling repeatedly until I had just enough dough to press into the biscuit cutter for one final oatcake, my tribute to the legendary thrift of the Scots.
Once baked and cooled, they were crisp and oat-y and wholesome, a close facsimile of those I’d eaten in Scotland. I enjoyed a few with creamy blue cheese before turning my attention west to Cape Breton.
Sweet Cape Breton Oatcakes
Recipes for hyper-regional Cape Breton oatcakes are usually handed down through families. Luckily, Lorna MacLean, proud descendant of Scottish immigrants and baker at Cape Breton’s Herring Choker Deli, sent me photos of several handwritten recipes she’d collected over the years. They followed a similar theme: Mix equal or nearly equal volumes of flour and rolled oats with sugar and a bit of leavener and salt. Rub in a generous amount of solid fat and then add just enough water to bring everything together. Roll the dough out, cut it into squares or rectangles, and bake the pieces until light golden brown and crunchy. (Sound familiar? You may have tried the version available in the States from the brand Effie’s Homemade.)
In the early days, the fat would have been lard, but now many bakers, especially professionals like MacLean, use butter, and that’s what I did too. Brown sugar introduced toffee-like complexity, but slightly obscured the nutty flavor of the oats, so I landed on a mix of brown and white sugar. As in the Scottish oatcakes, baking powder aided browning and crisping. So far, so traditional, but then I went rogue.
TECHNIQUE: Making Neat Oatcakes
To make a perfect rectangle of dough for Cape Breton oatcakes, roll the dough out between two layers of parchment that have been marked with guidelines. Use excess scraps to patch the places where the dough falls short of the lines.
First, I used kosher salt instead of fine table salt to provide isolated pops of salinity, a nod to the Maritimes, where every breeze carries the scent of the sea. And instead of mixing the ingredients in a bowl, I used a food processor so that its blade would chop the rolled oats slightly as it mixed the ingredients, making it easier to cut the dough later. Finally, I chose to melt the butter and whiz it in briefly rather than rubbing it in by hand. The warm butter and a bit of hot water kept the dryish dough malleable through the shaping process. After a low and slow bake, the oatcakes were toasty and crisp, the perfect accompaniment for a piping hot mug of tea.