Vital ingredients for 'plot night' baking
Those of you who didn’t grow up in Yorkshire (poor things!) won’t know what ‘Plot Night’ is. It is Bonfire Night, or if you are very posh, Guy Fawkes Night. Looking back to my childhood, Plot Night was one of the highlights of the year. It hadn’t been eclipsed by Halloween in those days and there wasn’t the same health and safety hysteria around fireworks then - although, it should also be acknowledged that the most powerful firework you were likely to light was a roman candle or a slim rocket, rather than the pyrotechnical monsters you can buy nowadays. The most dangerous event I remember was when a spinning Catherine wheel flew off its nail. Dads were blamed of course, responsibility for the fireworks being the men’s job. In those pre-BBQ days, it was the most primal display of virility available to the white collar Dads of my friends.
Plot night marked the start of the run up to Xmas and my birthday, which is at the end of November. It was very much the start of my ‘festive season’. The fact that bonfire night and its associated celebrations could fall midweek added to the sense of slightly subversive fun. Being allowed to be out and about on a school night, with lots of other people, playing with fire and of course eating lots of party food, was a heady mix.
I don’t remember getting involved in the ‘penny for the guy’ run up. I don’t ever remember seeing any ‘guys’ at all. This may have something to do with the fact that Guy Fawkes was a Yorkshireman, so we might not have wanted to burn him in effigy (but that’s just speculation on my part). The night before Plot Night was Mischief Night, the traditional time for practical jokes. Being ‘nice girls’, rather than ‘rough boys’, me and my sister didn’t get involved in that - of course! On the evening of 4th November there would be the sound of bangers being set off in the street and occasionally knocks at the door from people who had disappeared by the time you answered. There were stories about treacle being spread on door handles or gates being lifted off their hinges and hidden, but it was all pretty harmless.
The main reason I loved Plot Night was the food. It was one mouthwatering delight after another. You started with warm pork pies with mushy peas and mint sauce, followed by baked potatoes, cooked in foil in the embers of the bonfire. All this food tasted a million times better because it was eaten outside, in the crisp night air, a sparkler clutched in your hand, the smoke stinging your eyes and the heat from the flames scorching your cold cheeks.
And then came the sweet stuff. My grandma used to make ‘Plot toffee’, treacle toffee by any other name, in great, spiky shards. It was the sort of sweet that changes the outline of your cheek whilst you eat it because it is so big and unyieldingly angular. I have no idea why ‘plot’ baking is so dominated by ginger, but it is.There were ginger biscuits and gingerbread pigs. But my favourite was always the parkin. Parkin is not gingerbread. Proper Yorkshire parkin, features oatmeal as well as ginger and has a dense, nutty consistency with just a hint of stickiness on its surface.
I was so disappointed when I moved to Scotland to discover that people don’t celebrate bonfire night up here. There are understandable historical and nationalist reasons for this, but what a wasted opportunity for some smashing food (in the Enid Blyton sense) and fire-gazing. This year however, I am going to be in Yorkshire for Plot Night. I am sneaking off for a break in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. In preparation, I’ve made some parkin to take with me.
The old school recipe book.
It’s ages since I’ve made parkin. I decided to go back to grassroots and use the recipe I was taught at school. The only change I made was to replace some of the golden syrup with treacle. I think ‘plot’ baking needs that dark hit of treacle to give the flavour proper depth. It hints of the smokiness of the bonfire. It also gives it the dark chestnut colour I remember.
You will also note the use of lard. Not a fashionable ingredient these days. I stuck to the recipe, but you may well want to use all butter instead. The original recipe also specified margarine, not butter (it does date from the 1970s!) but I hate margarine.
Parkin should be made at least a week in advance and then left in an air tight tin to acquire the proper sticky texture. If you can hold off long enough!
8 oz plain flour
8 oz medium oatmeal
8 oz soft brown sugar
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 heaped tsp ground ginger
2 oz lard
2 oz butter
6 oz golden syrup
2 oz treacle
3 fl oz milk
2 med eggs
Preheat the oven to 325F/170C/Gas mark 3.
Grease and line the base of an approx 12inch square traybake tin (I used a 9 inch square tin and it was a bit small – the parkin ballooned above the tin during cooking and then collapsed a bit).
Mix all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Rub the fats into the dry ingredients. Heat the milk and syrups together gently, stirring until combined. Don’t let it boil. Add to the flour/fat mixture and stir in. Add the eggs, beaten, and mix well. Pour into the tin and bake for 50-60 mins until deep brown, firm and shrunk slightly away from the sides of the tin. Don’t open the oven for the first 45 mins, or it will sink – like mine did! Leave it to cool in the tin. When cool, cut into squares and leave it in an airtight tin for 3 days to 2 weeks, to ‘mature’.
I confess, I scoffed a piece, just for the purposes of research of course. Very nice – sticky and nutty with the soft warmth of ginger.
When I was looking for a recipe for parkin, I found one in my old Yorkshire TV Farmhouse Kitchen book. It included this unexpected advice about ingredients: “If you have no treacle add 1 or 2 drops of gravy browning to the mixture to get the true dark Parkin colour”. Please note: there is no gravy browning in my parkin!
I'm getting the hang of this 'food styling' photography!