Black Bun – Scotland’s Hogmanay Treat
In his book Picturesque Notes on Edinburgh (1879) Robert Louis Stevenson paints an evocative scene of Scotland’s capital at New Year, giving us a sense of anticipation for the Hogmanay celebrations, as well as some beautiful descriptions of the treats that were on offer in bakers’ windows:
‘Currant-loaf is now popular eating in all households. For weeks before the great morning, confectioners display stacks of Scotch bun — a dense, black substance, inimical to life — and full moons of shortbread adorned with mottoes of peel or sugar-plum, in honour of the season and the family affections. ‘ Frae Auld Reekie,’ ‘ A guid New Year to ye a’,’ ‘ For the Auld Folk at Hame,’ are among the most favoured of these devices.’
The Scotch bun he described is what we know as black bun, the dense and rich fruit cake often used for the ritual of first-footing at Hogmanay. It is for this reason black bun goes as well with a glass of whisky as it does with a cup of tea.
Incredibly, black bun can still be found in the windows of the more traditional bakers. Alex Dalgetty & Sons, renowned for their Selkirk Bannock, make around 6000 black buns in the run up to the festive period.
Today lots of people make it themselves. The homemade version is usually a fruit cake wrapped in shortcrust pastry. You don’t get more gutsy winter fodder than that! However, the way professional bakers make it is quite different. First a yeast leavened dough, enriched with butter, is made. Some of this dough is reserved for the outer casing, the rest is mixed with dried fruits and spices to form the filling. This method is more similar to that found in 18th century Scottish recipe books. Elizabeth Cleland gives a recipe in her book A New and Easy Method of Cookery (1755) for ‘A Plumb-cake or bun’. In The Practice of Cookery (1791) a Mrs Frazer gives the first recipe where the bun has an outer casing.
The very old recipes resemble something similar to the Selkirk bannock, as they are not nearly as rich as the black bun we have today. However, they are the ancestors of today’s black bun. Over the 19th century as sugar became cheaper it became richer and darker until we have what Robert Louis Stevenson described as ‘a dense, black substance, inimical to life’.
The recipe for this black bun is based on what Alex Dalgetty & Sons make in their bakery in the borders, however, in no way are they comparable. This black bun is very much still a homemade version. It is a lot of fun to make and a lot less fuss than making a cake batter as well as a pastry dough separately.
This bun fills a 23cm x 13cm loaf tin. A round tin could look attractive. I would use a non stick tin.
75g unsalted butter
150g dark muscovado sugar
50g black treacle
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (freshly grated)
1 egg (optional, for glazing)
For the Sponge Dough
500g plain flour
7g sachet fast action yeast, or 15g fresh yeast
300g cold water
50g castor sugar
150g cold unsalted butter
First make the dough by rubbing the butter into the flour in a large baking bowl. Now mix in the yeast, salt and sugar. Stir in the water and mix with your hand to form a fairly smooth dough. You do not need to knead it. Cover with a damp cloth or cling film and leave to rest for 2 hours.
While the dough is fermenting you can weigh out the rest of the ingredients. In a sauce pan slowly melt the butter and sugar together. This mixture will look terrible and split to begin with but keep stirring and it will all come together eventually. Stir in the spices and leave to cool completely.
When the dough has rested remove 400g of the dough, keep this for the top and bottom layer.
In the mixing bowl incorporate the remaining dough with the sugar, butter and spice mixture with your hand. Again this takes a while to incorporate but it comes together in the end. Now stir in the fruit.
Lightly grease your baking tin with a bit of butter or flavourless cooking oil.
Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll it out to the depth of roughly half a centimetre. It needs to be big enough to cover the bottom and top. You can use the baking tin to cut out the right size.
Lay the bottom layer of dough in the tin. Pour in the fruit mixture and flatten this out. Now lay the top over and brush it with a beaten egg.
Bake in a 150˚C oven for anything between 2 1/2 – 3 hours. This depends on the efficiency of your oven. A skewer should come out clean when the cake is ready. If the top is browning too much you can cover it with tin foil. Leave to cool completely before removing from the tin and slicing it.