Years ago on a trip to Scotland I picked up a copy of Maw Broon’s But an’ Ben Cookbook. Inspired by a weekly comic strip produced since the 1930s, the But an’ Ben Cookbook is a kind of imaginary scrapbook collated by the extended Broon family at their holiday house with recipes cut from newspapers and magazines, donated by friend and family members, or scribbled on the back of whatever paper was nearby. Interspersed with comics and helpful hints, the book is a fascinating window into mid-century Scottish cookery.
I think that this book is probably the first place I encountered both Hogmanay and black bun. Hogmanay is the Scottish celebration of the New Year, and black bun one of the traditional foods exchanged and eaten at this time of the year.[i] It’s particularly popular as a gift for first-footing, brought by the first visitor (preferably male, tall and dark-haired) to cross the threshold it is believed to bring good luck to the household.
Many people writing about black bun, however, suggest that it was initially associated with Twelfth Night (celebrated on either the 5th or 6th of January depending on when the counting begins). It’s unclear what the historical basis for this claim is, but black bun does certainly have a strong association with the Christmas period. The name black bun is only attested in 1898, and earlier versions were known as ‘Scotch bun’ (which was advertised to bring Christmas cheer) or ‘Scotch Christmas bun’[ii],
Basically identical to other early modern recipes for plumb cake, what distinguishes black bun is that the fruit cake is covered in a layer of dough or pastry. While modern recipes for black bun now call for a rich fruit cake to be wrapped in pastry, as you can see from this recipe (which was taken almost word for word from the recipe for ‘A rich half-peck Bun’ in Mrs Frazer’s The Practice of Cookery, Pastry etc.[iii]) older recipes use a yeasted dough for both the filling and the plain cover.
Mrs Frazer’s recipe from 1791 is generally given as the oldest for black bun, but the National Library of Scotland has a recipe for a plumb cake in an 18th century receipt book from the Fletcher family of Saltoun which also leaves aside part of yeasted dough to make a cover.[iv] Helpfully, the recipe notes that it was taken from Mrs Johnston’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry Worke 1741.[v] Indeed, the very first recipe in Mrs Johnston’s receipts for all sorts of pastry, creams, puddings, custards, preserves, marmalets, conserves, geillies, syrops, wines etc published in 1740 is the same recipe for plumb cake.[vi] Mrs Johnston, in turn, took the first 92 pages of her cookbook from Mrs McLintock’s receipts for cookery and pastry-work published in Glasgow in 1736, the first cookbook known to have been published in Scotland.[vii] This means we can push the date back nearly 60 years, and it seems plausible that even earlier versions exist in manuscript sources.
The first challenge in redacting this recipe was working out what the measurements would mean in today’s values. Many recipes for plum-cakes from this time period are enormous, meant to feed a household that included a large extended family, their servants and retainers, and any visitors who happened to be in the area. I used a helpful table from the Scottish Archive Network to convert the measurements into metric, although it’s worth noting that in many cases there were multiple options (e.g. is it the Troy or the Tron pound?) so the measurements I came up with are by no means definitive. Turns out though, that my measurements were off by quite a bit. Although I initially only used one egg since modern eggs are probably larger than those in the past, I used two and then added quite a bit of warm water to make a stiff dough.
Then I had to figure out how much to reduce the recipe by. The original recipe asks for nine litres of flour and just shy of ten kilograms of dried fruit; much as I love fruitcake there was no way I was making the whole cake! I ended up dividing all the ingredients by seven, which still produces a large cake, so you may want to reduce it even more.
The National Library of Scotland website had noted that cordecidron was quince paste, but that didn’t seem very likely to me and a bit of research shows that it is an old Scottish word for citron peel which makes much more sense.[viii] For the both the orange peel and the citron peel I assumed that they meant candied peel, which is what is normally used in plum-cake recipes. Even after reducing the recipe massively, I didn’t have more than 700g of candied peel so I just put in what I had. Obviously that is less accurate, but given how much difficulty I had getting the fruit worked into the dough it was something that I was glad of later. It’s amazing to think that people did this for 7 times the amount of dough!
Finally, what shape should the dough take? Does it need time to rise? Does it need a tin or hoop to support it? And how long does it take to cook? I’m still not really sure about the answer to any of these. Modern buns tend to be circular or loaf-shaped and are cooked in tins. The rectangular loaf-shape is probably modern, since loaf-tins seem to be a 19th century invention. Mrs Frazer’s recipe suggests binding it in paper, which would presumably give a softer form than a metal tin, while a note in the Dods recipe says “They should be baked in a dome-shaped fluted mould or Turk’s cap, but look still more imposing at holiday-times, formed like large, respectable, old-fashioned household loaves.”[ix] The two moulds would probably give an effect like a bundt cake, while old-fashioned household loaves may refer to something like a cob loaf. What I can tell you is that my tin method didn’t work very well, because the bun didn’t have enough room to expand and split. Given how stiff the dough is, I would be tempted next time to just shape it into a cob loaf and bake it on a tray.
Plum-Cake, or Early Black Bun
1.9 kg of flour
142 g butter
71 g sugar
2 tsp yeast mixed with 2tbsp warm water
2 tbsp brandy
113g candied peel
2g caraway seeds
- Mix together yeast and warm water in a small bowl and set aside.
- Put flour in large bowl and rub in butter until it looks like breadcrumbs.
- Beat the sugar and eggs then add to the flour with the yeast and the brandy. Add enough warm water to bring together to form a stiff dough. Take a quarter and put to one side, covered with a damp towel.
- In a large bowl mix together the fruit, almonds and spices, then mix into the 3/4 of the dough. This is quite difficult because of how stiff the dough is and how much dough there is. When you can no longer knead the entire dough, it helps to take small handfuls of dough and press them into the fruit to incorporate more of the mixture.
- Roll out the 1/4 of the dough into a very large, thin circle (approx. 12 inches round), thinner at the edges. Put the fruit dough in the middle and shape into a rough circle (if you are using a tin, make sure that the circle will fit the tin). Wrap the dough up around the filling, pinching at the top like a dumpling.
- Grease the tin or baking tray, and place the bun in, seam side down. Preheat the oven to 180°C/355°F, then bake for about 90 minutes or until knocking on the bun produces a hollow sound.
The Recipe: Plumb-Cake (identical recipe available here)
The Date: 1740
How did you make it? See above.
Time to complete?: 2 hours
How successful was it?: It was very dry, a bit similar to bad pannetone but with more fruit. It wasn’t too sweet, which was great, and the occasional pop of a carraway seed was a nice addition to the usual fruitcake flavours.
How accurate?: There are so many things that were unclear here, and the texture just didn’t seem quite right so probably not very.
[i] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (OUP Oxford, 2014), 85.
“Black, Adj. and N.,” OED Online (Oxford University Press), accessed January 6, 2019, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/19670; Galignani’s Messenger: The Spirit of the English Journals. 1825,2 (Brière, 1825), 562; Christian Isobel Johnstone, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, by Margaret Dods. [&c.]., 1862, 512, http://archive.org/details/cookandhousewif01johngoog.
[iii] Mrs Frazer, The Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Pickling, Preserving, &c: Containing Figures of Dinners, from Five to Nineteen Dishes, and a Full List of Supper Dishes; Also a List of Things in Season for Every Month in the Year, and Directions for Choosing Provisions: With Two Plates, Showing the Method of Placing Dishes Upon a Table, and the Manner of Trussing Poultry, &c (Peter Hill, Edinburgh, and T. Cadell, London, 1791).
[iv] “Culinary and Household Receipes of the Fletcher of Saltoun Family” (Receipt Book, 18th Century), MS 17853, National Library of Scotland, https://digital.nls.uk/recipes/browse/archive/105410479#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0.
[v] “Culinary and Household Receipes of the Fletcher of Saltoun Family.”
[vi] Mrs Johnston, Mrs. Johnston’s Receipts for All Sorts of Pastry, Creams, Puddings, Custards, Preserves, Marmalets, Conserves, Geillies, Syrops, Wines, Wet and Dry Confections, Biskets, Sauces, Pickles, and Cookery, after the Newest and Most Approved Method (Edinburgh: [s.n.], 1740), 3, http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&docLevel=FASCIMILE&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=stan90222&tabID=T001&docId=CB3326959443&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0.
[vii] Johnston, Mrs. Johnston’s Receipts for All Sorts of Pastry, Creams, Puddings, Custards, Preserves, Marmalets, Conserves, Geillies, Syrops, Wines, Wet and Dry Confections, Biskets, Sauces, Pickles, and Cookery, after the Newest and Most Approved Method note in Eighteenth Century Collections Online database.
[ix] Christian Isobel Johnstone, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, by Margaret Dods. [&c.]., 513.