It’s Burns’ Night tonight, 25 January, and the celebration of the great Scottish poet’s birth in 1759. Remarkably, this popular event has been going since 1801 when it was held by a group of Burns’ friends to mark the fifth anniversary of his death in July 1796. The first Burns’ Night was held in July, but the following year was moved to January, the month of his birth.
If Shakespeare is the English national bard, Burns is the Scottish one; both are celebrated for their mastery of language and their works read, studied and performed centuries after they were written. However, Rabbie (as he’s affectionately known by the Scots) Burns’ birthday is celebrated in much greater style than Shakespeare’s, which usually passes its April date with little fanfare. Burns’ Night, though, is a big thing for the Scots and special foods are eaten, whisky is of course drunk, and Burns’ poems and songs recited and sung. He’s generally acknowledged to have written ‘Auld Lang Syne’, famously sung at New Year’s Eve as the bells chime to welcome the arrival of the new year.
I’ve celebrated Burns’ Night many times in London with Scottish friends, although not for a few years. I’ve eaten haggis, neeps and tatties (haggis, turnips and potatoes), usually after some whisky has been sprinkled over the top of the haggis; you would certainly drink some whisky with it! (And make sure it’s Scotch whisky and not Irish or American whiskey!) Haggis, of course, is not to everyone’s taste. I guess it can best be described as a huge round sausage made of a sheep’s innards (heart, liver and lungs) mixed with oatmeal, onion, suet, spices and encased in the sheep’s stomach lining. (Perhaps I should have given a warning to vegetarians at the beginning!) I actually much prefer it to the French sausage, andouillette, also made with innards (pigs’), which has such a strong farmyard smell I prefer not to be in the same room as one. It’s definitely an acquired taste. Haggis is too, of course, and I know that just the ingredients will put many off. I have to say I don’t like it enough that I’d just go and buy one for supper but being with Scottish friends on a Burns’ Night, eating it is also about the ceremony and wonderful customs that go with it. Not to mention the generously flowing whisky.
I thought haggis for one this evening was definitely a step too far and so pondered what else Scottish I could make to celebrate the great bard’s birthday. I then remembered cranachan, a dessert dish I’ve often thought I should make sometime. It always looks great in photos I’ve seen of it but its attraction to me is mainly, I think, to do with it containing things I love: raspberries, honey, oats, cream and whisky. I rarely drink anything stronger than wine or beer, but I’ve always loved whisky and will sometimes enjoy a wee dram in the evening as a nightcap.
I looked on my bookshelves and was surprised I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere – not even in some British cookbooks I have. So I turned of course to the internet where I found many. As usually happens the recipes varied enormously and so I came up with proportions of the various ingredients that seemed right for me and I made up the cranachan in layers as I liked that idea, though some recipes mixed the raspberry purée with the cream mixture. I also just mashed the raspberries with a fork rather than puréeing them and putting it through a sieve as some recipes suggested; I thought the texture of the mashed raspberries would be nicer. I used ordinary porridge oats but many recipes use oatmeal. I read that it could be eaten straight away or chilled first, and I thought chilling was good. You wouldn’t want to make it hours ahead though or the oats would lose their slight crunch.
I rarely eat rich, creamy desserts but was still keen to try this. I made just a small quantity – enough for only two portions – but it’s easy to up the amount. And it’s worth tasting a bit as you go to see if you want more honey, more whisky etc. Remember it’s easier to add than take away, so start modestly so you can adjust to what you like and don’t be scared to make it your own. I think traditionally it would be the kind of recipe that was put together rather than be measured out and I did read it was originally made with a cream cheese, though double cream is more often used now.
Cranachan – 2 portions
- 35g porridge oats
- 125g raspberries
- 175ml double cream
- 1 tablespoon Scotch whisky
- 1 tablespoon runny honey (Scottish heather if you can find it!)
First of all toast the oats. Put them in a dry frying pan and toast over a low-medium heat, turning frequently. They shouldn’t really go very brown, just a tinge of brown, and you should smell a lovely nutty aroma coming from them once they’re nearly done. Cool before using.
Mash the raspberries with a fork to a rough purée. Some recipes sweeten the raspberries with a little icing sugar so you might like to check how sweet (or not!) yours are. Keep back 2 or 3 whole raspberries for each cranachan for decoration at the end (I had another punnet so used the full 125g in my purée).
Whisk the double cream until thickening. It should hold in soft peaks when you lift the whisk up. Then add the whisky and honey and whisk in. Be careful not to over-whisk so the mixture gets too stiff. Check the taste to see if you want more whisky or honey. I put a little more honey in mine. Then fold in the toasted oats.
Now for the layering! It’s nice to serve it in some tall dessert glasses. Put some of the creamy mixture in the bottom, then a layer or raspberry puree; another layer of each and finish with the cream mixture. Decorate with some whole raspberries. Cover loosely with clingfilm and put in the fridge for an hour or so to serve later. I think it really benefits from the chilling.
Well there was no way I was going to eat two so I phoned my son and suggested he come and take one – but not to feed it to the grandsons as it had neat whisky in it! When I got mine from the fridge after my supper, I looked at it and thought, I don’t think I’ll be able to eat all of this; it will be too rich and perhaps I’ll have to leave half until tomorrow. Haha! I took one spoonful and was won over immediately. It was delicious! Wonderful. And I easily finished it all. I can’t believe how many years I’ve looked at photos of cranachan and thought I should try making it – and that it’s taken me so long to discover how amazing it is. I don’t think I’m going to be waiting for next year’s Burns’ Night to make it again!