An old Irish verse goes:
Boxty on the griddle,
Boxty in the pan,
If you can’t make boxty,
You’ll never get a man.
Boxty is a traditional Irish potato cake. In the past it was seen as peasant food, with a clue being in its name – ‘boxty’ comes from the Irish ‘aran bocht tí’ (‘poorhouse bread’). It was only after I worked on a book about the Irish Famine a few years ago that I realised potatoes were just about the only thing poor Irish people ate; in the workhouses in the 1800s, people lived on potatoes and buttermilk alone.
Boxty is still eaten in certain parts of Ireland, such as Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo and Sligo as well as in Northern Ireland. Stephen Hennessy from The Boxty Bakers explained to me that there are three different kinds of boxty: pan boxty, boiled boxty and baked boxty. Pan boxty is made in a skillet, boiled boxty are potato dumplings (sometimes called hurleys) that are boiled in water, while baked boxty, which is the version he makes, is formed into a loaf and cooked in the oven.
‘Traditionally, boxty would have formed the centrepiece of the cooked breakfast or evening tea,’ Stephen says. Going a little more modern and upscale, chef Rozanne Stevens suggests using it like a pizza base with tomato and cheese, with smoked salmon or served with wilted spinach and a poached egg, amongst other things.
Since boxty is so plain, it’s like a blank canvas. It can be easily adapted to include all kinds of things. My version has bacon and scallions, perfect for serving at breakfast, alongside a bowl of soup, as a snack or to pack in a picnic. Boxty is quick and easy to make and is delicious too – I don’t know why it isn’t more popular across the country.
Boxty with Bacon and Scallions
Serves 4 to 6
Stephen Hennessy says waxy potatoes don’t make good boxty, so use a floury variety such as Rooster or Golden Wonder instead (or Yukon Gold in the States). Using mashed potatoes made with milk and butter will make a slightly richer boxty, but plain mashed potatoes are just fine too. Instead of frying small rounds of boxty, you can shape the dough into a circle about 3 mm (1 inch) thick and transfer it to a greased baking tray. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 150°C (300°F), until the boxty is cooked through and the top is golden. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then cut into 6 wedges.
3 slices of streaky bacon or rashers
2 medium floury potatoes (250 g/1/2 lb), peeled
200 g (1 cup) mashed potatoes
2 or 3 scallions, white and light green parts only, finely sliced or chopped
100 g (1 cup) flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
salt and freshly ground black pepper
knob of butter
Set a frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the bacon until it’s crispy and cooked through. Transfer the bacon to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. Once it’s cool, chop it into small pieces and set aside.
Spread a clean tea towel on the countertop. Place a box grater on top of the middle of the towel and grate the potato directly onto the towel. Gather up the corners of the towel and wring out as much water from the potatoes as you can into the sink (although back in the day, women would wring out the potatoes over a bowl and save the starch that settled on the bottom to stiffen their ironing). Put the grated potatoes into a large bowl along with the mashed potatoes, bacon and scallions and mix well to combine. Add the flour, baking soda and some salt and pepper to taste (though not too much salt because the bacon has a lot).
Using your hands, mix the ingredients together until the dough comes together in a ball. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and shape into a circle, then roll it out until the dough is 3 mm (1 inch) thick. Using a scone cutter or the rim of a small glass, cut the dough into rounds. Reshape the dough and repeat until all the dough has been used up.
Heat a frying pan over a medium heat and melt the butter along with a little sunflower oil to stop the butter from burning. Add the boxty circles in a single layer, making sure not to overcrowd the pan, and fry for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. These are best served warm.