It’s the rare person whose birthday is celebrated by an entire country 259 years after the fact. Even harder to believe is that this unusually beloved person achieved long-lasting fame as a poet, not to mention that he wrote much of his poetry in a dialect that is, to say the least, challenging for modern readers. All of which goes to show just how extraordinary Robert Burns and his hold over Scotland continues to be. Think you know nothing about this 18th century Scottish poet? Well, if you’ve ever sung “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, you’re more familiar with him than you imagined: that’s one of his compositions. And while it might be the only Burns poem Americans know, Scots are happy to break out many others, including this little gem, “To a Mouse,” which begins:
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
We are pretty sure it’s not just Burns’ way with words that has contributed to his longevity, but the brilliant idea of celebrating his birthday with a hearty supper and a dram of whiskey (or several), while his poems are declaimed in dramatic fashion by increasingly, ahem, festive partygoers. Burns Night, first celebrated in 1801 on the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death by his friends, was moved to his birthday the following year and has been going strong ever since, not just in Scotland but in Scottish pubs across the world. The traditional Burns Supper has at its center the traditional haggis, a dish of oats and aromatics stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach and steamed, and while it isn’t much loved outside Scotland, no one can argue that the presentation lacks drama: the haggis is carried ceremonially into the room to the playing of bagpipes, then serenaded with its very own poem, Burns’ “Address to a Haggis.” When the host reaches the verse:
His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
he plunges a long knife or sword into the haggis and dramatically slices it open. The evening progresses to the accompaniment of toasts, songs and poems, with traditional dishes that may include the wonderfully named “cock-a-leekie,” “tatties and neeps” or “cullen skink.”
We haven’t become quite adventurous enough yet to include haggis on our menu for Burns Night, although we’re a little disappointed not to experience the full ceremony! Instead, we’ve created a warming beef stew, accompanied by crispy potato and oatmeal cakes–almost like a vegetarian haggis–and finishing off with a chocolate whiskey cake as dark and dramatic as a January night in Scotland. You bring the poems and whiskey, and we’ll bring the food.
Scottish Beef Stew
3 lbs boneless beef chuck cut into 2 inch cubes
½ cup flour for dredging
3 tbsp unsalted butter
2 medium onions, diced
2 medium leeks, diced, white and light green parts only
3 celery ribs, diced
4 carrots, diced
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 tbsp red currant jelly
1 cup red wine
3 cups beef stock
3 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt & pepper to taste
Season the beef well with salt and pepper. Spread the flour in a shallow bowl and dredge the cubed beef in the flour, shake off excess flour. Heat olive oil in a large cast iron casserole or dutch oven. Add half of the meat and cook over medium high heat until browned on all sides, about 5-7 minutes. Transfer browned meat to a bowl and repeat with the remaining meat, adding more oil to the pot if necessary.
Melt 3 tbsp of butter in casserole over moderate heat and add onions, garlic, leeks, celery, and carrots. Cook until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium high, add the red wine and bring to a boil, stirring to scrape up all the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Add the beef stock and bring to a boil. Add the browned meat and any juices along with the thyme, bay leaves and red currant jelly. Lower heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for 30 minutes. Cover and cook for at least another hour until the meat is tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve stew in a bowl with a potato cake (recipe below).
Skirlie Potato Cakes
Adapted from Food and Wine
1½ pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for oiling
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 ounces lean smoked bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1/3 cup)
3 tablespoons old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
Freshly ground pepper
½ cup all-purpose flour, for dredging
Vegetable oil for frying and for oiling dish
Oil an 8-inch square glass baking dish.
Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan, cover with water and bring them to a boil. Add a large pinch of salt and boil over moderately high heat until the potatoes are tender, about 35 minutes. Drain them.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, melt the butter. Add the shallot and garlic and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the bacon and cook until most of the fat has been rendered, about 3 minutes. Add the oats and cook, stirring, until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley and thyme.
Peel the the potatoes. Working over a bowl, pass the potatoes through a ricer (or you can mash the potatoes by hand until smooth if you don’t have a ricer). Stir in the oat mixture and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread in the prepared baking dish and smooth the surface. Cover and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or overnight.
Cut the potato mixture into 4 squares, then cut each square in half again. Carefully lift the cakes out of the dish with an offset metal spatula and place on a plate.
If possible, let the potato cakes to room temperature. In a large nonstick skillet, heat ¼ cup of the vegetable oil until shimmering. Place flour in a shallow bowl and season with ½ teaspoon salt. Carefully dredge each potato cake in the flour, shaking off excess. Add as many potato cakes as fit without crowding into the skillet and cook over moderately high heat until browned, about 2 minutes. Turn the cakes and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet. Cook the cakes until richly browned and heated through, about 2 minutes longer. Transfer the potato cakes to a platter and keep warm. Repeat with remaining cakes, if necessary. Serve hot.
Whiskey Chocolate Cake
Adapted from the New York Times
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, more for pan
85 grams unsweetened cocoa powder (about ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons, divided)
1½ cups brewed strong coffee
½ cup Scottish whiskey
200 grams granulated sugar (about 1 cup)
156 grams light brown sugar (about 1 cup)
240 grams all-purpose flour (about 2 cups)
8 grams baking soda (about 1½ teaspoons)
4 grams kosher salt (about ¾ teaspoon)
¼ teaspoon black pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
135g (1 cup) finely chopped bittersweet chocolate
Heat oven to 325℉. Butter a 10-inch springform pan and dust with 2 tablespoons cocoa powder: it will be more than you need to coat the pan, so shake to distribute remainder evenly over bottom of pan.
In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine coffee, whiskey, 12 tablespoons butter and remaining cocoa powder, whisking occasionally, until butter is melted. Whisk in sugars until dissolved, then remove from heat and allow to cool completely.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, pepper and cloves. In another bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla. Slowly whisk egg mixture into chocolate mixture. Add dry ingredients and whisk to combine. Fold in chopped chocolate.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Transfer to oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean, 55 to 65 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack, then remove sides of pan. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.
Cake is even better the day after it’s made, kept well-wrapped.