When I was a child growing up in Yorkshire, Bonfire Night was a time for special treats – treacle toffee (also known as Bonfire toffee), sticky sweet toffee apples, piping hot, slightly charred potatoes baked in the smouldering ashes of the bonfire and my own particular favourite, parkin.
In Yorkshire and Lancashire, Bonfire Night would be unthinkable without parkin, a type of dark, spicy, solid gingerbread made with oatmeal. In 19th-century Leeds, 5th November was even known as Parkin Day. Some of my friends in the south of England had never heard of this hearty cake and hadn’t realised what they’d missed – until they tasted it. Every year I make a large slab of parkin in a roasting tin to enjoy while we watch the fireworks bursting in the night sky. Of course November nights are cold, often freezing and a hot baked potato, followed by a piece of moist parkin with a steaming mug of something, are the perfect winter comfort foods.
Originally, parkin was a celebratory cake, eaten at winter festivals; a custom that probably originated with the pagan practice of eating special cakes to mark the first day of winter. It is made with oatmeal (oats were the main cereal grown in the north) which gives parkin its dense texture, ground ginger (the cheapest spice in days gone by, though still a treat for most people) and black treacle (introduced in England in the 17th century and imported from the West Indies through the ports of Lancashire). Parkin was plainer than it is today as it was made with dripping rather than butter and early recipes didn’t include eggs.
By the 18th century, as basic ingredients such as flour and sugar became cheaper, they were also included in the standard recipe, resulting in a lighter texture. Golden syrup, another later addition, adds a lovely flavour to the cake. Parkin makes a delicious dessert too, served with stewed apples, pears or plums and a dollop of whipped cream. Our decadent Yorkshire parkin & blackberry trifle recipe pairs layers of creamy custard and blackberry compote with spongy parkin, or for another twist on the traditional, try pear parkin pudding with custard.
Yorkshire parkin recipes generally use more oatmeal than flour, while Lancashire recipes tend to have more flour than oatmeal. It’s also traditional for parkin to be slightly undercooked, so that the centre remains sticky. There are several different kinds of parkin (A Yorkshire Cookery Book by M Gaskell, published in 1919 in my hometown of Wakefield, lists 17 recipes for it) and its popularity continues in the north, where it’s sold in bakeries throughout the region. Of course, it’s readily available around Bonfire Night. If you bake your own parkin, it should be kept in an airtight tin for at least three days before cutting to allow it to soften and mellow. It will keep well, stored in an airtight tin for up to two weeks.
See our traditional parkin recipe.