Boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake dish, with its origins in north midlands, north Connacht and southern Ulster, and in particular in the counties of Mayo, Sligo, Donegal, Fermanagh, Longford, Leitrim and Cavan.
The word boxty comes from the Gaelic bacstai (where “bac” is a shelf over a “stai,” or open fire) or aran bocht it, meaning “poor-house bread”.
Boxty can be eaten with just butter or sugar, but is also often served alongside a full Irish breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, toast, and tomato slices. Similar potato pancakes can be found in Jewish Ashkenazi cuisine with the popular latkes typically prepared for Hanukkah. The English have hash brown, the Polish have placki ziemniaczane, and kartoffelpuffer is a popular dish in Germany. However, most of those variants have a coarser potato texture.
Boxties are often prepared for Imbolc, also known as Brigid’s Day, which falls on February 1st. This holiday marks the arrival of longer, warmer days and the early signs of spring.
Brigid is famous throughout Ireland for her ability to heal the sick and her compassion for them. She was born near Dundalk in Louth, on the Eastern Coast of Ireland between Dublin and Belfast, around 450 A.D. Brigid was the daughter of a pagan chieftain named Dubhthach.
There are two popular Irish customs associated with St. Brigid. The first one is the making of the Cros Bríde (St Brigid’s Cross) that are placed in people’s home, usually above the door. The cross is believed to offer blessings to all visitors, and it also protects the home from fire and illness.
The other tradition is to prepare and eat boxty!
But how did potatoes become so prominent in traditional Irish cuisine?
Ireland was actually the first European country to embrace potatoes as a food crop. Since the introduction of the tuberous crop in the 16th century, potato has held an important place in the Irish cuisine, as well as in its culture. The cultivation of potato is indeed very suited to the Irish climate and soils.
Before potato was introduced, the native Irish diet consisted of cereal and milk based products, as well as pig meat. At that time, the per capita consumption of butter in Ireland was actually the highest in the world and meat consumption per capita was also one of the highest.
The introduction of potato transformed Ireland from an under-populated island of only 1 million at the turn of the seventeenth century to more than 8 million by 1840, making it the most densely populated country in Europe
The Irish had an interesting method of cooking potatoes, which consisted in parboiling the potato and leaving the core undercooked. The partially cooked potato is supposed to lay in the stomach thus creating a second digestion period. This method helped in staving off hunger for longer periods for the workers. If you think about it, that is the reason why athletes favor ‘al dente’ pasta which releases energy gradually in the body.
Unfortunately, the Great Famine (Great Hunger) of 1845-1847, which was caused by a blight that destroyed the potato crop, left the country socially and emotionally scarred for well over a century. As a result of what is considered to be the greatest tragedy in Irish history, more than 1.1 million people died and 1 million emigrated.
By the mid to late 1850s, potatoes started to become available again, and Irish people continued to perpetrate the tradition of popular potato-based recipes like champ, colcannon, bubble and squeak, potato cakes, clapshot, Irish stew, Dublin coddle, as well as boxty.
Boxty or boxtie is the name that is typically used in the north and west of Ireland. It is however known as scotchy, bock or buck-bread, or stampy, in the south of the country, although stampy is really a deluxe version of boxty bread that typically includes cream, sugar and caraway seeds.
Like pancakes in the United States, boxty is very a popular treat with children. In parts of the country, children actually used to make a grater out of the side of an old tin can, by punching it with an awl.
Although mostly referred as just boxty, there are really three types of the popular Irish recipe: boiled boxty also known as boxty dumplings, pan boxty and loaf boxty.
Boiled boxty is consists in grated raw potatoes (squeezed of their excess moisture), to which is added their remaining starch, an equal amount of mashed cooked potatoes, bound with flour, and seasoned with salt. Those balls are placed in a pot of boiling salted water, and simmered for up to 45 minutes. After this boiled boxty is cooled, it is sliced, before being pan-fried in butter.
Boxty Loaf or Baked Boxty
It consists in the same preparation as boiled boxty. However, after kneading, the ball of dough is placed in a greased loaf tin and baked for about an hour. As a loaf, it is often sliced, toasted, and served with meat.
This is probably the most famous boxty, especially outside of Ireland. It consists in equal amounts of grated raw potatoes (with excess moisture squeezed out), mashed cooked potatoes and flour. Milk (or buttermilk) is then added to produce a batter of dropping consistency, similar to pancakes. Sometimes, eggs and baking soda are added although they were not part of the original traditional recipe. This batter is then pan-fried on both sides in butter or oil.
I was lucky enough to taste these Irish delicacies at Gallagher’s Boxty House, a restaurant offering traditional and modern Irish cuisine in the Temple Bar area in the heart of Dublin. Couldn’t be more authentic!
I leave you with this traditional folk song. Yes, the way to a man’s heart is definitely through his stomach!
Boxty on the griddle,
boxty on the pan,
If you can’t bake boxty
sure you’ll never get a man
Recipe of Boxty
Ingredients (for about 12 boxties)
- 1 cup raw potatoes (about ½ lb)
1 cup cooked mashed potatoes (about ½ lb)
1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, melted
½ to 1 cup milk or buttermilk
Butter or oil for frying
Grate the raw potatoes into a bowl.
Place the grated raw potatoes in a cheese cloth and squeeze to remove excess moisture, catching the liquid in another bowl.
This will separate into a clear liquid with the starch remaining at the bottom. Pour off the liquid and scrape out the starch. Mix with the grated raw potatoes and add the mashed potatoes.
Sieve the dry ingredients and add to the potato mixture along with the melted butter. Add the milk and mix. Add enough milk to obtain a thick pancake batter.
Ladle the batter on a hot pan or griddle with butter or oil. Fry for 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown.
Serve hot with butter or sugar. You can also serve it with an Irish breakfast or a dollop of sour cream topped with chives.