Celebrating St. Patrick of Ireland and Iowa: Oaten Honeycomb

Thursday, March 17, 2011 22 comments

Oaten Honeycomb

An Irish Recipe
(from Cooking at the Irish Settlement, Parish of St. Patrick's Church, Cumming IA)

4 cups love
2 cups loyalty
3 cups friendship

Take love and loyalty and mix thoroughly with faith; blend with tenderness, kindness and understanding. Add hope, sprinkle abundantly with laughter and bake with sunshine. Serve generous helpings daily to family, friends and all you meet.

It is St. Patrick's Day, but instead of wearing the green, I am feeling blue.

In a country where practically every barangay, village, town, city and province has a patron saint (or two!) and a festival to match, one would think there would be plenty of room for one of the most well-known in the world. Alas and alack, St. Patrick of Ireland and his feast day barely register in the Philippines. Hereabouts, the only green is on palm trees, Guinness can't hold a glass to San Miguel and corned beef comes in a can. So, on this day when everyone claiming membership among the Irishforaday is hoisting a pint, I sip from a mug of nostalgia as I reach back across the Pacific and into the heartland of America for a bit of Irish inspiration.

Ireland in Iowa

I shouldn't be so surprised to find that Paddy's Day is less than a big to-do in the 'Pinas. The great era of global Irish emigration in the mid-19th century saw those fine folk scattering to all corners of the globe, including Mexico, the Caribbean, South Africa and Australia, but sadly stopping short of the Philippines. The vast majority, escaping the hardship brought about by the Irish Potato Famine during the 1840s, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and settled throughout Canada and the United States. Most Irish newcomers flocked to America's urban centers, particularly in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, but a significant and hardy portion chose to build new lives and communities in the open fertile plains of the Midwest. Among them were intrepid farming families who settled in the Madison and Warren counties of Iowa in the mid-1850s and formed what would come to be known simply as The Irish Settlement.

The Settlement was not a town per se, but rather a cultural, social and spiritual community comprised of residents from four towns in two counties:
"It will now be seen that the Irish Settlement is not a very small place.... Of course there are many people of different nationalities in their midst, Americans, Germans and others, all living in harmony and brotherly love together, as all men should do... Cheerful hospitality can be found among the Irish settlers and their descendants, and as freely given as on any part of the globe."
-- James Gillaspie, one of the earliest Irish Settlement residents, 19 March 1907

St. Patrick's Church in Cumming, Iowa

The heart of the community was Irish, however, and the soul of this Irish community is the Catholic Church. As the Settlement grew, a place of worship was needed to serve the families' faith and, in 1853, St. Patrick's Church was built. What was a simple structure of logs was rebuilt in 1868 and still stands to this day - a plain whitewashed building, unadorned save for the stained glass window set into its steeple and an iron across atop it. Inside, the sanctuary has served parishioners in countless baptisms, communions, weddings and funerals, while outside, in the wide expanse of the churchyard, well-tended gravestones mark the resting places of the Settlement's first residents and their descendants. Perhaps the parish's most shining moment came in 1979, when Pope John Paul II chose to visit what he called "a small, unpretentious church [at] the center of a group of family farms, a place and a symbol of prayer and fellowship, the heart of a real Christian community..." during his American pastoral visit (Cooking).

A Family Place

For over 140 years, St. Patrick's has been a cornerstone in the lives of its congregation, including Mr. Noodle's family. My mother-in-law was born and raised in this community, in a small farmhouse just beyond the church. Among a record of the Irish Settlement's earliest residents, there is a 'Jas. Davitt' - her mother's maiden family name - who arrived before 1860; though I have not confirmed it, perhaps he is the earliest Davitt in the area. Although it is inevitable that new generations move away in search of their place and fortune elsewhere, just as their pioneering ancestors did, many of the Irish Settlement's young return to keep the community as vibrant and strong as it has been. Mr. Noodle, his siblings and his cousins, though scattered throughout the United States, still find their way back to Iowa on special occasions both joyous and somber to reconnect with each other and their history.

The family farm house

Church and Kitchen

In the meantime, there are other ways to keep those bonds intact. Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a copy of Cooking at the Irish Settlement, published by the parishioners of St. Patrick's Church and containing favorite recipes from their families. Among the stalwart recipes for Sweet Potato Casserole, Potatoes and Pepper Steak, and Rhubarb Pudding, there's a lovely anecdote about St. Patrick's famous Chicken Dinners that captures the essence of this tight-knit community:
"Each family would provide 6 chickens, fried, no larger than 4lbs each, 5 pies, double crust only, and 1 gallon of cooked and peeled potatoes... The children of those years remember lots of fun [and] Father Jim Kiernan remembers this dinner as the best food he ever had!" (Cooking, 177)
Though there was plenty to choose from, I turned to the very first chapter, entitled "Irish Favorites", for a Paddy's Day dish and found the intriguingly named Oaten Honeycomb, a steamed pudding made with oatmeal, flavored with raisins and orange peel, and sweetened with honey. With all the ingredients readily available, I knew that it was the perfect recipe to make for this day celebrating all things Irish. So, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'd like to honor St. Patrick's Church and the Irish Settlement in Iowa with this Oaten Honeycomb.

In addition to being a tribute, this steamed pudding proudly marches in the 2nd (hopefully) Annual Paddy's Day Parade 2011, hosted by the Über Tuber herself, Aiofe of The Daily Spud! There's plenty of room along the parade route, so please head over to see what Guinness-fueled inspiration can create. And if that's not enough to sate your appetite for Irish goodies, be sure to check out the inaugural parade of 2010.

Erin go Bragh!

Cooking at the Irish Settlement. (compiled by the parishioners of St. Patrick's Church). Deep River, IA: Brennan Printing. 1999.
History of Des Moines Diocese. Diocese of Des Moines (Iowa) website. www.dmdiocese.org
History of the Irish Settlement. IAGenWeb Project website. www.iagenweb.org
Wikipedia/Irish diaspora

Oaten Honeycomb
(from Cooking at the Irish Settlement, Parish of St. Patrick's Church, Cumming IA)

There was little information to be found online about this honeyed dish, other than it is of Northern Ireland provenance and is served either for breakfast or as a dessert. However, I did find a website with a recipe very similar to the one given in Cooking at the Irish Settlement; it credited the dish to one Roberta Colbert (b. 1884) of County Offaly, Ireland, as found in the classic cookbook of traditional Irish fare, A Taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures, by Theodora Fitzgibbons. The exact same recipe also turned up in yet another website, this time attributing its origins to an unnamed monastery and dating back to 362 AD! Unfortunately, as I do not have access to Ms. Fitzgibbons book, I can't confirm the accuracy of either attribution and have found little else on the web. If you are familiar with this dish or have access to a copy of A Taste of Ireland, please feel free to shed some light on this honeycomb.

As mentioned, this is a steamed pudding made of oatmeal, raisins, citrus zest and honey. Unlike many traditional puddings, such as the spectacular Auntie Ev's Plum Pudding made by Jenni of Online Pastry Chef, which require hours and hours of steaming, this recipe calls only for about an hour and a half. I do not have a proper 'pudding basin' (essentially a high heat-resistant bowl that serves as a mold for puddings), so instead I used small glass bowls in which to steam the mixture, using online instructions to convert them for that use. The result was a delicately flavored and satisfyingly moist dessert with a bit of oat-y chewiness. Best of all, it is only as sweet as you'd like - simply drizzle honey over it to your taste.

Unfortunately, I do not have permission to reprint the complete recipe from Cooking at the Irish Settlement. Instead, please check out the very similar recipes in the links above or try this one.


Ground almonds
Egg yolks
Orange zest
Egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks

To make:

Bring the milk to a boil and add the oatmeal, stirring for about 5 minutes. Let cool, then add the remaining ingredients except egg whites; mix very well. Gently fold in egg whites, then pour mixture into a buttered pudding basin (or other high heat-proof bowls). Place in a large pot and add water until it reaches halfway up the bowl; cover and steam for 1 and 1/2 hours. When done, remove from the water bath and turn out onto a plate. Serve hot, topped with cream and a generous drizzle of honey.


  • Lori said...

    Oh wow, I've not had this before. Sounds wonderful! It was the same way in Brazil. Major Catholic country, no sign of St. Paddy's Day. Hang in there! That's what food blogs are for. You can celebrate with us!

  • Daily Spud said...

    Beautifully told, as ever, TN, and even though the locals where you are may not be given to raising a glass to St. Patrick, you know you're always welcome at my virtual table. And of course it goes without saying that your steamed pudding takes pride of place on that table today.

  • Jenni said...

    As always, TN, you have written a beautiful post. I tend to always well up a little when I read your writing--it's just so good. And especially when you said you were feeling blue and sipping from a mug of nostalgia. Sniff.

    Just lovely. And this little oaty guy looks so cool. And after the Plum Pudding Extravaganza, believe me, I'm happy to only steam him for 1 1/2 hours!

    Happy St. Paddy's Day, friend. I think nostalgia and oaten honeycomb go perfectly together. :)

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    Hey Tangled - This steamed pudding looks very tasty and oats...very Irish! To be totally honest St Patricks Day was much more celebrated amongst my friends in San Francisco than here in London (I never really thought of it as a Catholic holiday, but here in England I know that part of history may have a more significant effect) - though at home it was mostly and excuse to be a silly drunk leprechaun and eat corned beef. I've learned a bit more about the true meaning of St Paddy's Day through you and Daily Spud's post on Boulder Locavore.
    Is there no Irish pub where you are at? I feel like every town outside of Ireland has an Irish pub no matter what part of the world =)!

  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    That's what I thought so... I don't remember celebrating St. Paddy's day over there. I actually talked about it in my corned beef post that yeah i don't remember doing the irish jig over there hihi.
    Im sure you miss "home" a lot especially during occasions such as this... but boy are we lucky that we could cook up something in our kitchen that sends us back home... or a glimpse of it.

  • Unknown said...

    I completely failed to produce a good Irish dish this year! My ancestors must be so ashamed.;) Next year, I'll do better. The oats, honey, orange zest, and raisins in this pudding sound great! The whipped cream on top is a delicious touch too.

  • Pretty Pauline said...

    I love history, and I love this post! I was just learning about the Irish potato famine literally last week, so I am delighted to follow your link. :) Your blog is a treasure to find today!

  • My McDonald Meal said...

    What a wonderful post! So glad I found your blog via FakeFoodFree! This recipe sounds great too- will have to search for the full recipe ASAP! My family would love this for breakfast.

  • Midge said...

    This looks like a gloriously stodgy pudding to have after a Lenten Friday dinner of fish and veg. I daresay it'd taste fab with a good scoop of vanilla ice cream instead of the cream?

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hope you've all recovered from St. Patrick's Day festivities!

    Conor - These puddings definitely deserve all credit for helping to dissipate the blues! 8-)

    Lori - Being part of Daily Spud's Paddy's Day Food Parade helped tremendously - I did indeed make me feel as if I were part of a large party! 8-)

    Daily Spud - Many thanks for including me in the Parade! Now that I know what to expect, I'll be better prepared to take matters into my own hands and ensure more festivities next Paddy's Day in Manila. Perhaps I'll start a trend... 8-)

    Chef E - You are so sweet! Thank you!! 8-)

    Jenni - I do know how to throw an excellent pity party! 8-) You know how much I loved your Plum Pudding post and recipe but it IS rather daunting to make. This was my own little piece of the particular heaven known as steamed puddings...8-)

    Anh - Thank you! St. Patrick's Day is really more of an American holiday than anything else, yet I was a bit surprised to learn that it's celebrated in unexpected places (like Japan). Thanks to the blogosphere, I'm sure it'll catch on as another reason to cook, eat and party!

    Pigpigscorner - Thank you! I can't say that I've tasted enough hours-long steamed puddings to make a proper comparison, but own its own merits, Oaten Honecomb was tasty and satisfying! 8-)

    Penny - All's well now and better prepared for next year! And thanks for the reminder that this would make a great basis for a simple Christmas pudding! 8-)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Gastroanthropologist - There's a (supposed) English pub just down the road from our apartment, but other than that, I haven't come across anything remotely Irish-y. I haven't even found anyplace that sells Guinness or Jameson's whisky! 8-( But that's all right - moving is all about adaptation, right? I just had to find another way to celebrate the day. This Oaten Honeycomb helped ease the pining for Paddy's Days past... 8-)

    Malou - Yes! Although I am quite happy in our new home, I do still find myself referring to Minnesota as 'home' and sorely missing certain things that we used to do there. But I keep reminding myself that there's great events here that aren't celebrated elsewhere - like the upcoming Moriones Festival. So, I'll count my blessings, eat some Oaten Honeycomb and make the best of everything! 8-)

    Kat - I hadn't heard of it either, until I saw the recipe in the cookbook (I'd always skipped the Irish Favorites part in favor of the desserts and baked goods sections). It turned out quite tasty, if I may say so myself, but I do wish there had been more information about its origins, etc. 8-)

    Lisa - I don't have a droplet of Irish in me and yet I definitely feel an affinity for Ireland and the Irish. Hoping that someday soon, my husband and I will be able to visit again. I'm sure your ancestors will cut you some slack...until next year! 8-)

    Joy - Thank you so much! I was pleased with how well it turned out in flavor, too. 8-)

    5 Star Foodie - I hope you do! In exchange, I will definitely try out your brown bread ice cream - perfect because it is now summer season and the days are scorchingly hot! 8-)

    Pretty Pauline - Thank you so much for reading! The whole history of the famine and the subsequent Irish migration is so compelling. Even thought the Iowa Irish Settlement is just one small group out of the millions who migrated, their story is fascinating and I love that, in some way through my husband's family, I'm connected to them. 8-)

    My McDonald Meal - I love Lori and her blog! This recipe is easy and relatively quick. Because I made single portions in individual bowls, I was able to refrigerate some and eat them over the following days - I simply made sure to cover them with wax, or parchment paper, then popped them into the microwave oven for about 1 minute. They were piping hot and as moist as when they first came out of the oven! I hope you'll give the recipe a go. 8-)

    Midge - Ice cream would be so perfect!! As I noted, the pudding is not overly sweet and should be served hot, so vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of honey (or maybe even maple syrup?) would be delicious. 8-)

  • nazarina said...

    Hi Tangled have not been over to visit in a while! This post is just beautifully written, dear! Don't be so blue!This is indeed a very unique oaten honeycomb pudding, beautifully made & love the extra love with the dollop of cream on top!

  • sophia said...

    That cake sounds really good and wholesome...too bad no recipe, but maybe I'll develop my own! I loved the "recipe" you posted up on top though...hee hee.

    I have a friend who is from Ireland and he told me somewhat about the famine...the only thing he knew was that it was the reason why his family moved to America, though.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Nazarina - Hi! I also haven't been over to your site in a very long while, so I definitely owe you one. Thank you so much - paging through the cookbook, looking at the photos of Iowa and making this dish all helped me to get over the fact that St. Pat's Day was quite this year. 8-)

    Sophia - It is very good and wholesome. I particularly like that it is not too sweet, but if you are so inclined, adding as little or as much honey makes it suit to your taste.

    I couldn't post the recipe as it appears in the book because I followed it verbatim and do not have permission from the publisher/authors. However, if you click the links in the paragraphs above the 'Ingredients' list, they will take you to recipes that are virtually identical to the one I used. Hope you give it a try! 8-)


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