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January’s Recipe from the Victorian Kitchen Celebrates Australia Day with Anzac Biscuits

January’s Recipe from the Victorian Kitchen Celebrates Australia Day with Anzac Biscuits

It seemed appropriate to start 2020 by widening our net of Victorian recipes to include one from the Commonwealth, particularly as January 26th is Australia Day – a National Holiday down under. The recipe chosen to be showcased – ANZAC biscuits – is one which is very important to both Australians and New Zealanders. ANZAC stands for Australian New Zealand Army Corps, a term which came into being after the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of World War 1 in 1915. There is a special day of remembrance and commemoration on April 25th each year in both countries.

As with the research of any historical recipe it has not been easy and often there are conflicting stories about its origins. It is no different for these Antipodean biscuits. However, I shall not take ‘sides’ but simply present both and allow you, the reader, to decide which one you think is the ‘truth’

Now onto the biscuit and its history. Apparently, the original recipe, called Rolled Oat Biscuits, appeared round about 1820 and even this is said to be based on a type of Scottish oatcake. Over the whole of the 19th century the recipe changed, evolved and had a number of different names ranging from Surprise Biscuits (no research has shown what the ‘Surprise’ actually was) to Crispies. All these, whatever their name, had roughly the same ingredients but in varying amounts – rolled oats, flour, butter, honey or sugar (or both), a raising agent and water.

It was a popular biscuit, and one that many people were familiar with, so it was an almost obvious choice to be used at the beginning of the First World War to sell to fund raise for the war effort. To help this initiative the name was changed to ‘Red Cross’ or ‘Soldiers’ Biscuits as it was believed that having a ‘war related’ name would stimulate sales.

A military website states that selling these purely for fund raising was the only way that any biscuits were used and they were definitely not sent overseas! However, other articles state that some wives, mothers and daughters were worried about the food being supplied to their fighting men folk, in particular its nutritional value. The problem as they saw it was that the food had to be shipped overseas in slow merchant vessels. These had no refrigeration and what supplies were sent somehow had to remain edible for the two months they were at sea. Obviously being women they came up with an answer – biscuits with all the nutritional value possible.

The recipe they chose was a tried and tested one but there was one key difference. They included coconut, an ingredient missing in the very earliest versions. No eggs were used as many poultry farmers had joined up and eggs were scarce. In order to make sure that the biscuits got to their loved ones in good condition they were packed in airtight tins for example Billy Tea tins.

So now I have given you both conflicting stories! The military give one view; the domestic and home front memories another. However, before you make your mind up as to which story you think is the ‘truth’, there’s one more piece of information to consider.

These ANZAC biscuits should NOT be confused with the Anzac wafer (there was actually little wafer about these). These were supplied to the soldiers in place of bread, most people would know them better by the naval term of hard tack! These tooth breakingly, hard, dry, cardboard type products were best eaten as a porridge mixed with water. The soldiers often referred to them as Anzac Tiles and they were universally hated.

Some stories state that these tiles were so hard they were often slipped into an envelope and sent home with a message written on the back. Some had postcard type – Wish You Were Here or Having A Lovely Time, comments. Others were used as birthday or Christmas Cards. However, there was a serious side to this apparently frivolous use of the hated ‘Tile’. It was also a way of letting those at home see the kind of staple food that soldiers had to eat. Is it this which prompted the womenfolk back home to send out biscuits? Who knows. It is now time for you to decide!

So now back to the biscuits. The very first Anzac biscuit recipe to have this name in print was in 1917 but this cream and jam filled item is a far cry from the biscuit so named and loved today; so different is it, it can be discounted.

Around two years later in 1919 there is a recorded version which appears to be the ‘real’ recipe. This one included coconut and by 1924 the recipe for these biscuits was just about fixed.

Now to the biscuits themselves. Unusually for a recipe which contains relatively few ingredients three different ones will be given. All are similar but with some interesting twists. All state that very little water is required to bind the dry ingredients together to get to a workable consistency.

This first recipe is the Pre-1920 one and doesn’t contain any coconut. It also has an interesting way of incorporating the raising agent (bicarbonate of soda).

Rolled Oat Biscuits

  • 6oz (175g) rolled oats
  • 4 ½ oz (125g) plain flour
  • 3 ½ oz (100g) granulated sugar
  • 4 ½ oz (125g) butter
  • 1 extra large tablespoonful Golden Syrup
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water

 

  1. Light the oven 150C, Gas Mark 3. Line 2 baking trays with baking parchment or silicon
  2. Put the oats, flour and sugar into a bowl. Mix well to distribute all ingredients
  3. Melt the butter, add the golden syrup, stir until fully dissolved, heat until almost boiling
  4. Combine the Bicarbonate of Soda with the boiling water in a small bowl. When dissolved add this to the still hot butter, mix and stir until it froths up
  5. Immediately add this to the dry ingredients and mix together to combine into a stiff dough
  6. Take approximately a teaspoonful of the mixture, roll it into a ball and put onto the prepared baking tray. Allow room as the mixture will spread.
  7. Once all the mixture has been shaped, flatten each ball slightly with a fork
  8. Bake for around 15 – 18 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool slightly before transferring to a cooling tray. Store in an air tight tin

The following is the recipe taken from the Country Women’s Association Cook Book. The CWA is the Australian WI.

Anzac Biscuits

  • 4 ½ oz (125g) sugar
  • 5oz (150g) rolled oats
  • 4 ½ oz (125g) melted butter
  • 1 tablespoon golden syrup
  • 3 ½ oz (100g) desiccated coconut
  • 5oz (150g) flour
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water
  1. Mix all the dry ingredients together
  2. Pour on the melted butter
  3. Add the bicarbonate of soda and the golden syrup melted in the boiling water. Mix well together to form a dough
  4. Drop small pieces of the mixture onto a greased or silicon lined baking tray
  5. Bake in a moderate oven (150C) for 15 – 20 minutes until golden brown
  6. Cool on a cooling tray and then store in an airtight tin

For anyone who can manage another recipe this is one I found for Scottish Oatcakes. It has very similar ingredients to the other two but uses honey as a binding agent. Traditionally this would probably have been the only sweetener used and they more than likely wouldn’t have been very sweet. I also believe that a savoury version, without any sweetening agent would have been made.

Note – This is quite a sweet biscuit and the amount of sugar could easily be reduced if wanted.

The words cake and biscuit were often interchangeable in Victorian times – these are definitely biscuits! Also, the Scots had a recipe called Oatcakes which they ate instead of bread but this is a very different product and is not to be confused with the one below. Finally this is a recipe I make very regularly, it goes well with a cup of tea! The original states that only one tablespoon water is needed. I have never succeeded in binding the mixture together with this. The 4 tablespoons given here works well.

So, for those readers still with me, the recipe is –

Scottish Oatcakes or Biscuits

  • 2 ½ oz (60g) butter
  • 5oz (140g) rolled oats
  • 3 ½ oz (100g) plain flour
  • 3 ½ oz (100g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 very large tablespoon honey
  • 4 tablespoons water
  1. Melt the butter over a low heat
  2. Put the all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl and mix well to distribute evenly
  3. Stir the honey into the melted butter until combined
  4. Add the butter mixture and the water to the dry ingredients. Mix well to form a firm dough
  5. Take small pieces and roll into balls. Place well spaced on a greased or silicon lined baking tray and flatten slightly with a fork
  6. Bake at 150C, Gas Mark 3 for 15 minutes. Remove onto a cooling tray and store in an air tight tin or freeze

Makes about 20 biscuits

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