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Sunday Baking: Belgian Biscuits

There’s no denying that the kiwi Belgian Biscuit is an instantly recognisable member of a bakery’s display cabinet. Spiced biscuits, sandwiched with raspberry jam and crowned with pink icing, they’re a sweet treat that were renamed for patriotic reasons during the first World War.

I’ve been intrigued by Belgian biscuits since I read the the story of Jim Fish, a Southland baker who had been baking for sixty years. His secret was to use cassia to spice the biscuits, instead of cinnamon, which is more commonly used. But what’s the difference? Confusingly, cassia and cinnamon both come from the same tree, both from the bark as well. The difference is that cinnamon is the inner bark, has a more subtle flavour, and will coil over itself into a straight telescope, or break into shards. Cassia is the outer bark, tan in colour, and the edges curve inward to the centre like binoculars. It has a more robust flavour, which is why Jim Fish likely recommended it, to give the biscuits more punch.

I used a recipe from one of my older Edmonds cookbooks, possibly from the 60s, which asks for a mix of spice, and doesn’t specify the pink icing on top – instead, it just states that the biscuits be iced and topped with a cherry or angelica.

The name Belgian (or Belgium) comes from after the World Wars, when German foods (places, and people) were renamed with more patriotic or local titles. Belgium biscuits were known as German or Linzer Biscuits, but were quickly renamed in allied countries – becoming the Empire Biscuit in the UK or Belgian/-um in Scotland and New Zealand, in solidarity with the invaded Belgium.

Typically in the UK an Empire biscuit is two rounds of shortbread, topped with white icing and a cherry, making it look like what New Zealand calls a ‘shrewsbury’. In New Zealand, shrewsbury biscuits have a window in the top biscuit to see the jam below. In the UK, shrewsbury biscuits have currants and lemon, can be eaten as a pudding and are an entirely different kettle of fish.

Along the way, kiwi Belgian biscuits acquired a pink icing, or a white icing dusted with raspberry jelly. The recipe I used was from somewhere in the mid-Century, and so still had the white icing decorated with a cherry, leaving them to look quite festive, and a little like a bakewell tart. They lost the shortbread base and became spiced.

I took the chance to dig through some of my other cook books, and found a range of recipes, all on a similar theme of a cinnamon-spiced biscuit, sandwiched with jam and iced:

Belgian Biscuits, fro the Self Help Wartime Cookery book.
Belgium Biscuits from The Victoria League’s Tried Recipes, 5th ed.
Belgian Biscuits, from a book that has lost its cover, so I refer to it as Cookery, as that title sits in the header of each left page.

So there you have it – an incomplete and meandering look at the Belgian Biscuit. I have to confess that the versions I bought to sample while researching this post were actually quite disappointing, so if you’re ambivalent about biscuits I suggest trying an older recipe for some Sunday entertainment and as a much sweeter and tastier treat.

Another bakery-sold Belgian Biscuit.

Plastic-free Cookery: wanna chip bro?

Here in New Zealand, we love our chips. According to Potatoes New Zealand, 71,914 metric tonnes of potatoes were turned into crisps and a further 282,446 metric tonnes of potataoes were turned into chips (meaning french fries and thicker). That’s an insane quantity of snacks that Kiwis have troughed through.

Crisps are a modern phenomenon: a little too complicated for the home cook to waste time and oil over, perfect for street vendors to sell, and when packaged in plastic, the ideal thing to sell to the consumer in supermarkets, dairies, petrol stations, and just about anywhere you could find yourself hankering for a snack. Two of the most recognisable brands in crisps in New Zealand are Eta, founded in 1955; and Bluebird, established in 1953.

In 2016 stuff.co.nz asked New Zealanders to vote for their favourite chip flavour as an influx of new and interesting flavours came to tantalise our tastebuds. Salt and Vinegar and Ready Salted ranked the highest, but some surprises were in store – we were acquiring a taste for chilli, or even along the lines of caramelised onion. My biggest surprise was to see Barbeque poll lower than Chicken flavour, but as you can read in the Spinoff’s ranking of chip flavours, everyone has Opinions.

Poll results for popular chip flavours. As you can see, I’m a fan of Ready Salted.

But it’s crunch time – I made my own crisps. It required purchasing a mandoline and three varieties of potatoes, to test floury against waxy and ‘all purpose’. This is my experience.

Finely slice your potatoes with a mandoline, rinse them, and soak to remove excess starch before drying each individual slice before frying. It’s really important to dry the chips, because water expands explosively in hot oil and can cause bad injuries.

I fried my crisps in canola oil in a deep cast iron pot. They took longer than I expected to cook, around 3-4 minutes per small batch. The absolute success went to the agria potatoes, which fried evenly and had great body to them. The Desiree potatoes were a flop – they absorbed the oil, wouldn’t crisp up (even with ‘drying time’) and became slimy discs of dissatisfation. I was so discouraged I decided against even bothering with the Nadine – the dumb blonde of the potato world – and added my slices to soup the following night in place of noodles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any historic recipes for potatoes in my small collection of cookbooks. They’re a pain to make. The legend of the potato chip/ crisps creation harks back to Saratoga Springs in New York, in 1853 where, as the story goes, a fussy customer kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen, demanding thinner slices until the chef, George Crum, in a fit of spite sliced them so thin and fried them so crisp that he inadvertently delighted his finicky customer. This story has been claimed to be a romanticised lie, with several key facts not aligning. Like many foods, the origins of the potato chip are obscured in time, and likely contributed to and refined by a number of cooks.

The question remains over whether I will quit my chip habit due to their plastic packaging. Proper Crisps now sell a small range in home compostable bags, which I often choose. But while making your own is fiddly and fills your home with the smell of hot oil, I might make a habit of making crisps (outside) for special occasions, to impress my friends just as George Crum is said to have done 150 years ago.

Agria crisps, salted and gobbled up before I could get a pretty picture. Frankly, can you blame me?