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Posts tagged ‘Sunday Baking’

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.

Sunday Baking: Tomato Soup Cake

I have a great love of strange and kooky recipes, and honestly fell head over heels with the idea of a tomato soup cake when I spied it on Instagram. Add the fact that my birthday was coming up and I that I have a habit of presenting friends with strange cakes for theirs, it only made sense to bake one and delight terrorise my colleagues.

The recipe is taken almost exactly from the Campbell Soup website, which has a detailed history into the cake’s origins. In my version I substituted the lard for butter, and omitted the raisins.

Soupcake
An earlier recipe and the inspiration
 Tomato Spice Cake

2 Tbsp butter

1 C sugar

2 C flour

1 tsp mixed spice

1x 420ml can condensed soup

1 tsp baking soda

Preheat your oven to 180°C with a shelf set on the middle rung. Butter and line a cake tin and set aside.

Cream the butter sugar and mixed spice until it’s grainy and blended. Sift the flour on top of the sugar blend.

Add the baking soda to the tin of soup and mix until you see the colour change from red to orange, which is caused by tiny bubbles. Baking soda reacts with acid, and the soup has that aplenty. Quickly add the soup to the remaining ingredients and mix until you’re just beyond where you’d mix a muffin: the lumps are gone but it’s not perfectly smooth. Spoon into the cake tin and gently slide into the oven. Bake for around 35 minutes, checking regularly thereafter to test it with a skewer.

The cake will go from Halloween orange to the most beautiful shade of sienna, and your house will smell of sugar, spice and rich tomato: strange, but not in an unwelcome way. The flavour is of rich spice and umami: deep and comforting.

One it is cool, blend 250g cream cheese with 170g icing sugar and the zest and juice of 1 or 2 limes (depending on how big and juicy they are), and ice as you wish.

The best part about strange cakes like this is getting to play with the icing. I opted for a relatively safe cream cheese and lime frosting, but dabbled with the idea of including basil as well. Other temptations included playing up the tomato aspect and dressing it like it was a spiced tomato juice, adding some Worcester sauce to the batter and adding a spicy frosting. Then I went one step further and seriously contemplated adding vodka, à la Bloody Mary. This cake lends itself to play and cream cheese is an excellent companion for the rich flavour.

Soup cake 1
Crumb shot

The recipe first appeared as a depression era recipe somewhere around the 1920s to 30s, and adapted itself well to wartime households with rationing on eggs and butter. Also known as Mystery Cake, the recipe often includes raisins and acts as a spiced fruit cake, which I imagine would work quite well. I didn’t add raisins because I had run out and couldn’t be bothered making a run to the supermarket late at night. I imagine it would be wonderful with fruit, but I love the fact that this version really just lets the tomato sing.

My colleagues all expressed reservations about the cake, and yet by 4pm both had been gobbled up and I had multiple requests for the recipe. Many people went back for seconds and it was even a hit with children, who gobbled it down. I imagine it would be a brilliant birthday cake option for a tomato sauce-obsessed child. We all agreed that the tomato wasn’t unwelcome, in fact it was heartening and moreish. The crumb was beautiful and it was the perfect, toothsome level of moist.

I was worried as the Cambell’s recipe above called for it to be baked for an hour, and some reviews said that even baking for 35 minutes was too long and left the cake dry. My best explanation is that ovens have continued to improve in terms of heat reliability and efficiency and that an hour certainly is too long for a modern oven. That said, you should also spend some time baking so that you can learn the quirks of your oven, and I recommend checking in with a skewer after 30 minutes.

I would absolutely bake this cake again. Modern renditions have become more elaborate, but this is a cake perfect for tight budgets and busy brains. For those watching their intake, a one-twelfth slice of the recipe above (without icing, and it’s still tasty without) comes out at about 860 kilojoules, or 205 calories.

I had my doubts, but I’m sold!

Further reading:

New York Times Mystery Cake

University of Chicago Press

The Enduring Allure of Tomato Soup Cake, The Kitchn