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:
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.