Biscuit Week at The Great Kiwi Baking Blog

With such an iconic New Zealand biscuit set as the Technical on this week’s Great Kiwi Bake Off, it seemed a moral imperative that I share with you all I’ve learned about the Belgium biscuit over the years. 

Biscuit vs Cookie

Last week, in my post on buttermilk biscuits, I told a story about how my expat friend and I unintentionally played a joke on her wee girl by offering her a biscuit, and then handing her something that was, to her knowledge, decidedly un-biscuitlike. So let’s clear up some confusion around the terminology…

Biscuit comes to English from the Latin word for twice (“bis”) and the Latin past participle of the verb to cook (“coctus”). This name describes the original process of baking the dough en masse, then portioning it and leaving the portions to dry out in a low oven for long-term storage. Biscotti has the same root and they are still prepared in this way. 

Cookie, on the other hand, comes to English from the Dutch koekje,which means “little cake”. Originally, koekjereferred to the same baked good that the word biscuitdid. Eventually, however, it came to include products that were softer and rose during baking – just like little cakes. 

I think the etymology of these words gives us good guidelines for when to use biscuit and when to use cookie– guidelines I have even heard my pastry friends from the U.K. and N.Z. echo: if it is crisp and crunchy/crumbly, with very little leavening, then it is a biscuit. If it is softer, chewier, and has risen a bit, then it is a cookie. Thus, you might make chocolate chip cookies but Sante biscuits (also called Kiwi Crisps) – very similar ingredients and general appearance, but one has a bit more chew, the other a bit more crumble.

So instead of seeing the Kiwi use of the word biscuit as a substitution for what I grew up calling a cookie, I see it as a distinction between two similar baked goods, which I like; it more accurately sets my expectation of what I’m about to eat.

As for the confusion with buttermilk biscuits? Well, for that, I typically rely on context and clarification when speaking in the abstract (“today, I’m making biscuits!” “what kind?”) as well as the fact that most biscuits have a name (“today, I’m making Afghans/Ginger Nuts/Anzacs!”) whereas buttermilk biscuits do not. There’s not usually too much confusion when you’re staring at the actual thing, unless you’re a toddler who has never seen a buttermilk biscuit. Then you’re just going to be pissed off.

Belgium vs Belgian:

Still in the world of terminology is the debate over whether the biscuit is named Belgiumor Belgian

In the Belgiumcamp, we obviously have Dean Brettschneider and the Great Kiwi Bake Off as we’ve just seen, but also Kiwi culinary icons Helen Jackson, Joe Seagar, Edmonds (through their Cookery Book), the venerated Aunt Daisy (Maud Basham) of NZ Radio, and Stuff.co.nz

In the Belgian camp, we have Chelsea Sugar, who sponsors the Great Kiwi Bake Off , food writer David Burton, the St Andrews Cookery book (one of the most influential community cookbooks from the early 1900s in New Zealand), Ladies a Plate author Alexa Johnston, the NZ Herald….and Stuff.co.nz. 

That’s right, Stuff can’t seem to make up its mind. In a single article, it switches between Belgium and Belgian:

To be perfectly honest, thanks to the lifted vowels of the Kiwi accent, the two words sound nearly identical to me in a way they do not when I hear them in other accents, so I’ve never been entirely sure what my Kiwi coworkers were saying…and now it seems that they could have been saying either. 

Why Belg-anything?

The name is apparently the result of a long held practice: when a country falls out of favor, food items relating to that country get renamed. During the First World War, the U.K. and it’s allies were at war with Germany, and so many German foods were renamed to get rid of their German origins – in the US sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and frankfurters became “liberty sausage”, in the UK, German biscuits became Empire biscuits and, in NZ, German biscuits became Belgium/Belgian Biscuits and German sausage (a processed meat a lot like boloney in the US) became known – in only some parts of the country, I might point out – as Belgium. You’ll notice, both the US and the UK took the opportunity to rechristen a German food with a name that reflects… well, themselves. New Zealand, on the other hand, chose to rechristen German food after Belgium, supposedly as a tribute to the first country Germany invaded during the war.

So why did New Zealand not follow the UK’s example and call them Empire Biscuits? 

Well, I believe it’s because the German Biscuit in the UK and the German Biscuit in NZ were not actually the same biscuit at the time of the name change. 

Both German Biscuits seems to derive from the Linzer biscuit, which is a biscuit riff on the Linzer torte. The biscuit itself is a shortbread made with flour and ground almonds, the bottom biscuit is covered in jam – traditionally blackcurrant, like the torte, but any jam will do – and the top biscuit has a shape cut out of the center and is dusted with powdered sugar before being placed on top of the jam. The traditional Linzer biscuit, like the Linzer torte usually has some cinnamon in it.

Linzer Biscuits

The Empire/German Biscuit recipes I’ve found – all from UK sources – call for basic shortbread biscuit dough, so no spices added, and both the top and bottom are complete rounds – no cutouts. They are still sandwiched together with jam – usually raspberry, but instead of being dusted with icing sugar, they’re iced with a basic icing made of icing sugar and hot water and usually topped with a glacé cherry. In NZ, they would be called a Shrewsbury biscuit. 

Empire Biscuits

The Belgian/German Biscuit recipes I’ve found – all from New Zealand sources – call for cinnamon like the original Linzer, but also mixed spice and occasionally cocoa powder to be added to a shortbread type dough. Both the top and bottom biscuits are complete rounds and they are also sandwiched together with jam – usually raspberry. They’re iced with the same basic icing made of sugar and hot water, although this is frequently dyed pink these days, and then usually sprinkled over with raspberry jelly crystals or granulated sugar that has been dyed red. 

Belgian Biscuits

So while I agree that all three are very similar in concept and composition, the addition of spice – indeed, more spice than the original Linzer biscuit had – and the change in decoration makes them different biscuits in my mind. 

The Spice of Life

It’s the spices that not only separate the UK German biscuit from the NZ German biscuit, but also makes me wonder if the inspiration for NZ’s German biscuit didn’t only come from the Linzer biscuit. 

See, in the 5th edition of the St Andrews Cookery Book published in 1911, the recipes given for German biscuits call for more than just the cinnamon that would have come from the Linzer biscuit. They also call for mixed spice, which usually contains cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and sometimes cloves, ginger, coriander, and caraway.

Recipes from 1911

This spice blend produces a similar flavour to “Speculaas Spice”, used in Speculaas (or Speculoos, or Spekulatius) biscuits, which contains cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger (also usually cardamom and white pepper). Speculaas biscuits are not sandwich biscuits, but they are a variety of spiced shortbread made in December in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands…and Belgium. 

In the 10thedition of the St Andrews Cookery Book published in 1922, the Table of Contents reflects the name change – German was swapped with Belgian without even being re-alphabetized. 

The 1922 edition only offers one recipe, attributed to a Mrs. Davidson, and it is much the same as the one offered by Miss Shannon in 1911 (perhaps she got married in the 11 years in between?), save for the edition of milk and salt. 

In my mind, this change was undoubtedly a result of Germany falling out of favor as an aggressor during the First World War, but the choice of name could not only be a tribute to Germany’s first invasion but also a reflection on an alternative source of inspiration for the biscuit: “Hey, these spiced cookies are popular in Belgium too, and they just got blind-sided by the Kaiser’s army. Let’s give the credit to Belgium!” 

It also settles my decision on what to call them: they were German biscuits before the war, not Germany biscuits; thus, I will choose to call them Belgian biscuits, and cite the St. Andrews Cookery Book to anyone who questions me. The lunch meat can be Belgium. 

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Up Next: I attempt a classic Belgian Biscuit

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