The Ubiquity of Oat Biscuits

It was recently Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, which was brought to my attention by a surge in the number of Instagram posts prominently featuring oat biscuits. Anzac biscuits are eggless oat biscuits that were historically made by the wives of Australian and New Zealander (what’s the adjective?) soldiers fighting in World War I. This little nugget of commonwealth history, naturally, got me to thinking about oats – a staple ingredient in porridge, biscuits, and even some beer – and just how multitudinous the variety of oat biscuits we humans have available to us is. Everyone from self-proclaimed (and who am I to argue) domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, to Ottolenghi and Mary Berry, from Milk Bar (a symbol of American decadence), to Martha Stewart has a recipe for some sort of oat biscuit. Queen Elizabeth II is also apparently partial to an oat biscuit for breakfast, and a version is also an ol’ faithful from my mom’s side of the family (more on that later). 

Oats have been cultivated all over Europe for thousands of years, but from the 17th century, they became a symbol of Scotland. Barley production in the country declined fairly rapidly to make way for the more versatile and longer-lasting oat – the derided staple grain of the barley-and-wheat-eating Englanders’ inferior neighbours. Samuel Johnson, in a disparaging entry in his 1755 dictionary, defined oats as ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ from which ‘tolerable good bread’ can be made.

The entry on oats in Samuel Johnson’s catchily-titled ‘A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers to which are prefixed, history of the language, and an English grammar: in two volumes.’

Scots must have taken their version of an oat biscuit (called an oatcake) with them to newly-expropriated North America. The first documented recipe for an oat biscuit in the USA (where oatmeal cookies are now the country’s fifth favourite cookie) appeared in 1896, in a voluminous recipe compendium compiled by the rather unfortunately named Fannie Farmer. The recipe appears on page 406 (!!) of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and does not contain raisins – a fact highlighted by a few American oatmeal cookie fanatics who despair at the unfair classification of this biscuit as a health food. Raisins were only introduced to oatmeal biscuit recipes almost a decade later on the packaging of Quaker Oats, a leading American brand of oat-y products. 

Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe for oatmeal cookies.

As a child, one of the biscuits in my English gran’s biscuit repertoire most favoured by me and my cousins was what we called Quaker Oats Biscuits. I understood this to mean that these were oat biscuits originally made by Quakers. This made sense: my gran was from England, Quakers were from England (according to a novel I’d read), oat biscuits seemed decidedly English in their homely deliciousness, and I was only familiar with South African Jungle Oats (not American Quaker Oats). It took me 25 years to figure out my mistake. So here’s my gran’s recipe for Quaker Oats Biscuits, which involve neither Quakers nor Quaker Oats, but are nevertheless an important addition to the plethora of other oat biscuit recipes floating around the interwebs and elsewhere. The only amendments I’ve made to the original recipe is the use of butter over margarine, a slight reduction in the amount of sugar, and the addition of a bit of salt.

1 cup flour

1 cup oats (Jungle Oats, Quaker Oats, rolled oats, etc.)

½ tsp salt

¾ cup sugar (brown or white)

125g unsalted butter

1 tbsp golden syrup (or honey)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda, dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water

Preheat the oven to 180C. Combine the flour, oats, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter with the syrup in a saucepan over a low heat. Once the butter has melted completely, pour it into the dry ingredients along with the bicarb and water mixture. Stir everything together until well-combined – there should be no visible flour, and all the oats should be slightly moistened. Set aside to cool for a couple of minutes while you line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Scoop out about a heaped tablespoon of mixture, roll it into a ball with your hands, then set it down on a baking tray and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Keep going with the rest of the mixture, until you have transformed it all into lovely little pats of buttery, oaty deliciousness. Make sure to leave a good few centimetres between each biscuit. Bake for 12-14 minutes until deep golden.

Note: the photographs in this post were taken by Kabir Dhupelia.

Greek Easter

Greek Easter fare!

As a child, Easter involved hunting for sickly-sweet Beacon marshmallow eggs and other pastel-coloured atrocities, which would inevitably sit uneaten in the pantry for months until my mom threw them away (to make space for the following year’s haul, duh). But for my sister and me (and obviously a few other children with Orthodox connections) this was just the inferior of two Easter celebrations. Due to centuries-long disputes about calendars, Greek Easter usually falls one or two weeks after ‘regular’ Easter. And the Easter goodies that come with this bonus Easter have always been a highlight in the year for me.

Western Easter falls on a lunisolar-determined date within the Gregorian calendar, while Orthodox Easter is determined by the Julian calendar, with the added influence of Passover and the Hebrew calendar. These links also have interesting linguistic relevance: the English word Easter has Germanic roots, related to the month of the goddess Ēostre, in which Easter fell; but the Latin and Greek word for Easter, Pascha, is related to the Hebrew Pesach (Passover). Although the death and resurrection of Jesus happened some time after the biblical Passover occurred in Moses’ time (my Prince of Egypt-based knowledge is unparalleled), it is likely that the two occasions were celebrated concurrently by early Christians as the themes of rebirth and vanquishing death are similar. For people so inclined, Easter is a Big Deal because it serves as proof that Jesus is the son of God and so the food eaten at this time is seen as reminiscent of blood, flesh, sacrifice, rebirth and other lighthearted Old Testament stuff. But for people who are not this way inclined, Greek Easter food is just Real Good, and Real Fun to make. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has made this year’s Greek Easter a particularly strange one. With the usual specialty shops closed, I have resorted to making my own Greek Easter cake (tsoureki) and biscuits (koulourakia) for a celebration in lockdown.

Tsoureki

Tsoureki is a very delicious cake/bread hybrid that is shaped into a braid to rival even the most elegant of Disney princesses. Braided loaves are fairly commonplace across the world, but what makes this one special is its flavour: a sweetish, orangey overtone with a veeery subtle underlying bitterness, achieved by the addition of two (serendipitously alliterative) spices* called mastic and mahleb. Mastic** is the resin from a certain tree, which can be chewed as is, or ground and used as a flavouring as it is here. Mahleb is a little kernel extracted from the pit of a type of cherry, used in a variety of Greek, Turkish, and Armenian dishes. Tsoureki is often braided around eggs which have been hardboiled in vinegar and red food colouring, but this isn’t essential for you to have the complete Tsoureki Experience. Hunting down the ingredients*** and going through the paces of rising and proving and waiting are absolutely worth it for the beautiful loaf you will birth in the end.

*for want of a better term

**from the Greek Μαστίχα (IPA: /mastiχa/), derived from the word for ‘gnaw’/’chew’, which is the origin of the English word masticate. Fun fact Friday. 

***if you’re lucky enough to live in Joburg, you can find everything you need at The Cheese Place on 1st Avenue in Linden.

To make it:

3g mastic and 4g mahleb (you could sub in any spices, like nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom)

200g sugar

20g yeast

100g lukewarm water (not a typo)

35g butter, salted or unsalted

135g milk (also not a typo)

4 eggs, at room temperature

870g bread flour

Zest of 1 orange

1 egg yolk mixed with a splash of water for glazing

Almond slices

Grind the spices with a teaspoon of sugar to a rough powder. Mix the yeast, water, and a teaspoon of sugar in a jug and leave to bloom for 7-ish minutes. Put the milk and butter in a saucepan with the rest of the sugar and melt together over a very low heat. The butter will melt and the sugar will dissolve. Remove from the heat and make sure it’s not too hot – it should be lukewarm. If it isn’t, leave it to cool for a bit. Once you have all your bits and pieces, beat the eggs into the milk mixture, then pour this into a big bowl with the yeast mixture, the flour, spices, and zest. Combine into a dough either with your hands or an electric mixer with a dough hook, then knead for 13-15 minutes. The dough will be slightly soft and no longer sticky. Cover and let it rise for 2-3 hours until doubled in size and you feel a great sense of accomplishment. Once risen, knock it down and divide it into six more or less equal pieces. Roll the pieces into long sausages, then braid three pieces together so that you get two loaves. Cover with tea towels and rise again for another hour or two (until doubled in size and breathtakingly beautiful). Brush with egg wash and scatter over some almond slices, then bake at 160C for about 35 minutes.

This recipe is adapted from the one on MyGreekDish.com

Koulourakia

Koulourakia are deceptively plain-looking biscuits. They’re beige, sometimes topped with sesame seeds, usually shaped like half-arsed braids, and sold by the bajillion in Greek shops year-round. But they are not to be cast aside in favour of more attractive Greek biscuits (THE VERY NOTION). They are the crumbly, buttery biscuits of your dreams and once you’ve eaten them you will never look at baklava again.

To make them:

150g granulated sugar

Zest of 1 orange

115g butter, softened

2 eggs

60ml milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 cups flour (my apologies to the metric system)

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg yolk mixed with a splash of water for glazing

Sesame seeds

Beat together the sugar, zest, and butter until light, pale and fluffy (this will take about five minutes). Add the eggs one at a time, beating until completely emulsified after each addition. Beat in the milk and vanilla, then add the dry ingredients in batches until a soft dough (more like a veeeery thick batter) forms. Let it sit, covered, for 20 mins. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 200C and line two or three baking trays with baking paper. Roll out your biscuits: I used 1.5 tablespoons of dough per biscuit, rolled into a rope about 21cm long, then twisted around itself; but you could do any shapes you want. You do you. Brush your biscuits with the egg wash, and sprinkle over some sesame seeds if you want. Bake for 10-20 minutes, depending on the shape and size of your biscuits. Mine took about 13 minutes to cook. They should be lovely and golden and perfect when they’re done. Let them cool completely before devouring.