One of the first things you learn about writing stories based in the United Kingdom is that what Americans call a certain item is not necessarily what the British call it. To name all the differences would take too long. Besides, if you are a Jane Austen fan, you probably know most of them already. However, lately I learned something new about British biscuits (cookies to us in the States) and thought I would share it with you. First, here is the Oxford Dictionary’s explanation of the difference between a cookie and a biscuit, from the British and American perspective:
Biscuit: In the UK, your biscuit might be topped with chocolate or have currants in it. You might dip it in your cup of tea, or have one as a snack after lunch. If you were in the US, you might put bacon and eggs on it or smother it in gravy and have it for breakfast. Or you might put a piece of chicken on it and have it for dinner.
How did these two very different meanings come to be? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word biscuit comes originally from the Latin biscotum (panem), which means bread “twice baked,” which would explain the hard, crunchy quality of a British biscuit. An American biscuit is similar to what the Brits would call a scone (and an American scone is something else entirely). It’s unclear how these two different foods came to have the same word, and we can only speculate about the influence of the French language in the southern United States.
Cookie: The word cookie opens up a whole other can of worms. In the UK, a cookie is a soft, squishy, moist biscuit, for lack of a better word. British cookies tend to be bigger and more substantial than a British biscuit. In the US, a cookie covers both what the British would call a biscuit and a cookie. The word comes from the Dutch koekje, meaning “little cake,” and could have been popularized in the US through the early Dutch colonization, though we don’t know for sure.
So, a British biscuit is an American cookie and an American cookie is a British cookie and an American biscuit is a British scone and an American scone is something else entirely. Simple!
Now that you have mastered all of that, allow me to continue. While watching the made for television movie Death Comes To Pemberley, I noticed that when Mrs. Reynolds was showing Mrs. Darcy what food was to be served at the ball, she mentioned “Prince of Wales” biscuits. I thought nothing of it, for who has not heard of foods named after kings, queens and even celebrities. Anyone care for a slice of Napoleon?
However, a friend shared a link to a lovely blog, Food History Jottings, which opened up a whole new side of biscuit-making for me. That is the practice of using stamps to mark the biscuits for celebrating historic events and/or the monarchy. I knew about cookie cutters, but I had no idea there were stamps. These little tools stamped biscuits with printed motifs by hand before mechanised processes took over during the course of the nineteenth century
Below is a picture of Prince of Wales Biscuits and the recipe.
Prince of Wale’s Biscuit
1 lb butter and 3lb 8ozs of flour. To be mixed the same as hollow biscuits; and to be stamped with the prince’s feather; they must be pricked with a fork; and baked in rather a slower oven. From Joseph Bell, A Treatise of Confectionery (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1817).
This fine stucco of the Prince of Wales Feathers adorns the space above the back entrance to the prince’s kitchen wing at Brighton Pavilion. This emblem was the motif printed on the Prince of Wales biscuits.
York Biscuits were invented to commemorate the marriage of the Duke to Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia in 1790 and continued to be made well into the twentieth century. A picture of a boxwood York stamp is included below.
Duchess of York’s Biscuits
1 lb butter, 8 oz. of sugar, 3 lb of flour. Rub the butter into the flour; then add the sugar, and mix it up into a stiff paste with milk; rolle the paste out about a quarter of an inch thick, they must be cut square and stamped with a proper stamp of the happy union and baked in a good oven. From Joseph Bell, A Treatise of Confectionery (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1817).
Lastly, here is a biscuit stamp with a strong connection to George III, father to all three brothers – the Prince Regent, the Duke of York and the Duke of Clarence. It is carved with a royal crown and engraved with the words Royal Volunteers Biscuit. The use of the long s, rather like an f, dates this print prior to 1810. Volunteer militias were raised throughout Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, and perhaps these biscuits were enjoyed in the officers’ mess with a glass of wine.
The pictures below depict the biscuit making process. First, the dough is rolled out and cut into strips using the rolling pin as a ruler. The other illustrates how the biscuit prints or stamps were used.
In addition to stamps, every kitchen drawer in the Regency period also housed a docker, which was a device for punching tiny holes into the biscuits to stop them from bubbling up. Many of the biscuit prints, like those discussed above, also incorporated their own little docking nails to combine the two steps.
The biscuit in the centre has not been docked correctly and has blown up into a bubble. It will, therefore, easily flake and fragment, making it no good for keeping (but great for eating right away!).
This is just the kind of information I love to discover in my research. If you have time, be sure to check out the Food History Jottings blog at the link below. It may inspire you to do some biscuit/cookie baking of your own.
Now, I leave you with a picture from this blog showing a large selection of biscuits and a giveaway. In the foreground are millefruit biscuits, sweetmeat biscuits, filbert biscuits and rolled wafers. The round biscuits on the plate in the middle printed with the feathers emblem are Prince of Wales biscuits. In the background can be seen some spice biscuits and more rolled wafers.
Have I made you hungry? I hope so, for I am giving away two Kindle E-books of THE LITTLE BOOK OF SCONES from Grace Hall and Liam D’Arcy. I chose this book instead of a book on biscuits, simply because I like the author’s name! Just comment before midnight Saturday to be in the drawing to win a copy.
Most of the information for this post is from: http://foodhistorjottings.blogspot.ca/2013/05/some-regency-biscuits.html?utm_source=feedly