Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Anzac biscuits: the true story

What else could turn up on the blog today but Anzac biscuits? I wrote about them back in April 2011, just a few months after Harvey died, and gave Lois Daish's recipe (below).
        They've stayed firmly in our repertoire of national recipes not only because of their historical associations, but also because they're distinctive, easy to make, and delicious. However, as is often the case, there's a good deal of confusion about their history.
         
Anzac troops at Gallipoli did get a kind of biscuit as a major part of their appallingly inadequate diet. (To see just how bad it was, have a look at this remarkable 2013 article.) They were sometimes referred to as "the ship's ANZAC biscuit", but they had nothing to do with the ones we know now. They were made in Britain, so by the time they got to Gallipoli they were rock hard and bone dry. 

Aussie soldier Sydney Loch recalled trying to eat them:
“For supper we had nothing more than those tough square biscuits given to us as rations – they were so hard a man could break his teeth on them.  I had three days provisions with me, but was warned that they might have to last for five days.  So I took care not to dip too deeply into my provision bag.  Someone offered me the bottom of a can of tea, which helped to wash those tough biscuits down.”
(Loch, Sydney. To Hell and Back: The banned account of Gallipoli, Sydney, NSW: Harper Collins, 2007, p.89.)

New Zealand army biscuit sometimes turned up with reinforcement drafts, and the first historian of Gallipoli, Major Fred Waite, noted that it was much better: white, easy to eat and pleasant tasting.
            The idea that Gallipoli soldiers were sent Anzac biscuits baked by New Zealand women is a myth, although the Army Museum says there is some evidence that "a rolled oats biscuit was sent to troops on the Western Front, although this was not widespread". 
             Dozens of what came to be called Anzac biscuits were indeed baked here. But instead of being sent overseas, most were "sold and consumed at fetes, galas, parades and other public events at home, to raise funds for the war effort".
              Dr Helen Leach, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Otago, is the recognised authority on the traditional Anzac biscuit (as well as pavlova). In 2014 the Aussies tried to claim that they had found the first published recipe (1921, in the Melbourne Argus). But Helen (I can call her that, as I have the pleasure of knowing her) points out that a remarkably similar recipe for "Anzac Crispies" was published in New Zealand in 1919, in the eighth edition of the St Andrew's Cookery Book. 
               She believes that feelings were running so high after the 1915 Gallipoli landing that Red Cross women on fund-raising stalls back in New Zealand probably changed the name of already existing "rolled oat crispies" to boost sales. I reckon this is by far the most convincing explanation of how the name came about.


Anzac biscuits 
(from A Good Year, Lois Daish, 2005)

170g caster sugar
130g flour
100g rolled oats
60g dessicated coconut
100g butter
3 tablespoons golden syrup
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
4 tablespoons boiling water

- Preheat oven to 160C (on fanbake if you have it) and line two baking trays with baking paper.
- Put sugar, flour, oats a nd coconut into a large bowl and mix well.
- Put butter and golden syrup in a small pot over gentle heat until melted.
- Put baking soda in a cup and pour the boiling water over it. Stir until dissolved and add to melted butter and syrup.
- Pour this hot fluffy mixture into the dry ingredients and stir very thoroughly.
- Use your hand to form the slightly crumbly mixture into a mass. Form balls about the size of a small walnut and place onto the lined trays, leaving enough room for spreading. Press each ball lightly with a fork and put in the oven. (A friend told me to dip the fork in water first so it doesn't stick to the biscuits.)
- After 5 minutes, open the oven and you'll see that the biscuits have flattened and puffed up. Give each tray a gentle bang to deflate the biscuits - you may need to do this again after another minute or two. (Actually, mine didn't seem to puff up, but I did make them too big and I think I was a bit light on the flour, they really spread out.)
- Total baking time about 10 minutes."When ready", says Lois, "the biscuits will be a light chestnut brown and will still feel slightly soft when pressed." 
- Take out of the oven, leave to cool for a minute or two, then transfer to a rack to harden and cool. (I just carefully lift off the whole sheet of baking paper and put that on the rack with the biscuits still on it.)
- Store in an airtight container. 

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