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. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Super Simple Sydney Special

I've got the book group coming here tomorrow night, so today I made an old-fashioned slice, Sydney Special. I have no idea where the name comes from. I got the recipe close to fifty years ago from Chris Else's sister Bridget - she and my sister, Susan, were the bridesmaids at our wedding. It used to be a great stand-by for hungry children. I haven't made it for years, partly because I don't usually have any cornflakes, but there was a small bag of them in the pantry so I thought I'd give it a go. It's so easy, it would be a good thing for kids to make themselves.

Sydney Special
(Bridget Else, now Gill)

1 cup cornflakes
1 cup dessicated coconut
1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 dessertspoons cocoa
3/4 cup brown sugar
150g melted butter
Your favourite icing - chocolate is good (as long as it's made with real chocolate), but peppermint or coffee would work well too.

Set oven to 180C/170C fan bake.
Mix all dry ingredients together. Add melted butter and mix well.
Press into a sponge roll tin/shallow baking tin lined with baking paper.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Near the end of the baking, mix icing - for chocolate, melt squares of Whittaker's Dark Ghana in the microwave  and mix it with enough icing sugar, and a little milk, to give a thick but fluid consistency, ready for spreading.
Take out slice, cool a little and cut into squares or little bars.
Spread some icing on each square and leave to cool and harden before putting away. (This is less messy than icing the whole block before you cut it up, and marginally healthier, as it uses about a third less icing.)

So there you are. I actually made double the quantity so I'd have enough for me, Jonathan and our neighbour Frances, as well as for the book group. I think I slightly over-baked it - it was a bit crunchier than I remembered - but yummy all the same. Why are there three missing in the photo? Because we had to test them, of  course, and Jonathan needed two to be sure they were okay.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Mediterranean medley

 I'm appalled to see how long it is since I've done a new post here. Of course I have been cooking, rather a lot, because my son needs decent dinners more than ever - he's juggling part-time teaching and university.  And I seem to have had more than usual to deal with - the groups I belong to have all sprung into action lately, requiring me to do things (all involving writing), rather than just being supportive. So I've had lots of practice at concocting appealing meals which don't require much effort. 
         Saturday night's dinner worked pretty well. I'm calling it "Mediterranean medley" as a kind of homage to those cringeworthy titles so beloved of 1970s magazine recipes stepping out into the then unknown (to most of us) world of foreign food. It was loosely based on Middle Eastern dishes - Jonathan's really keen on them, and I've loved them ever since I discovered Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1972. Here's what I wrote about it in my memoir:
Nancy Spain and Katharine Whitehorn had provided the absolute basics I needed to know, but there was much more to it than that: they were real writers who persuaded me that I could be, like them, a woman writer who cooked properly. In terms of food, Claudia Roden was on another plane altogether. She opened my eyes to a different kind of authenticity, based on intimate knowledge and love of what she was describing. For the first time, I began to understand fully what food, cooking and eating were about.
Only part of what I made on Saturday could be described as authentic, but taken as a whole it worked very well. We had hummus, Greek salad with feta, cucumber, tomato and olives, cucumber with garlic and yoghurt, and pita pockets spread with hummus and garlic mayo (bought) and filled with grilled Angus beef burgers and finely chopped cabbage salad. (Cabbage salad is entirely absent from Claudia Roden's book, but I had a large cabbage and no lettuce, so a bit of invention was called for.)

The hummus I usually make is the most basic kind - and the cheapest (much cheaper than bought hummus, and nicer). I see I've never put the recipe up on the blog, so here it is. Claudia's begins with cooking the chick peas, but thankfully there's no need to do that now - the tinned ones are fine, though you do need to rinse them well.

(Adapted from A New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

1 450g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tsp cumin (optional)
2 large cloves garlic
50-90 ml fresh lemon juice
50 ml olive oil
salt to taste
warm pita bread to serve

Put the garlic in a blender or food processor and process to chop it finely.
Scrape down the bowl and add the chickpeas, cumin, half the lemon juice, half the olive oil and a little salt. Process and taste.
Add more lemon juice, oil and salt until you have the texture and taste you like (it should taste both lemony and a little salty, but not too much so). If it's still a bit thick, you can add a dash of water.
You can serve it with little black olives, a dribble of olive oil or some finely chopped parsley on top.

You can experiment with adding other flavours - ginger, sun-dried tomato - but I really prefer it plain. People often think you need tahina (sesame seed paste)to make hummus, but it's fine (and a good bit cheaper) without it. (Tahina gets a rather rancid taste quite quickly in the fridge, so don't be tempted to save by buying a large amount,as I once did). If you do want to add it, here's a later version of Roden's recipe.

Hummus bi Tahina
From Arabesque, Clauda Roden

1 450g tin of chickpeas
2 lemons, juice of
3 Tbsps tahini
3 garlic cloves
4 Tbsps olive oil

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
2 sprigs parsley, finely chopped

Process the garlic in a blender or food processor until finely chopped.
Drain the chickpeas and rinse well.
Add to the garlic, then add the lemon juice, tahina, garlic, olive oil, and salt.
Process to form a smooth texture.
Taste to check. If it is too thick, or not well flavoured enough, add a little more lemon juice and/or olive oil or salt.
Serve on a flat plate, garnished with a dribble of olive oil, a dusting of paprika and ground cumin (this is usually done in the shape of a cross) and a little parsley.
Serve with warm pita bread for dipping.