Have you had your biscuit today?

Have you had your biscuit today?

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!

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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

 

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53 COMMENTS
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Diana
Diana
June 25, 2019 7:13 AM

This was fun reading. Looking at the recipes they seem to be variations on shortbread. Is that an accurate observation? Also there is a growing convention among JAFF authors that Elizabeth loves lemon biscuits or cookies – or, in fact, anything lemon. I do too, but wonder about what lemon recipes (receipts) might be available from the period.

Jessica Borgsmiller
Jessica Borgsmiller
January 24, 2017 12:32 PM

Thank you for this article! I was watching Death Comes to Pemberly for the 3rd time and I wanted to know what the biscuits Mrs. Reynolds was talking about. I especially appreciate the recipes as I have been a long time cook but am just getting involved in baking and ice cream making!

I look forward to reading more of your articles!

Sheila L M
Sheila L M
August 12, 2015 12:56 PM

I have 3 cookie presses which came with a hole on one side so as to enable the owner to hang on the wall between uses. Liked reading of all the traditional recipes and designs. Don’t bake as much now that my “kids” moved out.

Joana Starnes
August 11, 2015 7:44 PM

Catching up with the posts I missed while we were away. Yours was so yummy. Never knew quite so much about biscuits and cookies. Thanks!

Rose Fairbanks
Rose Fairbanks (@rosefairbanks)
August 9, 2015 10:03 PM

Nice post! Now I’m hungry!

Deborah Fortin
August 9, 2015 1:46 AM

Really interesting. Thank you for sharing.

rebeccajamison
rebeccajamison (@rebeccajamison)
August 8, 2015 11:31 AM

You’re always teaching me something I didn’t know. This was really fascinating. My mom had several antique cookie presses when I was growing up, but we never used them. Now I understand better how they were used.

schilds
schilds
August 8, 2015 12:38 AM

How neat. Food used to really have meaning and was interesting along with tasty. Not so much anymore with the invention of the microwave and the big mac. Thanks for the giveaway.

Betty Ellis
Betty Ellis
August 7, 2015 12:45 PM

Very informative! Your post gave me some answers that I’d been meaning to learn more about.

barbsilkstone
barbsilkstone (@barbarasilkstone)
August 7, 2015 5:44 AM

Hi Brenda, What a lovely post. This was so much fun to read. One of my favorite delicacies is clotted cream with or without the scones. I don’t have a sweet tooth and so the unsweetened cream is heavenly for me. Thank you so much for this fun read.

junewilliams7
junewilliams7
August 6, 2015 8:54 PM

That Prince of Wales biscuit sounds awfully plain – flour and butter, no sugar or salt – almost like a pie crust. The Duchess of York’s biscuits sound more like our shortbread, and I’d happily eat that. Thanks for the post, Brenda!

Ginna
Ginna
August 6, 2015 4:24 PM

Hi Brenda, I knew about the difference between biscuits and cookies, and the others. I still would like to know what a Digestive is! And regarding Ceri’s post – I grew up eating cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which sound an awful like clotted cream and jam, so I suppose that must be where the idea came from.
Please do not include me in the drawing for the giveaway. Sadly, the book would be wasted on me.

Ceri
August 6, 2015 4:56 PM
Reply to  Ginna

A digestive biscuit is just a variety of biscuit, I believe they are very similar to your Graham cracker.

Ceri
August 6, 2015 6:36 PM
Reply to  Brenda Webb

Hi Brenda, yes, we have crackers. You’d usually have them with cheese. I should think the most usual ones would be cream crackers, water biscuits and Ritz crackers. I will just google to see what they are similar to over the pond… apparently a cream cracker is like a ‘matzo’, whatever that is, LOL. Cream crackers have been around since late 1800s. Cream crackers aren’t creamy at all, they are dry and flaky and if you have them with nothing on them soon your mouth will be dry and you’re spitting crumbs! They are fine with cheese though, or even better, cheese spread. Similar are water biscuits which apparently are the same as your ‘table water biscuits’. I prefer a Ritz cracker with cheese myself, which apparently are American, from the 1930s.

You can get so many more crackers than you could when I was a kid, back then it was Ritz or Jacob’s cream cracker and that was pretty much it, but now they have lots more varieties available, in fact, I had chive flavoured crackers with cheese spread for my lunch today 🙂

Eva E
Eva E
August 6, 2015 2:35 PM

When I was a on a semester abroad in London, I ordered grilled cheese and a cookie. The waitress stared at me and then said, “one toasted cheese and a biscuit”! Thank you for the fascinating article, and I, too, would have chosen the same book because of the author. I like you books, Brenda. Please keep them coming! Thank you for the giveaway.

Diana J Oaks
AuAu
Diana J Oaks (@dianaoaks)
August 6, 2015 12:05 PM

Yes, you have made me hungry. Trying not to think too much about cookies, biscuits, scones and such. I may have to hold an unscheduled tea party to get this post out of my system!

Linda A.
Linda A.
August 6, 2015 9:44 AM

So where do crackers stand ? The docked biscuits look like round soda crackers. Way too confusing!

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
August 6, 2015 9:26 AM

Oh Yummy! Those pictures are making me drool! I love that you clarified here. I have been struggling with visuals of UK Biscuits and this is perfect. Carma and i will be over for tea later this afternoon. Be sure to have plenty of biscuits on hand. Jen

carylkane
August 6, 2015 8:43 AM

Thank you for the yummy post!

Betty Campbell Madden
Betty Campbell Madden
August 6, 2015 8:29 AM

I find scones and cream to be my favorite treat in England. It’s difficult to find the Devonshire cream in most parts of the US, although I finally found some for a potluck luncheon the Iowa JASNA Chapter held earlier this year. Oh, so delicious with homemade scones and fruit. Where did I find it you ask? On Amazon, of course. And if you elect to order some, compare the prices and shipping. I found one site offered nearly three jars for a pittance more than others did for one, in which instance the shipping was more than the single jar. One other tip: While the recommendation is against freezing because it separates much as whipping cream will, the expiration date of several days hence is meaningless if the cream is stored in a very cold part of the refrigerator. I opened a bottle that was at least two months past just recently, and it was fine. I look at the date as meaning once it’s opened, one must nibble throughout the day or two on scones and cream, lest the cream should otherwise happen to go bad.

I would certainly like to win this recipe book.

Carmalee
Carmalee
August 6, 2015 8:13 AM

Fascinating post here Brenda.. yes American scones are very different.. thanks for sharing

Ann Todd
Ann Todd
August 6, 2015 8:04 AM

Thanks for a very interesting article. I made my first scones last spring when we held a tea party at my church. They were enjoyed by all.

Vesper
August 6, 2015 7:09 AM

The major ones for me our that the British (and us ex-British) call it autumn, Americans call it Fall, we have a ground floor in our homes, you call it a first floor, we have murder you have homicide. And clotted cream (lovely) is not the same as cream cheese

chatty1082
August 6, 2015 6:05 AM

Love all these little tidbits of info. It’s quite fascinating! Love baking and have been wanting to make scones. Thanks Brenda

Ceri
August 6, 2015 2:33 AM

Oh Brenda, what an interesting post, though I am left wondering what on earth an American scone is. Usually here biscuits are crunchy and cookies are soft, like you say, although I think cookies might be a fairly recent import from you guys. I need a stamp for biscuits, they look so good!

Mary Ann, clotted cream is the consistency of cream cheese but it doesn’t have the tang, it is just very thick cream. You can feel your arteries hardening when you eat it! You would spread it on a scone (British usage of word!) with some jam and probably have a nice cup of tea to wash it down. A cream tea (scones, jam, clotted cream to eat, tea to drink) is very popular here, particularly in the South West, and in the neighbouring counties of Devon and Cornwall they argue over whether the jam goes on the scone first or the cream! I would recommend the Cornish way (jam first) 🙂

Kathy Berlin
Kathy Berlin
August 6, 2015 12:50 AM

I loved this. I knew some of the differences but the fun is in the details. Panera Bread makes lovely mini scones that look like the ones you get when you go to a tea room. I get lemon curd and clotted cream from the grocery and can create my own tea moment. The details of what is what are fascinating. ?

Diana
Diana
June 25, 2019 7:19 AM
Reply to  Brenda Webb

Lemon curd is delicious and simple to make. It’s possible to purchase clotted cream (EXPENSIVE!) but to make the real thing requires unpasteurized milk, preferably from a breed like Jersey or Guernsey cows which have a rich fat content to their milk. There are some ways to approximate clotted cream, however, that are nearly as good. Brenda, if you are interested, contact me privately and I’ll share. You are then free to pass the recipes along.

MaryAnnN
August 6, 2015 12:23 AM

Interesting article.. I thought when reading novels that they sure like biscuits much more than us in the US. Now I know they like sweeter things like us. Who doesn’t love a cookie, or two or three at a time.
I knew they ate scones with clotted cream and jam. I am not sure however, what clotted cream really is made of or how it is used. Is it anything like our cream cheese? I do however like scones but not the plain ones as well as the ones with bits of dried fruit in them.
They seem to eat fruit tarts in many instances in the novels I have read.
Thank you for the interesting view of the differences and the recipes as well.

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