Friday, April 23, 2010

ANZAC biscuits

ANZAC biscuits (ie cookies) are an Aussie tradition. They're also the most common biscuits I bake -- not that I bake biscuits all that often, but when I do, these are the quickest and easiest and I nearly always have the ingredients to hand. They're also delicious.

ANZAC stands for Australia New Zealand Army Corps and these biscuits were invented during World War One by the wives and mothers of soldiers away fighting on the other side of the world. The 25th April iAnzac Day, a public holiday in Australia that  commemorates the role of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in the dreadful Gallipoli Campaign of 1915.  During this long and bloody campaign a spirit formed among the soldiers, a tradition of mateship forged under fire and in impossible conditions. It's still part of how Australians see themselves today.  (That's my grandfather on the far right, by the way, standing holding the rope. He wasn't at Gallipoli -- he fought in Flanders, also horrible.)
If you want to learn more about ANZAC day, visit the Australian War Memorial Site. I'm really only talking about biscuits here.

Australians are pretty big on sweets and cakes and biscuits. An old cookery book of my mother's, about 250 pages long, devotes the first 50 pages to soup, meat, and vegetable dishes, the next 50 to puddings and desserts, the next 50 to cakes, and 20 to sweet biscuits. And then there's jams and jellies, and confectionery.

I suppose it was partly about country cooking and hospitality -- with no refrigeration, sugar is a natural preservative, and heaven forbid visitors arrive and you have nothing to offer them with their cup of tea. My grandmother, an excellent country cook, would never be caught short, and invariably had two or three sweet treats to offer visitors - usually some kind of cake,  plus scones, and biscuits. And country men devoured them and burned off the sugar in hard physical work.

Soldiers at war lived on army rations --  basic, boring, usually stale , and often weevilly. They used to joke about the flat  "ships biscuits" that cracked teeth -- "army tiles" some called them. So women back home racked their brains to find something to send their boys that would last the 2 month journey and still be tasty.
(The picture above is of my grandparents taken on leave during WW1. Romantic, eh?)

What emerged was a biscuit (cookie) made of ingredients that most women would find in their pantries : oatmeal, flour, sugar, coconut , butter and golden syrup. No eggs, because they would go bad on the long journey. Oatmeal was a staple -- porridge was a staple breakfast food. Coconut is a commonly used ingredient here, no doubt because it's grown here. And golden syrup is a by-product of sugar production -- a kind of light molasses -- a golden brown colour, lighter than treacle, which is almost black -- and we have a large sugar industry, so like people in the southern states of America, we use it in our cooking. 

These biscuits, placed in an airtight container (often old tea tins like the one on the right) lasted the two month trip easily and were still delicious to eat. I don't imagine they lasted long after the tins were opened -- they'd be shared around -- a little taste of home to boys and young men fighting in a foreign land.
At first they were simply called 'soldier's biscuits' but as people back home became used to hearing reports about "the ANZAC boys' they were soon called ANZAC biscuits.

So here's the recipe. It's very user friendly and adaptable. I'm also giving you my lazy girls method, where you mix the whole thing in a saucepan. Less washing up ;)

1 cup rolled oats (I've used all sorts, even microwavable oatmeal) 

1 cup plain flour
3/4 cup desiccated coconut  (dried coconut)
1 cup sugar  (white, raw or brown)
125g (4oz) butter
2 tablespoons golden syrup (see note above)
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1 tablespoon boiling water

1) Preheat oven to 150C (300F)
2) Melt butter and golden syrup together in a large saucepan. Remove saucepan from heat.
3) Mix soda with boiling water and add to melted butter and syrup. It will foam up a little. 
4) Mix oats, flour, sugar and coconut into the wet mix.
5) Place walnut-sized lumps of mixture (about 1 tabsp) on greased tray (allow room for spreading).
6) Bake in a slow oven (150 C or 300 F) for 20 minutes. They will look golden and toasty
7) Loosen while warm (they come out very soft) and cool on trays.

The number it makes will depend on the quality of the ingredients used, which will affect how much they spread in the baking. If you overbake them and you find them too hard and crispy, crumble them up and use them as topping for icecream. They will soften with age, too. 

If you make them, write and let me know what you thought.