Sugarless BiscuitsPosted: February 14, 2016
I don’t mean to boast (which means I’m going to), but I’m very pleased with this recipe, which I found in a book from 1767 entitled “Primitive cookery; or the kitchen garden display’d”. In the curious attribution style of the day, the frontispiece declares the book “Printed for J.Williams at No. 38, Fleet Street”, which leaves the authorship somewhat undetermined – possibly J.Williams or he might have been the publisher, or even the printer himself.
That mystery aside, the frontispiece also contains some wonderful claims, viz “RECEIPTS for preparing a great Variety of cheap, healthful and palatable Dishes without Fish, Flesh or Fowl; WITH A BILL of FARE of Seventy Dishes that will not cost above Two-Pence each”. The low cost and the vegetarian nature of the dishes was doubly interesting, since vegetarianism didn’t really take off in Britain until the nineteenth century. Alas, it wasn’t quite the groundbreaking publication I thought, as I found meat and meat products scattered liberally throughout, and although the seventy tupenny dishes are meatless, they consist mostly of dishes along the lines of “[insert the name of a vegetable] boiled and bread and butter”. Still, it’s not all plain fare, as the following meal suggestion illustrates: “Bread and half a pint of canary, makes an excellent meal.” With half a pint of sherry (canary) inside you, you wouldn’t really care that you only had bread to eat. And for tuppence? Bargain!
These biscuits are listed in the book as Parsnip Cakes – the word ‘cake’ having a much more versatile usage in the eighteenth century, and more inclined to refer to shape, rather than some delightful teatime confection. Parsnips provide both bulk and a very gentle sweetness. Sliced, dried in the oven and then ground in a spice grinder, the parsnip ‘flour’ is then mixed with an equal quantity of flour, a little spice, and formed into a dough by mixing with double cream. Rolled out to a thinness of 5mm and baked in a cool oven, the resultant biscuits are crisp, crunchy and similar to a close-textured digestive biscuit. The flavour of parsnip is detectable, especially if, in the drying they have also browned a little and the sugars caramelised, but it’s not overpowering. More nutty than vegetable. In terms of sweetness, they sit bang on the fence between sweet and savoury – sweet enough to satisfy a sugar craving, savoury enough to eat with cheese.
It’s this versatility which got me thinking of ways in which it could be adapted, and after experimentation, came up with the following:
- Spices. You can vary the spices and tip the biscuits more towards sweet or savoury as you prefer.
- Sweet spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves.
- Savoury spices: garam masala, cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, curry powder.
- Neutral spices that could go either way: aniseed, fennel, fenugreek, caraway, cardamom, Chinese five spice.
- Herbs: thyme, rosemary, sage, garlic powder, onion powder, chives, etc.
- Flours. This is where these biscuits are most versatile.The flour you match with the parsnip powder doesn’t have to be limited to plain white. The biscuits in the picture above have been made with stoneground wholemeal with aniseed (top) and medium oatmeal, with a little salt (bottom). Here are just a few further suggestions:
- medium oatmeal
- plain white
- white + cornflour
- brown + rye
- Usage. The dough can also be used as a pastry, with different results coming from the different flours used. Mixing the parsnip flour with brown flour or oatmeal would make a fantastic crust for something like a cauliflower cheese tart. I haven’t tried it for turnovers/handpies, but I suspect you’d need to use bread flour and to work it quite well in order to prevent it cracking when trying to fold it.
The recipe for mixing the actual biscuits requires only a fraction of your parsnip flour, thereby allowing you to make several batches from this one quantity. That said, this made only about 200g of parsnip flour in total.
4 large parsnips
50g flour of choice
½-1tsp spice/herb/flavouring of choice
50-70ml double cream
¼ tsp salt (for savoury biscuits and/or when using oatmeal)
- Peel the parsnips and slice thinly – a mandolin is ideal.
- Arrange the slices on parchment-lined baking sheets and put into the oven.
- Turn the oven on low, 120°C/100°C Fan.
- Since the slices are so thin, they won’t take very long to dry at all. Check after 15 minutes. If they have curled into flower shapes, remove from the oven and allow to cool. If they aren’t completely crisp when cold, you can easily dry them a little longer. It’s better to dry them in two stages, than to let them go a little too long and allow them to take on colour – unless that’s what you’re after, of course.
- When the parsnips slices are crisp and cold, grind them to powder in a spice grinder, or pound them in a pestle and mortar. If you’re using them for savoury biscuits, you can get away with having it a little coarser – like semolina or polenta. For sweet biscuits, you’ll probably need to sieve out the larger pieces and re-grind.
- Preheat the oven to 140°C/120°C Fan
- To make the biscuits:
- Put 50g parsnip flour in the bowl of a food processor.
- Add 50g of your chosen flour.
- Add your chosen spices and salt, if required.
- Blitz for a few seconds to mix.
- With the motor running, gradually pour in the double cream. Depending on the flour you are using, the quantity of cream required to bring the dough together will vary. Add just enough until the dough comes together in a ball, or at least resembles damp breadcrumbs.
- Tip out and press together into a ball.
- Roll out between sheets of cling film plastic (to avoid sticking) to about 5mm and cut into biscuits. I made rectangles of 2.5cm x 5cm, but any shape will do.
- Lay the biscuits onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and prick the middles neatly with a fork.
- Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the baking sheet around and bake for a further 10 minutes.
- Transfer to a wire rack and return to the oven for a final 5 minutes in order to ensure the undersides are dried and crisp.
- Allow to cool on the wire rack before storing in an airtight container.
Bonus Recipe – Labna
This has to be the world’s simplest soft cheese recipe. I enjoyed it regularly when I was working in the Middle East and its so easy to make. It’s the topping for the biscuits in the photograph and, like the biscuits, can be enjoyed equally with sweet flavours as well as savoury. I dabbed on some seedless blackcurrant jam and it was awesome.
500ml yogurt – any will do, but Greek yogurt is especially delicious
- Line a sieve with some clean, scalded muslin.
- Mix the salt and the yogurt together and pour into the muslin.
- Tie the corners of the muslin together and hang over a bowl to drain.
- Leave for 10-12 hours, or overnight.
- Transfer to a suitable container and store in the fridge.
And that’s it. It’s rich and creamy like cream cheese, but light and refreshing and with just a fraction of the fat content. As already mentioned, it’s delicious paired with a sharp jam or salad, but you can also embellish it as follows:
- Combine with crushed garlic, freshly chopped mint or parsley, a little olive oil and black pepper and serve with flatbreads.
- Spread labna on a plate, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper or paprika. Serve with tortilla chips and salsa.
- Shape balls of labna by using a tablespoon as a measure, or a mini ice-cream scoop. Arrange on a tray and chill in the fridge for several hours until firm. Transfer to a jar and pour over olive oil to cover. As long as the labna balls are fully covered by the oil and the jar properly sealed, this will keep without need for refrigeration. Serve dusted with zatar, sumak or rolled in chopped, fresh thyme.