Spare a thought for the humble homemade biscuit.
Baking in Britain has never been more popular; in the last few years it’s become a borderline obsession. While some might argue that it never really went away – from traditional tea rooms to high street bakeries, cakes and baking are something inherent in our culture – the recent resurgence of interest has taken home baking in a whole new direction. Spurred on by shows like The Great British Bake Off, The Hummingbird Bakery’s cutesy cupcake creations and the jewel-like confections on show in shops like Ladurée, people at home are taking their baking to a higher level.
Out go the simple sponges, scones and rock buns, and in come the macarons and millefeuilles, fancy fondant decorations, perfect petit fours and triple tier cakes. Increasingly, if we’re going to make the effort to bake we want it to be a showstopper, not an every-day-eat. In a kitchen where chunky chocolate cookies and iced éclairs reign supreme, something to nibble mid-morning and dunk in our tea just doesn’t make the grade. It’s a bad time to be a biscuit.
That’s not to say we’re not still eating the things. Last year Britain consumed 141 million packets of biscuits, spending a whopping £123 million for this pleasure. Fuelled largely by our irrepressible tea drinking habit, biscuit buying is a booming economy that shows no sign of waning. Everyone has their favourite, from the nobbly Hobnob to the puritannical Rich Tea, but this is primarily a beauty contest between established brands; people are buying, not baking, these favourite tea-time treats.
In a survey conducted by Sainsbury’s last year, Sun readers voted pink wafers their number one nibble, while those who read The Guardian were partial to the slightly more pretentious amaretti biscuit, with various other contenders across the country. But of all the weird and wonderful choices out there, one type of biscuit clearly took the lead, accounting for one in every nine packets bought in the UK last year. Which tempting treat managed to crumble its way to the top of the British biscuit league and into our hearts?
The humble digestive.
Whether cloaked in chocolate or served straight up, the digestive is a simple pleasure. Slightly soft with a sweet, malty taste, this combination of oats and wholemeal flour was originally believed to have a positive effect on digestion due to the inclusion of baking soda in an original recipe. I’m not sure these health benefits would withstand much close examination nowadays, but there’s no denying the comforting qualities of a good digestive. McVities pretty much monopolise the market for these favourite tea-time treats; a bit like Heinz, there’s something about home brand versions which leaves us a little cold. But have you ever tried to make your own?
This post is flying the flag for the homemade digestive. Their appearance may be a little rough and ready in comparison to some of our favourite home bakes, but they’re incredibly simple to make and the flavour really is superior. Real butter in place of McVities’ vegetable oil produces a slightly richer, shorter, more satisfying biscuit with a crumbly, wheaten crunch, perfect for eating straight up or dunking in your favourite cup of tea.
Eaten alone the homemade digestive provides a more puritanical pleasure, but can easily be tarted up by coating one side in tempered chocolate or layering with caramel for a variation on Millionaire’s shortbread. Combine with chocolate, butter and golden syrup and you’ve got the most beautiful chocolate biscuit cake (although Prince William’s Royal Wedding cake was made using Rich Tea biscuits – shame on him – the digestive really is best for this purpose). Crumble your biscuits over fruit and yoghurt and you’ve got an instant dessert, while the base of banoffee pie or a creamy cheesecake wouldn’t be the same without a crunchy digestive crust.
I’m as partial as the next person to producing fancy cakes and beautiful bakes, but the next time you reach for the biscuit tin, spare a thought for the homemade digestive. Simple, delicious and nutritious (if you close your eyes while rubbing in the small amount of butter and sugar below), biscuits baked at home are just as good, if not better, than shop bought versions. So give it a go, make your own. You could even save a packet. My first biscuit pun of the post, I didn’t even use ‘when it comes to the crunch’ . . .
What’s your favourite kind type of biscuit? And do you buy branded packets, or prefer to make your own?
Wholemeal Digestive Biscuits (adapted from a Gary Rhodes recipe)
100g wholemeal flour
1 tsp baking powder
50g light soft brown sugar
100g salted butter, softened & cubed
1-2 tbsp milk
Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Blitz the oats to a fine powder in a blender then mix in a large bowl with the wholemeal flour, baking powder, brown sugar and salt.
Add the butter and mix until crumbly. Add the milk and mix to form a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and pop in fridge to firm up for about 15 minutes.
Remove your dough from the fridge and roll out to around 3mm thickness. It will be very crumbly so you’ll need to be very careful when rolling. Cut out circles of about 6cm diameter – I used a water glass to stamp out the shapes. Decorate with a pattern of your choice then bake in the middle of your oven for about 15 minutes.
When lightly golden but not too brown, remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.