The first nice sunny morning a month or so back, when the sun made it onto the patio at about 11am was the cue we needed to take our coffee outside and acknowledge that Spring might be here. A biscuit with the coffee of course and on this occasion it was that British staple: the plain digestive.
The most recognisable brand of these is made by McVitie’s. I was idly looking at the packet and noticed that they are marked “The Original”. The packet also says “70% Wheat and Wholemeal”. Hmm – thought they used to be known as wholemeal digestives. So then my eyes strayed to the ingredients panel. Of course they don’t give you the actual recipe, but there is an interesting bit of legislation that demands that if you say something about the product on the packet – such as “Wheat and Wholemeal” then you have to give the percentage of that ingredient.
It turns out that wheat flour represents 54% of the content and wholemeal wheat flour only 16 percent. In other words only one third of the flour is wholemeal. What is also interesting is that the wheat flour is listed as “with Calcium, Iron, Niacin Thiamin” bizarrely, some of the nutrients you loose by using white flour over wholemeal. Between these two ingredients (so we know it makes up between 16 and 54 percent of the total) is “Vegetable oil (Palm)”
Therein lies another story. Apparently, in a bid to reduce the saturated fat level of the biscuits, McVitie’s changed to using sunflower oil. The recipe was altered in two stages in 2009 and 2010. They claimed the biscuits still had the same great taste. Your humble (ahem) correspondent can assure you that they did not. You see, what changed was the feel of the biscuit in the mouth, the way it crumbled and was held on the tongue. Whether McVitie’s liked it or not that changes the taste. I’m not a dunker, but the lower melting point oil wrecked their dunkability too. Rather a lot of people agreed, there were protests and from February 2014 they reverted to using palm oil. A vegetable oil which is much higher in saturated fat.
All this pondering left me thinking “Original? Really?” Surely the Victorian creator of the original recipe wouldn’t have used palm oil would he? And if the biscuit was wholemeal would it really have had twice as much white flour as wholemeal? Even if this were the case, would it not be good to have a biscuit that was higher in wholemeal flour? The recipe for them in my copy of Mrs Beeton calls for 75g of wholemeal and 25g plain white. However, like a lot of other recipes I found it also calls for oats.
Rant over. A fair bit of research and a couple of trial bakes and I think I have something I like. At the moment I’m using wholemeal rye flour and no oats. They are a tad too crumbly, and a little drier in the mouth than McVitie’s so I might tweak things a little over the coming weeks. I’ve taken them to various places to try them out on unsuspecting victims and so far they get the thumbs up.
If you’ve got the oven on for something else they are a doddle to make. You can knock them together in about 10 minutes whilst you’re in the kitchen anyway.
75g Wholemeal (bread) flour
25g Wholemeal rye flour
25g Plain flour
25g Soft brown sugar
65g Butter (salted)
0.5 tsp Bicarbonate of soda
0.5 tsp Baking powder
0.25 tsp salt (more or less, depending on how salty the butter is)
2 tbs milk
Into a bowl measure the flours. Drop the baking powders and the sugar through a sieve to break up any lumps, add the salt and then cut the butter into tiny cubes and drop in. Rub in to get a breadcrumb texture and then add the milk and stir with a blunt knife until it all comes together like pastry. (Which is what it is essentially.) Try not to add more milk – it will probably come together if you keep stirring – but if not add a few drops more.
Unlike pastry, where you keep handling to a minimum, do kneed this for a minute or so. Roll it out on a floured surface to about 5mm thick and cut out with a round cutter. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment. Gather together the scraps into a ball and roll out again until it’s all used. I generally get 12 biscuits and a few tiny scraps using a 7cm cutter – which matches the size of the bought version.
Use the end of a wooden skewer or cocktail stick to make a pattern of holes in the biscuits and bake in a fan oven at 16oC for 20 minutes. Cool on the tray for a few minutes and then transfer to a wire rack. Once cool you have the option of coating the flat side with chocolate. If you do that you will have to leave them several hours for the chocolate to set properly, so maybe leave a couple uncovered so that you can enjoy them sooner. Of course a warm drink and a sunny day in the garden will help too.
While I was waiting for the digestives to cook I made some Garibaldi biscuits too. That recipe needs a little work yet so perhaps more on that another day.