At the risk of seeming biscuit mad (actually this is true) and because it is Good Friday, I thought I would write about Easter Biscuits.
I reckon that Easter biscuits were popular because you could sneak them in your pocket. You then had something with all those wicked ingredients you had gone without during Lent to tuck into as soon as you came out of church on Easter Sunday morning!
In the area around Bristol where I grew up they are traditionally flavoured with Cassia Oil. Cassia is the bark of a tree related to, and with similar properties to Cinnamon. In South East Asia it is more frequently used and if you come across bits of bark like-stuff in pillau rice cassia is what it is. Apparently most ground cinnamon sold in the United States is in fact Cassia.
Cassia contains Coumarin, a substance which tastes a bit like vanilla. Coumarin causes release of extra liver enzyme which thins the blood and can cause liver damage and a failure of blood clotting. It is present in such large quantities that it raised concern in Germany where it was used in biscuits made at Christmas time. I understand that it is banned as a food ingredient there. Oddly enough, come Easter time many pharmacies in the West Country have little bottles of the oil for sale, along with a paper slip with the recipe for Easter Biscuits.
It strikes me that after a long winter a bit of blood thinning might be exactly what one needs at Easter. The effect is temporary and my recipe asks for six drops of the oil in the batch. I make the biscuits once, perhaps twice a year. The one bottle (costing £1.95 a few years ago) will last me a decade or two. I’m probably not poisoning myself after all.
Here is the recipe I used:
225g plain flour
110g caster sugar
2 tbs brandy
6 drops oil of Cassia
Rub the butter into the flour, some flakes of butter can remain. Add the sugar and currants. Separate the egg, beat the white and then reserve about half of it. Beat the egg yolk and remaining white together with the brandy and six drops of cassia oil. If you can’t get oil of cassia substitute a half-teaspoon each of cinnamon and mixed spice. Remember that this is an essential oil so regardless of its coumarin content it can irritate the skin – don’t get the neat oil on your hands.
Bring the whole lot together into a loose dough. It might help to chill it before rolling out but I don’t usually have the time or patience. Cut into rounds and bake on prepared baking sheets for about 20 mins at 160C fan. They only need to brown the slightest amount. I overdid mine a bit so keep an eye on them and turn the oven down if necessary. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with caster or granulated sugar.