Recreating lemon biskeats

This semester my Women and Medicine class (HSCI 3243) is working on manuscript recipe books written by early modern English women, a project I’ve blogged about before (see here and here). Many of my students are planning to recreate culinary recipes from these books, so I was inspired to try one myself, both because I love doing this (for one of my earlier adventures in early modern recipe reconstruction, see here), and because I thought it would be helpful to them to model the kind of research required.

This recipe I chose is from a manuscript compilation of medical and culinary recipes, produced in England ca. 1600-1710. It is currently held by the University of Pennsylvania (Ms. Codex 252), and is accessible in digital facsimile.

Lemon biskeat
take 3 lemons great the pell and put it in tow a
pund of duball refined sugar then tak as much froth
of whits of eggs as will wet the sugar and then
beat it in a marbell mortor tow a past, butter papers
and ly it in lumps let not your oufon be tow hot

Take 3 lemons, grate the peels and put these into a pound of double-refined sugar. Then take as much froth of the whites of eggs as needed to wet the sugar. Then beat the mixture in a marbel mortar into a paste. Butter paper and place the mixture in lumps on the paper and bake. Do not let your oven be too hot.

This is a simple recipe, with just three ingredients: lemon peel (or what we would call “grated lemon zest”), sugar and egg whites. You mix these together to form a paste, drop them in “lumps” onto buttered paper and bake. It looks like it will turn out to be a type of cookie. Although the recipe gives specific quantities for the lemons and sugar, it just says to use as many egg whites “as needed.” There are no specific instructions for the heat of the oven (other than not “too hot”), or for baking times. This, of course, makes sense. Eggs were of varying sizes (perhaps more variable than lemons) and ovens had no thermometers, so these were things an individual cook would have to judge for herself. Also, depending on how large you made the “lumps,” cooking times would vary.

“Biscuit” is a word that obviously meant something different to this writer than it does to us. In modern British English, a biscuit is what Americans call a cookie. And in modern American English, biscuits are what the British call scones. Here, as I noted, the word seems to mean a type of cookie, but I wanted to dig a little deeper into the history of biscuits. I started by looking up biscuit in the Oxford English Dictionary, which also pulls up variant spellings like besquite, bysqwyte, byscute, bysket, and bisket. The definition is:

A kind of crisp dry bread more or less hard, prepared generally in thin flat cakes. The essential ingredients are flour and water, or milk, without leaven; but confectionery and fancy biscuits are very variously composed and flavoured. Even the characteristic of hardness implied in the name is lost in the sense ‘A kind of small, baked cake, usually fermented, made of flour, milk, etc.’ used, according to Webster, in U.S.

Next, I did a keyword search for biscuit in Early English Books Online. This search too pulls up variant spellings. I got just under 400 hits in books about 300 books. Scanning through these hits, it was apparent that the vast majority of authors who mentioned or discussed biscuits were referring to a crisp, dry, hard flat bread – the first definition in the OED.

The word showed up over and over in texts that discussed provisions for long voyages, especially at sea. In 1697, seamen in the Royal Navy were allotted one “Bisket” per day, along with a gallon of beer. Beef, pork, pease, oatmeal, butter and cheese were allotted two to four times a week. In his account of traveling through Armenia, the French Jesuit Philippe Avril recounted that he took “Biscuit, Dates, and some other dry’d Fruits, together with a little Coffee, for a Journey of above two hundred and fifty Leagues.” The natural philosopher Robert Boyle, in his investigations of the properties of air, questioned how biscuits could stay good for long periods of time. He recounted being told by “the inquisitive and learned Mr. Borreel,” that he had “eaten Bisket that was yet good, after it had been carryed from Amsterdam to the East Indies, and brought back thence again (in which Voyage, between two and three Years are wont to be spent).” The biscuit was preserved by being stored in air-tight containers that were only opened “in case of absolute necessity, and then presently and carefully closed again.” It’s clear that early modern biscuits were usually not sweet. They were hard, like crackers and could be stored for long periods of time. They don’t sound very appetizing.

But amidst all these references to sea biscuits, I found some biscuits referred to as “fine” or “fancy.” For example, one book had directions “To make the vsuall bisket solde at Comfitmakers.” A comfit is “A sweetmeat made of some fruit, root, etc., preserved with sugar” (OED).

TAke a pecke of flower and foure ounces of corriander seede, one ounce of anniseed, take three egges, three spoonefulls of ale yeast, and as much warme water as will make it as thicke as past for Manchets, make it in a long roule, and bake it in an Ouen one houre, and when it is a day olde pare it, and slice it, suger it with searsed suger, and put it againe into the Ouen, and when it is drie, take it out, and new suger it againe, and so box it and keepe it.

Kenelm Digby has a similar recipe:

To half a peck of flower, take three spoonfals of barm, two ounces of seeds; Aniseeds or Fennel-seeds. Make the paste very stiff, with no|thing but water, and dry it (they must not have so much heat, as to make them rise, but only dry by degrees; as in an oven after Manchet is taken out, or a gentle stove) in flat Cakes very well in an oven or stove.

(Manchet is fine wheat bread.)

And in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Iewell, there is a recipe for a “Bisket bread” that is sweet:

FIrst take halfe a Pecke of fine white flower, also eight newe laid Egges, the Whites and Yolkes beaten together, then put the said Egges into the Flower, then take eight Graines of fine Muske, and stampe it in a Morter, then put halfe a pint of good Damaskewater, or else Rosewater into the Muske, and mingle it together, and put it into wine, or Muscaden, but Muscaden is better, and put it into the flowre, also one ounce of good Annisseedes cleane picked, & put therein, and so to worke them altogether into a Paste, as yee doe bread, and then make your biskettes into what fashion you thinke best, and then put them into an Ouen and bake them harde if you will kéepe them long, or else but indif|ferent, if you will haue it candite, take rose water and Suger, and boyle them toge|ther till they be thicke, and so slices of bread, then set hot in the Ouen vntill the same be candit

These seemed closer to my lemon biscuit recipe, but they all had flour and various seeds, like aniseeds and corriander. Finally I found a reference in Randle Holme”s The academy of armory to “Bikets, Mackroons, naple Bisket, Italian Bisket.” These “Italian biscuits” or macaroons sounded more like my lemon biscuit recipe. And indeed the combination of sugar, egg white and flavoring, does sound like what I think of as a macaroon or a meringue.

So then I started looking for other contemporary macaroon recipes, and I found a recreation of a 17th-century recipe “To make maccarons of valentia Almonds” on the wonderful Cooking the Archives blog. After reading Marissa Nicosia’s discussion of the recipe and the modifications she made to make it in a modern kitchen, I came up with the following version of “lemon biscuits”:

Ingredients

  • zest of 1 1/2 lemons
  • 1/2 pound extra fine sugar
  • 2 egg whites

Steps

  • Preheat oven to 350 F
  • Line cookie sheets with buttered parchment paper
  • Mix lemon zest and sugar
  • Lightly beat egg whites, then add them to the sugar and lemon zest.
  • Stir until mixture forms a paste
  • Drop by spoonful onto the prepared cookie sheets
  • Bake about 20 minutes
My assistant grating lemons into sugar.

Results

I ended up with cookies that were shiny on the top – they looked like they had been iced – and crispy and crumbly underneath. They were intensely lemony, and tasted a lot like meringue. In sum, a real success! I served them to a dinner guest with strawberries, and she pronounced them delicious.

As you can see from my pictures of the tray going into the oven and then coming out, the lumps spread a bit in the oven. I initially used three egg whites, and I think that was too much. I’d back down to two in the future to ensure that the paste was thicker. I baked these at 350 F, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if I followed modern meringue cooking times and baked them in a 250 F oven for an hour.

Concluding thoughts

While we may be inclined to think of “British cooking” as a distinctive thing, even this very simple recipe reveals how cosmopolitan the food on a British table was in the 17th century, and how connected to a global exchange of products. Lemons and sugar were not produced in the British Isles. Lemons were imported from southern Europe – Spain or the Italian peninsula. Sugar came from British slave plantations in the West Indies, principally Jamaica. And it appears that the shift in meaning of the word biscuit, from a hard bread used to provision long sea voyages to a sweet treat to be enjoyed with tea (another imported product) reflects Italian influence.

References

  1. The Glory of the British Seas: Being a LIST of the Royal Navy (1697)
  2. Philippe Avril, Travels into divers parts of Europe and Asia, undertaken by the French King’s order to discover a new way by land into China containing many curious remarks in natural philosophy, geography, hydrology and history : together with a description of Great Tartary and of the different people who inhabit there / by Father Avril of the Order of the Jesuits ; done out of French ; to which is added, A supplement extracted from Hakluyt and Purchas giving an account of several journeys over land from Russia, Persia, and the Moguls country to China, together with the roads and distances of the places (1693)
  3. Robert Boyle, Some considerations touching the vsefulnesse of experimental naturall philosophy propos’d in familiar discourses to a friend, by way of invitation to the study of it (1663)
  4. Thomas Dawson, The good huswifes iewell VVherein is to be found most excellent and rare deuises for conceits in cookerie, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson. Whereunto is adioyned sundry approued reseits for many soueraine oyles, and the way to distill many precious waters, with diuers approued medicines for many diseases. Also certaine approued points of husbandry, very necessarie for all husbandmen to know (Imprinted at London: By Iohn Wolfe for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North doore of Paules at the signe of the Gunne, 1587)
  5. Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. opened whereby is discovered several ways for making of metheglin, sider, cherry-wine, &c. : together with excellent directions for cookery, as also for preserving, conserving, candying, &c. / published by his son’s consent (1669)
  6. Randle Holme, The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick : with the instruments used in all trades and sciences, together with their their terms of art : also the etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same, explicated and explained according to our modern language : very usefel [sic] for all gentlemen, scholars, divines, and all such as desire any knowledge in arts and sciences / by Randle Holme (Chester: Printed for the author, 1688)

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