One of my favourite sets of books is a series for the Edwardian baking trade written by H.G.Harris and S.P.Borella. Published as part of The British Baker Library in the first years of the twentieth century, the “All About…” books are a fascinating record of the sheer range and variety of baked goods both fashionable and available at the time. The full set of books in the series comprises volumes devoted to:
- All About Biscuits
- All about Pastries
- All About Gateaux & Dessert Cakes
- All About Ices, Jellies, Creams & Conserves
- All About Genoese, Petits Fours, Glacés and Bon Bons
With recipe quantities suited to commercial batches, a certain amount of scaling is required in order to use any of the recipes for the home, but the effort is invariably worth it. These recipes date from an era when biscuits were sold either individually priced or by weight and you could thus make a selection specifically tailored to your entertaining or just personal needs.
These biscuits come from the All About Biscuits volume, from the chapter Dessert and Wine Biscuits. The chapter is filled with biscuits both elaborate and plain that would have been served in a range of contexts. In general terms, the dessert course was a selection of fruits, nuts, sweetmeats and sweet biscuits arranged along the centre of the table throughout the meal, acting also as table decoration. In addition, biscuits were served alongside the popular cream, syllabubs, jellies and trifles to add some textural crunch and contrast against the softness and richness.
I chose these biscuits partly for their simplicity and partly because they were labelled ‘old-fashioned’ over a century ago and I was struck that even in an era of great change and innovation, there was still enjoyment of confections which harked back to earlier times. There’s no excessive icing, decoration or filling; they are just a simple, elegant and pure-tasting delight.
The original biscuits are crisp, with a delicate lemon flavour, ideal for serving with fruit fools, possets and fresh fruit, or even for enjoying with a mid-morning or afternoon cup of tea. I also thought they could stand a little embellishment, for an extra special treat, should the occasions arise. After a bit of experimentation I came up with the following: once baked and whilst still hot, brush the biscuits with what is essentially a lemon drizzle mixture of lemon zest, lemon juice and sugar. As the biscuits cool, this topping hardens into a glittery, lemon-flavoured crust, sweet but still eye-poppingly sharp with lemon juice. It is delicious.
This recipe makes 20-30 biscuits, so there is more than enough to have a mix of both glazed and unglazed biscuits.
Old Fashioned Lemon Biscuits
The original unglazed biscuits are on the left of the photo, the lemon-glazed biscuits are on the right.
225g plain flour
115g unsalted butter
110g caster sugar
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 large egg – beaten
Lemon Drizzle Glaze – optional
zest & juice of 2 lemons
4-6 tbs caster sugar
- Put the flour, sugar, zest and butter into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- Add the lemon juice and blitz again.
- Whisk the egg and, with the food processor running, gradually add a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball. Depending on the moisture in your flour and butter and the quantity of juice you get from your lemon, you might not need to use all of the egg.
- Tip out the mixture and knead smooth.
- Wrap in plastic and chill for at a least an hour until firm enough to roll.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C 180°C Fan.
- Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.
- Roll the chilled dough out thinly (3-4mm) and cut out lemon-shaped biscuits. You can use a 7cm plain circular cutter and then use it to cut off a crescent of dough to make the lemon shape. Press the trimmings together and re-roll.
- Lay the biscuits onto the baking sheets, 1-2cm apart – there is little spreading during baking.
- Bake for 11-12 minutes, turning the baking sheet around after 6 minutes to help even colouring.
- While the biscuits are baking, make the glaze (if using). Use a fine grater to remove the zest of the lemons. If using a microplane grater, you will need to then chop the curls of zest into smaller pieces to achieve an even coverage when brushing on the glaze. Add the lemon juice and sugar to the zest and stir all together. There’s no need to ensure all the sugar is dissolved, as this will contribute to the crunchiness of the layer.
- When the biscuits are baked and starting to colour at the edges, remove and brush the glaze onto as many biscuits as you like. Leave to cool on the baking sheets for 10 minute, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.
- The heat of the biscuits themselves, as well as that from the baking sheets, will help the glaze to set. After 30 minutes, if your biscuits aren’t as crisp as you would like, or the glaze isn’t fully dry, set the cooling racks into the oven, which should still be warm from the baking and allow the warmth there to work its magic.
- Store in an airtight container.