Brown Bread Drops, circa 1900, Harris & Borella, All About Biscuits
A large part of my interest in old recipes is driven by always being on the lookout for something a little bit different. People tend to be a little wary of old recipes, in part due to the “Ew!” factor of TV programs on historic food tending to choose the most unappetising-sounding recipes to show – Yes, Stefan Gates, I’m looking at you and your Calf’s Head Surprise.
In my first book (shameless plug: Great British Bakes, available at all good bookshops, or indeed Amazon) I made a real effort to walk the line between the old and the new, and chose recipes that were both recognisable and appetising to someone in the 21st century, but also a little different in terms of ingredients and flavours, in order to provide both interest and reassurance that a good recipe is a good recipe no matter its age. I’m a firm believer that a delicious recipe shouldn’t be dismissed merely for being three or four hundred years old.
Which brings me to this recipe, which isn’t three or four hundred years old, merely about 120 years – a positive youngster. It’s a sandwich biscuit of to crisp ‘drops’ joined together with buttercream; not exactly custard cream or bourbon, but in the same ball park. So that’s the reassuring bit, now for the interesting bit: the biscuits are light and crisp and made (mostly) from wholemeal breadcrumbs, and the buttercream is flavoured with green (as in unroasted, as opposed to colour) coffee beans. All of which sounded pretty intriguing to me, and I hope it does to you too.
The method of making the biscuits is similar to sponge fingers – essentially a fatless sponge where wholemeal breadcrumbs are used in place of most of the flour, although a little flour is still required to provide cohesiveness. The buttercream is what we today call French buttercream, where yolks are tempered with a hot sugar syrup and then butter is beaten into them. In this recipe, the sugar syrup is infused with the flavour of green coffee beans.
If you can get your hands on a small quantity of green, unroasted coffee beans locally, from a local coffee bar that roasts their own, then great. Otherwise, like me, you’ll have to order online. You’ll also probably have to order far more than this recipe calls for, but I feel confident that the delicate and unusual flavour they provide will mean you’ll want to make this again and again, as well as infusing them into milk for desserts and puddings.
You can also leave the biscuits unadorned. They are crisp and airy, like almond ratafias or macaroons, which makes them perfect if, like me, you like the crunch of ratafias, but aren’t a fan of their intense almond flavouring. Enjoy plain, or use them to add texture to trifles and puddings.
Brown Bread Drops
75g dry, wholemeal breadcrumbs for the biscuits¹
40g dry wholemeal breadcrumbs for sprinkling²
2 large eggs
75g caster sugar
40g plain flour
- Line a baking sheet with parchment.
- Heat the oven to 205°C, 185°C Fan.
- Put the eggs and sugar into a metal bowl and whisk over simmering water until warmed to 38°C.
- Remove from the heat and continue to whisk until the mixture is cooled and light.
- Mix the flour with the 75g breadcrumbs and fold into the mixture (use a balloon whisk or the whisk attachment of your mixer). Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm plain nozzle.
- Pipe oval shapes onto the parchment. They will rise and spread a little in baking, so approx. 2cm x 3cm is my suggested size.
- Sprinkle with the reserved breadcrumbs and bake until crisped and browned (8-12 minutes).
- Allow the biscuits to cool on the tin.
Green Coffee Buttercream
I’ve scaled down the biscuit recipe to 1/6 of the original, but the buttercream is just half of the original, because even though it makes more than enough to fill the above batch of biscuits, it can also be used for cakes and desserts, or even frozen for later use. Working with even smaller quantities would be impractical.
30g unroasted coffee beans
15g unsalted butter
2 large yolks
210g unsalted butter in small dice
- Melt the 15g butter in a pan and add the coffee beans.
- Stir over medium-low heat until the beans turn a rich, golden colour.
- Drain the beans from the butter and crush to small pieces in a mortar or with a wooden rolling pin.
- Add the crushed beans to the water and bring to the boil.
- Simmer for 5 minutes, then cover, remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 30 minutes.
- Strain the beans from the water and discard. Add the sugar to the water and heat gently until dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer until the temperature reaches 116-120°C.
- While the sugar syrup is heating, whisk the yolks until light and frothy.
- When the syrup reaches temperature, remove from the heat and while whisking, pour in a steady stream into the eggs down the side of the bowl. Try and avoid getting the syrup onto the whisk.
- Continue whisking until the mixture has cooled.
- Switch the attachment from whisk to beater and slowly beat in the butter, one cube at a time until smooth.
- To serve: Spread or pipe the buttercream onto the base of a cooled biscuit and sandwich together with a second biscuit.
¹ You can make your breadcrumbs as follows. Tear 5 or 6 slices of fresh wholemeal bread into pieces and blitz to breadcrumbs in a food processor. Spread the breadcrumbs onto parchment-lined baking sheet and dry in a low oven (100C/80C Fan) until crisp. You will need to stir them every 5 minutes or so to ensure they dry evenly. Allow to cool, then blitz in the food processor again until fine.
² The breadcrumbs you reserve for sprinkling can be as fine as those in the biscuits themselves, but you could also set some aside after drying in the oven and before blitzing them a second time, in order to give a more textured appearance.