Cream-filled biscuits seem to have dropped out of UK baking fashion in favour of American-style cookies, healthy things containing grated apple or dead easy things like flapjack (nice though all those can be). The Good Housekeeping Institute’s Cookery Compendium (Waverly, 1955), however, is full of biscuits of every kind, from things like this (pretty much) and this to custard creams! I thought custard creams were dreamed up by some marketing person in, well, the past and I was basically right. They were a late 19th century invention, probably by Huntley & Palmers of Reading, probably to capitalise on the new popularity of custard powder. (More info here.)
They’re still the most popular biscuit in the UK and in one of her recent publications, a certain camera-friendly Brunette cook gave a recipe for heart-shaped ones saying the it was “hitherto… only known in its packet form”. Ha! GHI got there first, missus, and armed with a 7p packet of economy custard powder, a teeny bar of Green and Blacks and some coffee essence, I shall recreate this national favourite in my own kitchen.
4 oz margarine
4 oz sugar
1 egg yolk
4 oz custard powder
4 oz flour
A little milk
Cream the fat and sugar and beat in the egg yolk. Add the custard powder, flour and a few drops of vanilla essence and sufficient cold milk to give a dough. Roll out thinly, prick all over and cut into squares, fingers or rounds. Bake on a greased tin in a moderate oven (375C) for about 15 minutes until very lightly coloured. Cool on a wire tray.
When the biscuits are quite cold, sandwich them together in pairs with butter icing, either plain or flavoured with coffee essence or chocolate. Serve with sieved icing sugar dredged over the top.
Chocolate Butter Icing
2 oz butter or margarine
3 oz icing sugar
A little vanilla essence
1 oz block [sic] chocolate
Cream the fat, then add the sieved sugar a little at a time, and blend together. Add a few drops of vanilla essence, and lastly mix in the melted chocolate.
Coffee Butter Icing
Use the above recipe [Vanilla buttercream: 3 oz butter or margarine, 4oz icing sugar, vanilla essence, colouring, if required], beating in coffee essence to taste.
- I halved the recipe.
- I used margarine in the biscuits and butter in the icing.
- As with the golf biscuits (and again, probably because of the margarine), it didn’t need any milk. I mixed it into perfect dough, felt like I might be cheating as I hadn’t added any milk, added a teaspoon and regretted it when it instantly became too sticky and needed lots of flour when rolling out. Maybe this is a difference between margarine at the time of writing and today? Margaret Thatcher worked out how to get more air into icecream when she was a scientist. Perhaps there is more water in marg these days? Anyway, in the future if I am instructed to ‘add sufficient milk to give a dough’ and sufficient milk is no milk at all, I shall add none.
- Again this recipe doesn’t say how widely spaced the biscuits should be on the tray, nor how many this dough should produce – not good for learners, GHI!
The uncooked dough smelt and tasted exactly like shop-bought custard cream biscuit. (What!? Uncooked dough sampling is an important part of trying a new recipe.) The batch I made produced 18 biscuits, 2 – 3 inches across. I don’t own a plain round cutter and the crimped edges spread messily. (As the dough was quite soft, I didn’t want to risk using an empty jar to cut them out.) I made 2 small batches of buttercream icing – one chocolate, one coffee. I didn’t ice all the biscuits, but kept some plain stored in an airtight tin and the icing in the fridge, so they could be iced as necessary to avoid going soggy. Both stayed fresh for a week.
After baking however they were quite different to the commercial version. The vanilla flavour is quite pronounced (of course) and the texture was unlike any biscuit I’ve made before – both light and slightly chewy. (I imagine the lightness is caused by lower gluten content.) This wasn’t what I expected – I expected something like shortcake. They went from chewy to positively bendy 6 hours after baking. (Really, I could bend them, I can’t believe I didn’t take a photo of this.) By the following day, they had crisped up completely and the icing was a good contrast to this.
They were as rich and sweet as you would imagine, I think with vanilla buttercream they would have been inedible – I liked the coffee and chocolate iced versions equally. If I made them again, I would add some spice to the dough and some booze to the icing. This biscuit reminded me most of all why I bake at home – there is simply nothing like this that one could buy.