The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ancient Cookery

with your host
Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné
Jeff Berry
(Number 16 in the Series, May 2002)

Good lord, has it really been two years since last I wrote? How the world has changed. One of my oldest and dearest friends, Elizabeth O'Byrnne, is Crown Princess of the Outlands as I write, and it scheduled to be crowned this weekend. At her coronation, there will a dessert display/competition. I can't miss that!

A few logistical difficulties present themselves, however. There is no way I can actually attend the coronation, since it is several thousand miles away, and I've got a production of Macbeth on the boards with the Deptford Players at the moment. So I need something that will be mailable, and edible a few days old. A perusal of my old standbys,The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Opened and Hugh Plat's Delights for Ladies turned up the following:

From Plat:
"19. To make bisket bread, otherwise called French bisket.
Take halfe a peck of fine flower, two ounces of coriander seeds, one ounce of anni seeds, the white of foure eggs, halfe a pint of of Ale-yeast, and as much water as will make it up into stiffe paste; your water must be but bloud warm: then bake it in a long roll as big as your thigh: let it stay in the oven but one houre, and when it is a day old pare it and slice it overthwart: then sugar it over with fine powdred sugar, and so dry it in an oven again: and being dry, take it out, and sugar it again: then box it, and so your may keepe it all the yeere."

From Digby:
To half a peck of flower, take three spoonfuls of barm, two ounces of seeds; aniseeds or Fennelseeds. Make the paste verry stiff, with nothing 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."

My reading of these recipes indicates that I should end up with something very like a biscotti. That I may "keepe it all the yeere" sounds promising for my mailing and week-old requirements, so lets go with this.

With two recipes to work from, I can fill in a few gaps as to cooking times and temps, as well as having a bit more of an idea of reasonable latitude. That said, here's what I did.

Half a peck of flour is 16 cups, which is more than I wanted to make, so I went with a quarter recipe. I took 4 cups of all purpose flour, added two tablespoons of anise seeds and one egg white. I did not have ale-yeast, so instead I used a tablespoon of bread yeast and for liquid used some beer (Guiness stout) instead of water. In fact, I used about 11 ounces of beer and then another quarter cup of water to get the stiff paste I wanted.

My hope was that the beer and bread yeast would approximate the ale-yeast called for. Plat calls for half a pint of yeast, which I think is probably the sludgy culture rather than any kind of dry yeast, so I'm hoping this is a reasonable substitute. If I try this recipe again, I think I'd see if I could find Brewers Yeast or something at a health food store and see what effect that has.

In any case, after adding my beer and water, I had a dough something like a sticky cookie dough. I flopped in onto a pan and stuck it into an oven at about 275 F. I left it in the oven for forty minutes or so, down from the hour Plat recommends since my roll was much smaller than my thigh. Then I pulled it out and let it sit for two days, since the aforementioned Macbeth meant that I couldn't back to it in one.

Regarding my log of anise flavored stuff, I decided it didn't need to be pared, so I just sliced it up, sprinkled it with granulated sugar (confectioners sugar being, I think, too fine) and put the slices on a cookie sheet in the oven at 250 F to "dry it in an oven again." After twenty minutes or so, I flipped them, sprinkled more sugar and put them back in the oven. I propped the oven door open just a bit as well, since I was aiming for a dry texture.

After another forty minutes or so, I pulled them out of the oven, flipped them again and gave them a light sugaring. I put them onto a plate to cool.

After cooling, the texture was about what I expected -- hard and dry. These do look like something that would "keep it all the yeere." The taste had a pleasant anise bite, and just a slight bit of sweetness from the sugar. The overall effect was kind of toasty, like a dry cinnamon toast or a melba toast. For dessert use, I would be tempted to add a little sugar at the first step, but even as it is, the effect is not unpleasant -- dry and not cloying.

Back to Index

Comments are welcome.
Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné, Jeff Berry,

Copyright Jeff Berry
Originally webbed 7 May 2002
Last modified 7 May 2002