|Friday 27 May 2005|
|As you might expect the methods by which we select biscuits for Biscuit of the Week are complex and not simply a matter of just opening up what ever appears to be at the front or back of the NCOTAASD review cupboard. Well obviously sometimes that does happen, but just occasionally a biscuit will create a powerful calling, a bit like in the first Superman movie when Clark Kent goes to the barn to get his crystal which has started glowing bright green and is making the livestock all tense and uneasy. So ignoring Wifey's assertions that I should do the weird Japanese biscuits secured by our book's editor Tom, I have been drawn in by the tractor beam of a pack of Canadian biscuits, despite their usually off-putting title of cookies.
Some of the older biscuit eaters out there might have at this point be struggling to read this review due to large amounts of mist in the eyes. The name Dad's Cookies was unknown to me before starting NCOTAASD, but soon after I began receiving pleas for information on this biscuit which apparently was once available in the UK. Although I had no experience of it myself those who wrote to us about held it in very high regard indeed, remembering its large crunchy oaty biscuits and distinctive yellow packs with red logo. Indeed we created the missing in action section of the site in order to record the existence of such well liked but unavailable biscuits. Right from the start however something seemed odd about the Dad's Cookies messages. Why would a biscuit that disappeared in the 1970s be calling itself a 'cookie' when being sold in the UK? The reports seemed to indicate a mature and confident product, not some quick flash in the pan. Where did it come from and where did it go? The answer.. Canada (but you knew that because I already mentioned it).
Baked in Canada by Christie now part of Nabisco Canada which in turn is part of Kraft foods which in turn is part of and so on. Dad's cookies have been around for over 75 years which is a very respectable age for any biscuit, and requires that we afford it a certain amount of deference as befits its advanced years. Now, for some of that spooky green crystal action, as it turns out that company founder William Mellis Christie came to Canada in 1848 at the age of 19 from the small Scottish town of Huntly in Aberdeenshire. Yes, the same Huntly which gave us last weeks biscuits of the week from Deans of Huntly. Nabisco acquired Christie in 1928. Nabisco acquired our own Associated biscuits the umbrella company under which Huntley and Palmer, Peek Frean and Jacobs were, in 1982. Its matter of speculation on my part but perhaps there had been prior experimentation with introducing successful foreign lines into the UK through their distribution chain?
Anyhow down to business proper. The biscuits are in a lovely big glossy paper bag thing with a clever built bag tie so you can seal them back up again. Inside are ten packs of 2 biscuits in clear cellophane. As you might expect from a Canadian biscuit the pack is bilingual, one side in French and the other in English. This has the particular advantage of saying 'Biscuits' not 'Cookies' on the French side.
The biscuits are big, about 75mm across and 9mm deep. A rugged surface is flecked very occasionally with oat flakes, and very very occasionally some thing mysterious small and dark. First bites reveal this to be a hard, brittle and crunchy biscuit, with a noticeable touch of cinnamon, and there is a certain other flavour hiding in there too. A look a the ingredients and all is revealed, its raisins. However they appear to be shredded down to a fine tilth, and explains the little black flecks. Now normally I would be outraged by such a spectacle but as I've said we should give the septuagenerian biscuit some respect, and conclude that this is just their way. The oaty sugaryness was very pleasant, and the pack points out that its vegetable oil, not hydrogenated oil in the recipe. All very good.
What happened next took me by surprise some what. Having thought I had made all judgements necessary I revisited the pack the next day with a particularly nice cup of tea, and low and behold found my self fairly helplessly cutting a swathe through the little cellophane packs. I suddenly dawned on me, the biscuits were terrific. Oh dear, as I paid an arm and a leg for them in the Canadian shop just off of Covent Garden. Hardly an item for the weekly shop. And so the tale is complete, they drew me in, seduced me with their unfamiliar and exotic ways, and have now left me. The number of people missing Dad's cookies in the UK has just increased by one.
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Dean's Scottish Preserve Shortbread
|Monday 16 May 2005|
|Scotland, a land of breathtaking natural beauty and tartan. One of the main strongholds of tartan has always been the packaging for shortbread, be it tin or cardboard box. This week's selection of shortbread biscuits from Dean's of Huntly are no exception, plumping for a fairly subdued dark green tartan with accents of teal and cornflower blue. The tartan is the Black Watch which was worn by the Gordon Highlanders prior to 1778. Huntly is the ancestral seat of the Clan Gordon and the home of the Gordon Highlanders. This provides the Scottish interest on a velum effect background. No gaudy wall to wall red tartan here, and a signal of something a bit different perhaps.
Now I know there are out there shortbread connoisseurs who'll declare one shortbread above another with texture seemingly playing a very large part in that judgement. Given that proper full spec shortbread is simply mixture of butter, sugar, plain flour and sometimes semolina, you would have thought that one lot is basically the same as another. I'm prepared to accept that some may be a bit more buttery and and some more sugary and conversely, from time to time, some more floury. So that said texture would be an important point in discerning one shortbread from another. However I have to say this does pass me by a bit and even that age old shortbread tactic of forming itself into various shapes, finger, petticoat tail, round things, often fails to grab my attention. So this batch from Dean's of Huntly has had to go that extra mile to register on the NCOTAASD review radar, and they've done it by enlisting some help from our old friend jam.
Now if I was in charge of the jam and shortbread engineering I would have probably just have made a bit of a hole and popped a dollop of jam in it. The shortbread visionaries at Dean's have taken the whole process one step further and mixed the jam in with the shortbread dough. To stablise the whole lot they've also enlisted some help from that other stalwart of Scottish cuisine (no not the deep fat fryer..) the oat. This has resulted in four shortbreads, Raspberry and Oatmeal, Lemon Curd and Oatflake, Orange Marmalade and Oatflake an Apple Crumble. I know: the last one isn't really a jam or preserve and it doesn't make overt oat claims but we'll cut them some slack after all its not easy pushing the envelope of shortbread endeavour, and there are some oats in there.
Dean's have been making shortbread commercially in the little town of Huntly Aberdeanshire since 1975. Helen's Dean batch of shortbread, made to help raise funds for her husband Bill's pipe band, attracted so much praise that she decided to set up a small bakery. Business grew steadily and in 1992 the business moved to a new purpose built bakery on the outskirts of town. Dean's take pride in the fact that production methods are really just the same as those first employed by Mrs Dean 30 years ago but scaled up somewhat. You can find out more about all of this on Dean's excellent website, as well as the various stockists and outlets for their products.
I first visited Scotland the following year in 1976 on holiday and if the swarms of horseflies and midges on Rannoch Moor had of had their way my blood drained husk would still be there today. Luckily we fled for our lives after two days and I survived Scotland's wildlife to this day to review its biscuits. So lets get down to it then.
The biscuits ten per pack are seated in a clear wrapped plastic tray. Puncture the plastic film and you immediately meet the aroma of your chosen flavour. Not only this but each biscuit flavour has its own subtle shading reflect its flavour. Actually in the case of the Raspberry this isn't that subtle, with the biscuits having a positively pink tinge to them. As this had so clearly violated my laws of shortbread anonymity I decided to start there first. Yes, absolutely no doubt that raspberries are to be found within, but not with out putting up a fight as the ingredients include some cornflower, not found in the other three.
So next to the Lemon Curd ones as I've always got a great deal of time for Lemon Curd. Straight away I couldn't help but notice that in the little picture of Mrs Dean making shortbread in her kitchen her hair has grown somewhat and she is now waring it in a ponytail. Perhaps the indicates that by now Mrs Dean was also making her own Lemon Curd, a family favourite according to extra bit of blurb on the box. The zesty smell of lemons announces the opening of this pack, and that extra bit of richness on the palette is balanced by some crunch from the oatflakes in that oh so important texture. Like wise the pony tailed Mrs Dean is in evidence on the Orange Marmalade shortbread as are the pieces of orange zest scattered trough out the biscuits.
Dean's tell me that the pony tailed Mrs Dean will be phased out so as we close out with the Apple Crumble shortbread Mrs Dean has reverted to her pre-Lemon Curd making hair style. The biscuits have more than a passing resemblance to a crunchy topped apple crumble, and I did find they left me with slight but noticeable custard craving. All in all some very useful offerings from a company that's not afraid to try something new but still keep it rooted in traditional recipes and baking.
Animal Biscuits Multireview
|Tuesday 3 May 2005|
|Right from their first few months of joining the NCOTAASD team the younger members of staff were very good at telling one animal from another. I found it interesting that very stylised representations of dogs, cats or rabbits made instant sense to them. It's a innate human skill to recognise the animals that we share our world with and maybe that's a reason why animal shaped biscuits are such a favourite. A couple of years back we took a look at some South African iced animal biscuits. Due to some technical icing issues we can only guess at, most of the animals appeared to be white slugs. In this review we are going to take a look at the classic animal biscuits from America, Germany and the UK, and we'll be paying special attention to how much they look like animals, and applying our hurriedly dreamt up lion, elephant, and monkey benchmark.
Once again it's Nabisco providing the the US's contribution in the form of Barnum's Animals Crackers (actually it's biscuit hunter Jennifer Courtney once again). Setting aside our modern sensibilities about the caging and treatment of animals, it has to be said that the box looks charming with its pictures of animals in circus cages and a built in carrying strap. Presumably the strap is there for children to bring the whole pack with them to school or something. Inside is a waxed paper sachet containing the biscuits. I'm told that the addition of some cocktail sticks and few cardboard wheels turn the pack into a very useful circus trailer. I wanted to like these biscuits but I find myself struggling with name which seems to have a surfeit of plurals. Then to make matters worse, is referring to a sweet biscuit as a cracker.
The biscuits tasted predictably American, containing high fructose corn syrup and a big bunch of vitamin and mineral supplements to the flour. All very well meaning but probably a better plan would be to find some way of replacing the partially hydrogenated soybean oil. The pack also maintains that it has two servings of 8 biscuits within. I certainly wouldn't be hurrying to try these again, but as far visuals go they performed well. The elephant looked like a proper one, with tusks, the monkey was very convincing, however the lion caused problems. I'm not even sure if this actually is a lion, but I couldn't find one with a mane so I assumed this must be it.
Now to Germany and Bahlsen's simply entitled 'Zoo', in an equally simple bag. We picked up ours in Waitrose. The biscuits are a development of that elder statesman the Leibniz butter biscuit, and should be familiar to Bahslen fans. I'm quite amazed at how much I like these seemingly plain little biscuits. As a child this was exactly the sort of biscuit I didn't like so what is going on? Either my tastes have changed or Bahlsen have actually gone that little bit further to come up with a simple biscuit that has a pleasantly morish taste. Given the 12% butter, complete absence of hydrogenated fat and the whole milk powder this seems like something much more wholesome than the Nabisco offering and I certainly wouldn't have too many qualms about the younger members of staff carrying out a ruthless cull of their numbers, and indeed they have.
An excellent result on the lion, elephant and monkey test establishes that a classic approach has been taken to the biscuit shapes. The animals chosen also lean towards children's petting zoo rather than big game safari, which makes for quite a gentle atmosphere. Throw in such things as a cheerful duck, happy tortoise and hilarious penguin and its difficult not to really really like these.
Now to our final biscuits the simply titled Cadbury's Animals. A great deal of Cadbury's biscuits are made under licence by Burton's and indeed a couple of weeks back we took a look at one of their new ones, which we liked a great deal. It's a shame I can't say the same about these. Cadbury's Animal biscuits used to be one of the finest little chocolate biscuits on the market, and would have easily taken on all comers in both taste and animal shapedness. A distinctive deep wavy texture in the chocolate on the back also differentiated the pale shortcake biscuits from lesser non Cadbury biscuits. However they seemed to be operating in quite a rarified atmosphere only really turning up at parties in my experience. Perhaps it was due to the entire box needing to be opened or their relatively high price, that the biscuits received a make over. Today's animal biscuits are mostly sold in large sacks containing individual bags of mini biscuits. The chocolate is still there of course but much less flamboyantly. The picture on the pack still imagines that the chocolate inside is wavy, but in fact it has a thin grid like pattern. The biscuits have shed troublesome and easily broken limbs with designs that keep the biscuit as little round splodges, but at what price. The monkey for one has acquired scary empty skeleton eyes, making it look more 'walking dead' than 'jolly chum'. The biscuit itself has become oddly darker almost suggesting that there is some cocoa in there although there evidently isn't. Despite my reservations the rest of the NCOTAASD team tucked into them with relish.
When it came to the Lion, Elephant and Monkey test I would simply say that it would have been actually the Rhino, Elephant, Lion and Monkey test, only I couldn't find a Rhino for the Cadbury's biscuits.
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