Bisket Bread

To make bisket bread.
Take one pound of flower, & one pound of sugar, one ounce of annisseeds, halfe an ounce of coriander seed, mingle these together, take viii eggs beat them verie well, then put in your stuff, then beat it alltogether very well, then take dishes &annoynt them with butter & put the stuf into them, Let the oven be as hot as it is for manchet, when it is brown at top turne it & set it in againe, if you would have it light put the yolks of viii eggs more to it, & beat the sugar with the eggs, before the flower bee put in.
Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, ed. Hilary Spurling, p 119.

To make bisket bread.
Take one pound of flour, one pound of sugar, one ounce of aniseeds, and half an ounce of coriander seed. Mingle these together, take 8 eggs and beat them very well. Then put in your stuff, then beat it all together very well, then take dishes and anoint them with butter, then put the stuff into them. Let the oven be as hot as it is for manchet. When it [the bisket] is brown at the top, turn it and set it in again. If you would have it light, put the yolks of 8 eggs more to it, and beat the sugar with the eggs, before the flour be put in.

Bisket was originally a long lasting, but tasteless and hard to eat food, consisting of flour and water, used as food for soldiers, and there were many complaints about how inedible they were (Brears 2016, 568). They were twice cooked to make them hard enough for weevils to avoid (Spurling, 2011, 117). But then in the sixteenth century, in a form of cultural appropriation, sugar, eggs and spices were added to create a high end version that was often enjoyed at banquets. Some biskets were twice baked, like this one, while others were baked once.

There are many other versions of bisket recipe (see, for example, The Good Housewife’s Jewel pp 79-80 and Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book pp 117-121). They are all similar in that they are combinations of equal amounts of flour and sugar, with many well beaten eggs, with added flavourings such as spices and rosewater. Biskets were also probably commercially available; there are recipes that use biskets without actually having a recipe. See for example A.W’s A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary for All Such as Delight Therin, which specifies in several pie or tart recipes to sprinkle bisket on top, but does not have a recipe for them (a transcript of this cookbook is available online here).

I have seen other bisket redactions where people change the proportion of flour to sugar, possibly influenced by modern biscuits where the biscuit mix holds its form when uncooked. But Elizabethan biskets are more like a cake batter than a modern English biscuit, North American cookie or Italian biscotti.

Lady Fettiplace’s instructions for combining the ingredients are exact, if a little obscure in the writing. The eggs must be beaten “verie well,” then the “stuff” added. However, the final line of the recipe specifies the sugar must be added to the eggs and beaten in before the flour (and presumably the spices). Spurling, who produced the Receipt Book from Lady Fettiplace’s handwritten journal noted the final line is clearly a later addition to the text of the recipe. The order in which the ingredients are added does have an impact on the final texture of the bisket (see notes). Clearly, Lady Fettiplace made some bisket bread adding the sugar and the flour at once and got an unsatisfactory result. She then added an extra note to her working journal to remind herself of the better method. My own working recipe journal is full of similar additions and corrections.

Ingredients

(The recipe is quartered to make it easier to handle.)

115 g flour 2 tsp aniseed, ground
115g caster sugar 1 tsp coriander seed, ground
2 eggs

Method

  1. In a stand mixer, beat the eggs slowly until they are combined, then increase the speed of the blender.

    Lightly_Whipped
    The eggs at the start of the whipping. Note the colour and the volume.

  2. Beat the eggs until they are light and frothy, and increased in volume.

    Fully_Whipped
    The eggs fully whipped. The colour has changed and the foam has nearly doubled in size.

  3. Gradually add the sugar, and continue beating until the mix is shiny and is starting to resist the beaters.
  4. Add the flour, aniseed and coriander, and continue to beat until the mix is well combined and stiff.
  5. Take two flat, ovenproof plates with steep sides, and cover them well with butter. Carefully pour the bisket batter into one of the plates.
  6. Bake in a 180ᵒC oven for 12-15 minutes, until the edges of bisket have turned golden and have started to come away from the sides of the plate.
  7. Carefully remove the plate from the oven, then put the other plate on top of the plate containing the bisket. Flip the plates so the bisket falls into the second plate, and the top of the bisket is now at the base. Return the bisket to the oven and bake for a further 10-12 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the bisket comes out clean.
  8. If the business with the plates seems like too much work, you can spoon the mixture into mini muffin pans. Line the moulds of a mini muffin tray with mini patty cases, and carefully spoon the mix into patty cases. The mix is quite stiff, so it will help to use two spoons. Fill each mould about ¾ full, and bake in in a 180ᵒC oven for 10-12 minutes.

Notes

  • Normally, I will do things such as mixing, pureeing or grinding at least once manually, to get an appreciation for the process the medieval cooks had to go through (and then I break out the power tools because I don’t have an army of minions; I do have minions but not an army of them). But this is one where I will never do the mixing by hand, because it does indeed much constant beating to get the eggs to foam properly! When you beat the yolks and the whites together, you are breaking down and re-combining the proteins in the egg, and combining the water in the egg white, to create the foam that will give the biskets their rise. And the eggs need to be beaten a lot, in order to bring about the protein structures. You can beat the eggs less, but you won’t get a light, crisp bisket (McGee, 2004, 100-106).
  • The final bisket has a crisp, light texture. In order to achieve this, you need to follow Lady Fettiplace’s method of combining the ingredients. That is, beat the eggs to a foam first, then add the sugar, to stabilise the egg foam, before adding the flour, or your biskets will collapse when cooked (McGee, 2004, 104).

 

Bisket bread

Further Reading

Click on the links below to buy direct from The Book Depository.
Black, Maggie (2002). The Good Housewife’s Jewel.
McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking.
Spurling, Hilary (2011). Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book.
A.W. (1591). A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary for All Such as Delight Therin.

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