The taste of childhood
A lot of people make shortbread or gingerbread at this time of year, but I’ve been baking Grandma’s foam biscuits.
Put half a cup of milk and a cup of sugar into a pan. Stir it as it comes to the boil, then add a teaspoon of bicarb soda. And there’s the foam. It bubbles up so much you have to be careful and take it off the heat and stir it frantically as the foam subsides. Add a dash of vanilla essence. Leave the mixture to cool. (Because it’s Grandma’s recipe, I feel I should say you go do something useful while you wait for it to cool.) Later, sift three cups of plain flour into a large bowl. Rub half a cup of cold butter into the flour. Mix in the milk mixture. Roll it out, not too thick, not too thin, cut out the biscuits – preferably with an old mustard tin so they are just the right shape – and bake them. Really, they should be baked in the oven of a wood stove, so the smell of them cooking can mingle with the wood-smoke.
I dunk them in my tea and eat them soggy. They taste of childhood. Every bite is a flood of memories.
They were ideally eaten sitting on one of the hard wooden chairs, pulled up to the wood stove in the farm kitchen in the early morning of mid-winter, with sleep still in your eyes and a warm cup of milky tea in your hands and it still dark outside. There was never a limit on how many you were allowed to eat in the early morning. If there were biscuits in the tin, they could be eaten. Although you mustn’t make a pig of yourself. Somehow the undrawn line was visible.
It was best when Grandad was still alive, when it was he who had made the fire in the hob, boiled the kettle, made the tea; when it was his early morning rustlings that had woken you from your sleep in the too-hard, too-lumpy, old bed in the spare room and you’d stumbled down the passage and pulled your chair up to the fire and he’d said good morning to you in his cheerful way and you’d taken the cup, and the biscuit tin was already there, open, on the table, waiting.
You dunked them into your tea, just briefly, just long enough to soften them slightly, so that when you put them onto your tongue they melted in a crumbly, sweet mess. If you left them in your tea too long, it was disastrous. They broke off and left a stodgy, soggy mess in the bottom of your cup. You could try to dig it out with your teaspoon but it never tasted any good, too much tea and tea leaves mixed in, somehow not quite solid but not liquid either. The balance of the tastes was all wrong and the only thing you could really do was to drink what tea you could off the top of the mess, stopping carefully before the sloppy crumbs hit your lips, and tip the rest into the chook scraps. Grandad would let you do it, but you better not try when Grandma was around. She’d have you for that, tut-tutting at the waste. Grandad would just pour you another cup and let you start all over again.
Grandma made three types of biscuits – small round ginger nuts, large round wholemeal ones and the rectangular foam biscuits. I used to wonder why she bothered with the ginger nuts and wholemeal biscuits, because the foam biscuits were so much better. She cut them with an old mustard tin. (A Keens curry tin will do the job as well, but nothing else is really quite right. I’ve been known to make them in teddy bear shapes and guitar shapes, and because it’s Christmas, I cut some of my latest batch as stars and hearts. But it always feels slightly rebellious, like something Grandma would disapprove of – which is an admittedly strange thing to say almost forty years after her death.
Grandma would put the biscuits straight on to the trays that slotted into the wood stove. A hundred biscuits a tray. (Much larger quantities the recipe on this page makes.) She would make three trays at a time, filling all the tins that lined the top of the kitchenette. Enough to satisfy the voracious appetites of grandchildren.
I would watch Grandma mix the dough in the huge mixing bowl, the same bowl she used to mix bread dough. I’m sure that bowl was among the few things she brought with her from England when she came so long ago. She came alone, with a wedding dress in her trunk and her fiancé waiting for her in Fremantle, leaving her mother and sister behind and coming to an uncertain future that I think turned out to be good.
Grandma was given the biscuit recipe by a fellow patient when she was in hospital after birthing her fourth child, which means we can accurately date the arrival of foam biscuits into the family as September 1929.
Grandma made her biscuits at the wooden kitchen table. The table was the centre of the kitchen, literally and practically. All the food preparation was done there, the biscuits rolled, the bread kneaded, the vegetables peeled, and the meals eaten.
It seems there were five meals a day around that table– early morning tea, then breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, then finally dinner. There was always a tablecloth for the real meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – but never for early morning tea or afternoon tea, always just the bare table then.
At afternoon tea, there would usually be some sort of cake, as well as biscuits, always biscuits. Except at afternoon tea the biscuits were put onto a plate, not just served from the tin like in the early morning. It made them seem limited, less plentiful. You were pushing it if you took more than two. It was better in the morning. Then you could take as many as you wanted.
Thanks for reading.
PS. Here’s the recipe …
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