Food & Culture

Reworking the classic Anzac biscuit

Dyed-in-the-wool Anzac fan Pat Nourse takes a fresh look at this old favourite that won the hearts of two nations.

By Pat Nourse
Reworking the classic Anzac biscuit

Mess with Anzac biscuits at your peril. "Serious breaches" of the Protection of Word "Anzac" Act of 1920 can meet with serious penalties: up to a year in prison or $10,200 for a "natural person" and $51,000 for a "body corporate". So how much can you alter the recipe while staying on the right side of the law and the Anzac spirit? Is there really any improving on a classic?The Department of Veterans' Affairs says applications for permission to use the term Anzac commercially for biscuits are normally approved "provided the product generally conforms to the traditional recipe and shape, and are referred to as 'Anzac Biscuits' or 'Anzac Slice'". Calling them Anzac cookies is generally not approved "due to the non-Australian overtones".

But what is the traditional recipe? The DVA points to articles on the Australian War Memorial's website, which in turn cite an undated recipe for "Anzac tile/wafer" from Arnott's chief chemist Frank Townsend: flour, wholemeal flour, sugar, milk powder, water and a "good pinch salt" – no oats or golden syrup to be seen, let alone coconut. The biscuits in question, a form of hard tack, are "very, very hard", and mention is made of the fact some soldiers preferred to grind them up and eat them as porridge.

The recipe makes sense on a wartime footing when eggs were in short supply and the product was to be shipped unrefrigerated for months at a time, but they're not the biscuits that won the hearts of two nations. It was only after the war ended that oats became a standard of the recipe, and no printed reference to coconut appeared until 1929.

The War Memorial offers two other Anzac recipes that bear much closer resemblance to the bickies we know and love. The first, from a 1926 edition of The Capricornian, a Rockhampton newspaper, specifies two cups of oats to a cup of flour and half a cup of sugar. You mix a tablespoonful of golden syrup, two of boiling water and a teaspoon of bicarb till they froth, then add half a cup of melted butter, and mix that into the dry ingredients. Spoonfuls go onto a "floured slide", are baked in a slow oven, and magic ensues.

Coconut gets its day in the Country Women's Association of New South Wales's 1933 Calendar of Cake and Afternoon Tea Delicacies. It's a notably sweeter biscuit, with more sugar, less flour, and coconut taking the place of half the oats.

Dig a little deeper and you'll see that "traditional" recipes vary even more widely still. You don't have to look far in 1920s cookbooks to find references to iced Anzacs, or others sandwiched around jam. A 1929 recipe from the Brisbane Courier includes cinnamon, mixed spice and finely chopped dates. Tasty? Sure. But to me it sounds like it might bring you uncomfortably close to a $50,000 fine if you wanted to sell them as Anzac biscuits.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Anzac fan, I had a good think about what exactly makes them so appealing. My feeling is that it's the austerity-roughage factor of the oats and coconut, the combination of crisp edges and a bit of chew (something the biscuits for the men in Gallipoli almost certainly didn't have) and the unrefined rawness of the golden syrup.

And it was this idea of roughness and rawness that I thought could chime with today's bakers' love of rawer, less refined ingredients. Substituting coconut oil for butter would probably be delicious, but might lose sight of the virtue of the original. But what about swapping out the plain flour for something stoneground and wholemeal? Demerara for white sugar? What if I let the butter brown a bit in the pan when I melted it? I thought blending the best of the two classic recipes, updating them with better ingredients, might pay off.

Every time I could opt for something less milled, bleached or crushed, I went for it. I think the big win might've been the oats. In Hobart I stumbled across a brand of oats rolled by Callington Mill, "Australia's only wind-rolled oats", made using a century-old oat-roller. I am fully cognisant of just how Portlandia-precious the mention of oats ground in the country's only operating Georgian windmill is, believe me. But they're bloody good oats – fresh, creamy and coarse in texture rather than something refined to buggery and designed to sit on a supermarket shelf until the Rapture. The fact they're made in a place called Oatlands seals the deal.

I gave some thought to shredding my own coconut and using it fresh, but decided in the end to go with rougher-cut product from the shop. I didn't churn the butter myself, or use my own tears in place of the salt, and I used a regular gas oven rather than anything wood-fired or the power of the sun's rays. Georgian windmills are one thing, but there's no sense in going overboard.

Less-refined products are going to vary more considerably in things like moisture content than plainer flours and sugars, so I recommend using your eyes and fingers to judge the wetness of your dough (it should be just sticky enough to hold together) and how long you cook your biscuits. I like mine just shy of burnt; start checking the oven around the 10-minute mark. As I said, I like a bit of chew in a biscuit, so I baked mine slow rather than hot and fast. (The choice to go with non-fan-forced baking stems purely from the fact my oven was made in 1942 rather than any serious experimentation on that front.)

And the result? I am very happy with it. I don't know that I'd dare to call them healthier, but these Anzacs are considerably less sweet than most commercial offerings, and have much more texture, especially where the oats and coconut are concerned.

The Anzac is a forgiving biscuit, even for the novice baker. It calls for nothing hard to find, and can be made without scales or a mixer. And the best Anzacs are those you make yourself, however recherché your oats. Put them next to a cup of tea with friends and pause a moment to reflect on the Australians and New Zealanders who ate them more than 100 years ago in less comfortable circumstances. Lest we forget.