Biscuit, Biscuit, and Biscuit

I was reviving my refrigerator micro-pets, aka waking up the kefir and the sourdough which usually languishes in the back of the fridge. Twice-daily feeding of the critters makes for a fair amount of excess sourdough. There’s only so much bread you can bake, and it usually takes all day, which is inconvenient – so what to do with the stuff? I could just dump it in the compost, I suppose – and I’ve done just that, too. But it’s wasteful, so really a last-ditch thing to do (haha, see what I did there? Last ditch, ditching the sourdough. I’m so funny).

Also, due to one thing and another, I was feeling in need of something very basic, old-fashioned to do, something nourishing, something non-electronic.  Sourdough baking fits the bill.

And I’ve got all this lovely fresh strawberry jam from yesterday – what to put it on? Biscuits, methinks! So I booted up Google (yes, I’m aware of the irony this creates with the preceding paragraph), and found a nice recipe for sourdough biscuits.


They’re really just ordinary baking powder biscuits with sourdough by way of liquid and some baking soda added, but the sourdough does give it a nice tang. Feeling retro-nostalgic (i.e. longing for a past that I never experienced, when everything was simple and children frolicked in meadows while birdies tweeted in trees instead of people on the internet), I got out the cast iron and baked the biscuits in the 12-inch Lodge skillet. Which, incidentally, worked extremely well; I’ll definitely use the cast iron for baking pans again.

But while the biscuits were merrily baking away, I got to thinking about the word “biscuit”, and how it means something completely different in different countries.

First (or, actually, last – but we’ll get to that in a moment) there is the American meaning, which is the sense I’m using it here, in my trusty Lodge cast iron. American biscuits are medium-sized little soft baking powder cakes or buns – about 3″ across, 1 1/2″ thick, not very sweet, and always, always eaten as fresh as possible, preferrably still hot. They’re a lovely accompaniment to stew or soup, and yes, quite nice with butter and fresh strawberry jam.

Then there’s the English biscuit – what Americans call a cookie. If I’m not mistaken, an English biscuit is most commonly crispy, with a nice crunch to it, suitable for dipping in cups of tea. Also delicious.

Marguerite Patten, Step by Step Cookery, 1973

And then there’s the German Biskuit (pronounced bis-quit), which is the same as the French biscuit (bis-quee). It’s what English-speaking people would call sponge cake – a soft, light cake batter with lots of eggs, made by separating egg yolks and whites, whipping the whites to stiff peaks, and very carefully folding everything together. It’s the basis for many of the amazing cream cakes and tortes Europe is famous for (a proper Black Forest Cake, for example, is usually a chocolate Biskuit with cherry filling, kirsch, and whipped cream – none of that fake pastry cream concoction American supermarkets deign to call by that name).

Dr. Oetker, Backen macht Freude, 1987

Now, my guess is that the journey of the word meaning actually went in reverse order from the one I have here – from Latin to French, thence to England, then with the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World where savoury sourdough biscuits were easier to produce in the campfire dutch oven than tea-dipping shortbread fingers. But that’s entirely uneducated guesswork on my part; don’t go quoting me in papers on the history of food.


Incidentally, there’s also the word “bisque” or “biscuit firing” that potters do – the first firing of the pots after they’ve dried; it’s followed by the glaze or glost firing. “Biscuit” literally means “twice-baked”, so it’s far more apt here than in cooking. Potters also sometimes use biscuits, or cookies, in the kiln – flat discs of unglazed clay to prop smaller items up during glaze firing so if the glaze runs the item doesn’t get glued to the kiln shelf. But I think in that case, the “biscuit” refers to the shape of the thing, not it’s twice-baked aspect. The same goes for a biscuit joint in carpentry, where a small round disc is glued into a slot, holding two adjoining pieces together.

And now the timer on my stove tells me that my cast-iron-baked sourdough bread is ready to come out of the oven, so I’ll leave off my biscuitual musings and see to my loaves.

Life, the Universe, and Biscuits. Pass one over here, please – I don’t care what kind.