Empire Biscuits, A Hateful History
The Empire biscuit, old-fashioned and sickly sweet, must qualify as a children’s treat – two shortbread biscuits glued together with jam, on top a layer of fondant icing, and for decoration a glacé cherry on top, or what is usually preferred – a jelly tot. The air of nostalgia around Empire biscuits, and other fancies in their category, such as snowballs, pineapple soufflés, fern cakes, flies graveyard to name a few, has given them an enduring popularity so they are equally enjoyed by adults who have fond memories of eating them as children. No wonder cakes with such brilliant and bizarre names hold a certain allure.
For all that the Empire biscuit is such a benign confection, it has quite an interesting little history. The name itself is a funny one as it makes you wonder what is so imperial about this simple biscuit. The British Empire is of course what put the Empire in the biscuit. The popular theory for the origin of the Empire biscuit is that it derives from Austro-German Linzer Kekse, which do bear an uncanny resemblance, taking into account a century of evolution of the biscuit, i.e. British bastardisation.
This theory comes from the evidence in a New Zealand paper, The Auckland Star, who reported in 1928 ‘Those pleasant little combinations of shortbread, icing sugar, raspberry jam and crystallised cherries called in the good old pre-war days ‘German’, now Teutophobically changed to ‘Empire’, biscuits.’ Not surprisingly, with New Zealand having been an outpost of the British Empire (and with all the Scottish emigration) Empire biscuits are still a popular biscuit in New Zealand.
Anti-German sentiment in Britain was of course rife during the Great War. No doubt at this time the Empire biscuit was in part enjoyed by Britons as a patriotic symbol. Let’s not forget that even the royal family changed their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor, for what could sound more English than Windsor? More swift PR moves came the Mountbattens, who anglicised their name from Battenburg. However, the famous Battenburg cake, which was named after Prince Louis of Battenburg on the occasion of marrying Victoria, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, has irrevocably stuck.
The hostility towards anything German, as well as the story of the Empire biscuit itself, goes back a bit further still. Towards the end of the 19th century, after the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), many Germans emigrated to Britain, many of which were bakers. Not much long after, in 1886, the name ‘Empire biscuit’ was registered as a trademark by the Empire Biscuit and Flour Company Ltd. There are also numerous advertisements for Empire biscuits listed in newspapers throughout the latter half of the 19th century. It makes you wonder if the British simply stole the recipe and re-appropriated the name to reflect the glory of the British, rather than continuing the biscuit’s association with belligerent Germany (such was the attitude).
Recipe for Empire Biscuits – Makes 6 – 8 Empire Biscuits
This recipe for Empire biscuits uses the classic formula for shortbread and is far better than the usual soggy and all too sweet shop bought version. For the jam part you want to use some sort of seedless jam, so some sort of jelly is best really. For Linzer biscuits they use redcurrant jelly.
2oz castor sugar
4oz unsalted butter
6oz plain flour (cake flour preferably)
small pinch of salt
3 tbsp redcurrant jelly (or some sort of red berry jelly)
2 tbsp icing sugar
glace cherries or jelly tots
In a large mixing bowl cream the butter, sugar and salt together. Add the flour in thirds at a time until all combined. Tip this out on to a work surface and form a smooth dough, making sure there aren’t any pockets of butter and sugar that haven’t been properly combined. If it is dry and won’t come together you can add a tiny drop of water to help bind it. Work the dough as little as possible, otherwise it will become tough. Wrap it up in clingfilm and leave to rest for 1 hour.
Remove the dough from the fridge and leave to warm up for 10 – 15 minutes. When the dough is pliable roll it out on a lightly floured work surface to the thickness of just under half a centimetre. Cut out rounds using a biscuit cutter (8cm in diameter). Transfer to a large baking sheet lined with baking paper. Bake in a 160˚C preheated oven for 12 – 15 minutes until just hard to the touch but not browning (the lower oven temperature helps to ensure they have an even colour). When they are ready transfer them to a cooling rack and leave to cool.
Meanwhile put the redcurrant jelly into a saucepan with 2 tsp water and melt the jelly over a low heat. Bring to a gentle boil and reduce this mixture for 1 minute. Reducing the jelly makes thicker so it more sticky so it glue the two halves of the biscuits together better.
Now make the icing. The amount of water you add to the icing sugar depends on the humidity of the sugar. You want it to be very thick so it doesn’t run over the sides but just thin enough to be spreadable (perhaps add 1 tsp at a time).
Now assemble the biscuits by glueing the two halves of the biscuits together and spooning the icing on top. Try to do this when the jelly has cooled but not completely set. Last but not least place the decoration (whatever you have chosen) on top with dainty hands.