Anzac biscuits: History of a culinary icon

Anzac biscuits have long been a favourite with New Zealanders and Australians, but the history of the patriotic treat has often been fictionalised.

For years, it was widely believed that women back home in New Zealand would bake the rolled oats biscuits and send them to the troops at Gallipoli or other World War I battlefields.

However, this story has been widely disproved by academics, as the biscuits would not have stayed fresh throughout the journey from New Zealand.

Soldiers did consume biscuits during World War I, but they were not the rolled oats-style biscuit we know today.

Otago University's Professor Helen Leach says the first use of the Anzac name in a recipe was in the seventh edition of the St Andrew's Cookery Book published in Dunedin in 1915, the year of the landing in Gallipoli. However, this recipe was for Anzac cakes and didn't contain many of the ingredients now synonymous with Anzac biscuits.

Prof Leach believes the first time the Anzac name was first paired with a recipe for rolled oats biscuits was in the ninth edition of the St Andrew's Cookery Book published in 1921.

A recipe for Anzac biscuits was also published in The War Chest Cookery Book in Sydney in 1917, but this recipe included eggs, cinnamon, mixed spice and rice flour. It didn't use the rolled oats, coconut and golden syrup combination found in modern Anzac biscuits.

The Southland Red Cross Cookery Book, published in 1917 or 1918, also contained a recipe for Anzac pudding, while a recipe for what we now know as Anzac biscuits appeared under the name 'rolled oat biscuits'.

Dr Joanna Cobley of the University of Canterbury is currently writing a biography of the Anzac biscuit recipe, and says it is a culinary icon.

She agrees with Prof Leach and says although women back home did send food to the troops, they didn't send the Anzac biscuits we know today.

"The idea of the women sending the biscuits to the soldiers is nice, but they couldn't do it because the food would have gone rancid," she says.

Instead, Australian soldiers called their biscuits Anzac tiles, but they were often described as 'rock-hard tooth breakers' and were a plain and tasteless biscuit.

Dr Cobley says the biscuits have evolved greatly over the years to become a national icon.

"I think the best thing to think about it is that it's evolved, and you've got the name which has to come into being first and then you've got the general agreement for what is going to be in the recipe.

"To me, what's captivating is the continuity and the fact that the recipe has become more simple over time."

Dr Cobley says the fact the biscuits are simple to make also adds to their legacy, as children are able to make the biscuits themselves and associate them with the Anzac soldiers.

Now, Anzac biscuits are a staple in every New Zealand cookbook and have been made by many of New Zealand's best-known chefs, such as Dame Allison Holst.

Dame Alison's Almost-Anzac Biscuits

Ingredients:

  • 100g butter
  • ½ cup golden syrup
  • ½-1 tsp vanilla or almond essence
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut
  • 1 cup standard (plain) flour
  • ½ tsp baking soda dissolved in
  • 2 Tbsp warm water

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 170degC and place the wire rack just below the middle. Line two baking trays with baking paper or a non-stick mat.

In a bowl, mix together the sugar, rolled oats, desiccated coconut and flour and set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter on low heat and add the golden syrup. Stir until blended and remove from the heat.

Add the mixed dry ingredients along with the vanilla or almond essence. Dissolve the baking soda in the warm water and pour into the mixture.

Mix it all up until it comes together nicely. If the mixture is too crumbly, add 1-2 extra tablespoons of water to bring it together.

Using wet hands, shape into the mixture into walnut-sized (or smaller) balls, and place on baking paper on baking trays. Make sure to leave plenty of room for the biscuits to spread out.

Bake for about 15 minutes or until evenly golden brown.

After the biscuits have cooled slightly, lift them onto a cooling rack. When cold, store in an airtight container.

This recipe can make around between 30 and 50 biscuits depending how big you make them.

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