Slow-Baked Easter Biscuits from Lancashire
Long ago in the village of Goosnargh (pronounced “goozner”), in the heart of the peaceful Ribble valley in the north of Lancashire, the village baker produced a new biscuit for Easter. I imagine him thinking it up as a frugal opportunity of using the residual heat from the dying oven after the last batch of bread came out on Holy Thursday. After a long day farming the fields by the river Ribble my ancestors would return home to each take their shift at weaving cotton on the hand loom in the farmhouse. Perhaps they ate these biscuits to keep them going. I have found my forebears’ births, marriages and deaths recorded by the Jesuits at their chapel at nearby Stonyhurst. Then, in the 1840s, when the first cotton factory was built further along the river, putting the hand loom weavers out of business, records show that the younger members of the family left to seek work on the new railways in Liverpool. There, these strong country boys, slow and sparing of speech, met the hungry Irish girls yattering and skittering off the boats, the Great Famine a rough sea away. Did they, I wonder, woo them with biscuits?
- Mix 110g butter or margarine with 20g caster sugar and 180g plain flour and 1 tablespoon caraway seeds and 1 teaspoon of ground coriander, using the method you would use for shortbread. (I lob it all into the food processor.) Spelt flour works perfectly here for those who wish to avoid wheat flour.
- Chill the dough if you have time and inclination then roll it out to 5mm. The traditional Goosnargh cake is cut into plain-edged, not fluted, rounds, which can be achieved with an upturned glass tumbler. This quantity makes a little over a dozen biscuits. Place on a floured baking tray.
- The crucial element of the Goosnargh cake, its USP if you will, is that it is baked slowly on a low heat and should never turn brown. I put them in the fan oven at 150 degrees for about 25 minutes, taking them out while still pale, and sprinkling a little more caster sugar on them.
Best enjoyed with a cup of tea (and this might be one of very few occasions when a native Lancastrian will be tempted to partake of a brand of tea from the adjacent county*) they make an interesting contrast to the unrelenting sweetness of the usual paschal comestibles.
I also found an ancestor on the other side of my family tree who is buried at Goosnargh, having died at the nearby Lancashire County Lunatic Asylum. I would have hoped that here, too, the biscuits would have found their way on to the inmates’ tea plates. I thought at first that this ancestor was a servant at the asylum, but no, the record showed that her occupation had been a servant prior to her incarceration for lunacy. Thankfully the DNA has become diluted across the intervening years, such that her descendants now evince only a mild eccentricity.
* an elucidation for our non-UK readers: “Yorkshire Tea” is a best-selling brand throughout the country, but the denizens of the contiguous counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire maintain a good-natured rivalry which goes back to the Wars of the Roses in the 1480s, the red rose being the symbol of the Lancastrians and the white rose the symbol of the Yorkists, whose leader, Richard III, slain on the battlefield, was reburied this week in Leicester Cathedral.