I didn’t really give them much thought until I opened up one of Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks and found a recipe for them called Granny Boyd's Biscuits. No, they’re not! I objected, they’re not Granny Boyd’s, whoever that is. They’re my mother’s! Besides, her ‘Granny Boyd’ recipe only called for the chocolate variety, whereas my mother would split the dough into two, adding chocolate to one half and vanilla only to the other.
It turns out Granny Boyd is the grandmother of Nigella’s editor. All writers know one must treat an editor with delicacy and respect and accept whatever they say. I’m guessing that this was a biscuit recipe ‘of the day’, possibly even found on the back of a cocoa tin or a flour packet, and could just as easily be called ‘Granny Watson’s biscuits’.
At any time of year, they’re a useful biscuit to have around. They store well without losing their crispness - if you can keep them that long. They're perfect to pass around with a fruit compote both in winter and summer to make it just that bit more special, or to stick into a boule of ice cream. But at Christmas is when they come into their own. They make delicious presents, wrapped in baking parchment and tied with a ribbon if you don’t have a pretty tin to give away. If you are in possession of small children or visiting grandchildren, they’re a perfect recipe to get them to make - quick and easy and leaving a bowl that’s delicious for swiping a finger round to lick off any left-over dough.
Nigella only provides a recipe for the chocolate version. Her editor doesn’t seem familiar with the possibility of making a vanilla variety. The only quibble I have is that Nigella and her editor don’t add enough cocoa powder. They suggest 30 grams. My mother went for more, so I always use 50g. If you’re going to make vanilla-flavoured biscuits as well as chocolate ones, hold back the cocoa powder (reducing the amount to 25 grams) and add it only after you’ve reached the point where you can split the dough in two. Then add the cocoa to one half and a teaspoonful of vanilla extract (not the ubiquitous French supermarket Arôme de Vanille which should be banned for its ersatz flavour) to the other. I would add the vanilla extract anyway to all the dough base including the cocoa version for extra depth of flavour.
She also recommends a secondary baking time of 10-15 minutes, whereas I go for 20 minutes. Oven temperatures do vary, so check at 15 minutes that the biscuits feel crisp to the touch. If still spongey, keep them in a further 5. They will firm up as they cool.
The amount the dough makes means you’ll need to bake them in two batches, unless you own two baking sheets.
To make 30-35 biscuits
- 300g self-raising flour
- 50g cocoa powder and/or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (my addition)
- 250g unsalted butter (room temperature)
- 125g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 190°C. Sift together the flour and cocoa powder into a mixing bowl and set aside.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and pale in colour (you can use a wooden spoon but it’s easier and quicker with an electric hand whisk).
Mix in the sifted flour and cocoa – the mixture might look as if it needs liquid to bring it together, but it really doesn’t. Keep working in the ingredients and it will form a dough.
Damp your hands and spoon walnut-sized balls of dough into them. Roll the dough between your palms and, spacing them well apart because they will spread, arrange them on the baking sheets. Gently flatten each ball a little to mark it with the tines of a fork.
Bake the biscuits in the preheated oven for 5 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 170°C for a further 15-20 minutes. The biscuits should feel firm on top but not hard.
Remove from the oven and transfer to cool completely on a wire rack, before storing in an airtight container.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the December 2022 edition of The Bugle.