The Duchess of Devonshire’s biscuits
Saturday is National Biscuit Day, so to celebrate, here’s an easy recipe from one of the recipe books in the archive of the Wright family of Eyam Hall. It produces a lovely crisp biscuit to enjoy with a cup of tea – the lady who wrote down this recipe noted they were ‘exceeding good’. The original recipe uses large quantities (this is a recipe designed for a household on the Chatsworth scale, after all), so I’ve quartered it, which will make around 38 biscuits.
Tea Cakes [from the] D’s Devonshire
8oz (225g) plain flour (you can use wholemeal or a mix of both)
4 oz (110g) butter
4 oz (110g) sugar
1/2 tbsp white wine or water
4 oz (110g) currants or 1/2 oz (12g) caraway seeds
The instructions for this recipe are extremely brief – it simply indicates that you rub the butter into the flour, roll the dough thin and bake on tin plates. For an experienced cook in a kitchen like the one at Eyam Hall, this would be all the instructions needed, but here’s a slightly fuller description of how to make them.
Use cold butter straight from the fridge, cut it into small cubes and rub it into the flour until it resembles fine crumbs – if you don’t care about historical accuracy, pulse the mixture in a food processor, which will be much quicker than doing this by hand.
Stir in the sugar and either currants or caraway seeds. I like both versions, so I tend to halve the mixture and put currants in one half and caraway seeds in the other. Beat the egg and mix it in, then add the wine or water and use your hands to pull the mixture together to form a ball of pastry-like dough. You need very little liquid as the warmth of your hands will soften the butter and you’ll find that it comes together nicely. The original recipe uses white wine instead of water, but I never found that I could taste the wine, so water is just fine.
There’s no need to knead – as soon as you’ve got it into a smooth ball, it’s ready. Roll the dough out on a well-floured surface, getting it as thin as you dare. Use a biscuit cutter to cut rounds (or any fancy shape you like!), and then transfer the biscuits to a baking sheet.
Bake for 10-12 minutes near the top of the oven at 180 degrees. Don’t let them get too brown – they should be a pale golden colour. Cool on a wire rack. Caraway seeds were commonly used in seed cakes and other traditional baked goods, but aren’t used much now. I think that’s a shame as they give a lovely flavour to these sweet and crunchy biscuits.
The recipe book which includes these biscuits dates from 1769 to the 1790s (this recipe is from the 1790s end of the book) so this Duchess of Devonshire at that time would be the famous and fashionable Georgiana Cavendish (1757-1806). It seems likely that the lady who compiled the recipe book took tea with the Duchess and asked for the recipe of the biscuits she enjoyed there – though I’m sure this was the Duchess’s cook’s recipe as I can’t imagine the Duchess with her sleeves rolled up baking her own biscuits! Whoever’s recipe is, they are delicious, so I do recommend giving them a go.