Active time:25 mins
Total time:1 hour 15 mins, with cooling time
The marigold orange, yellow and blue cellophane wrap is a stalwart — there have been only minor changes through the decades. There’s nothing “new and improved” about the branding. Around the globe, it’s recognizable, and the market remains stable through generations.
“It’s an iconic product with a passionate and loyal following,” says Nimal Amitrigala, president of Grace Foods Canada Inc. “If you grew up in Jamaica, they were a pantry staple.”
The time feels ripe for this kind of nostalgia. To pour a hot “cuppa” and break away from a world gone mad. If only for a few minutes.
Let’s talk about dunking—the play in it. Getting it right is important. There’s a moment before disintegration when the biscuit is sopping. The British brand McVitie’s even has a dunking expert, Stuart Farrimond, and he claims that dunking digestives in a milky drink releases more flavor that you’d get from a dry one. Two quick dunks are ideal. It’s proof that tea and biscuits are better together. And then there’s the sweet beige rubble to swirl out of the bottom of the teacup.
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Cookies for gobbling have chocolate coatings and cream fillings. They make the palate sleepy. Plain digestive biscuits are like Euro walking shoes — sensible, not sexy. A roll of Hobnobs is something your nan would have in her cupboard. They call to mind the marriage of nourishment and frugality of post-world war Europe. The terrible events whittled the biscuit trade in England from 370 varieties in 1939 to just 10 six years later.
“It was my grandmother’s favorite aisle of the supermarket,” says Guardian columnist and Rome-based food writer Rachel Roddy, “Her teacup saucer always had two biscuits on it.” Employing the characteristic warmth her Sunday readers have come to love, Roddy stitches biscuits and family together.
The breakfast ritual of her Italian husband, Vincenzo, is also up for scrutiny. She admires his commitment. With his morning milky coffee, there are massive soft, cakey biscotti all’uovo. A childhood holdover from growing up in Sicily. “You have to dunk them,” she says, “Italians say, ‘inzuppare.’” Gentilini has made biscuits and rusks since the mid-19th century in Rome, and plain biscuits are standard morning fare. The perfect counterpoint to good strong coffee. And a surprise for first-time tourists.
Slow food and heritage wheat advocates are plain biscuits’ biggest fans. Bakers working exclusively with whole grains are putting a spin on these cookies because the flavor of the grain can shine.
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Roxana Jullapat is the head baker and co-owner of Friends & Family in Los Angeles. “I grew up in Costa Rica, and there is no tradition of digestive cookies,” she says, “McVitie’s were the first I had.”
Her first encounter with the plain biscuits was while working for Nancy Silverton at the Los Angeles restaurant Campanile, where cheese was often served with oatcakes. It’s the inspiration for the digestive recipe in Jullapat’s cookbook, “Mother Grains.” She combines oat flour and rolled oats, and adds all-purpose flour to give the gluten structure.
The brand Hobnobs is oat-based, as well. It was launched in 1985, and its popular chocolate topped cousins came two years later. Because they’re made with rolled oats, the structure is less stable. Any dunking needs to be done at lightning speed. Otherwise, there’s the disaster of having half a biscuit disappear into the drink.
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Historically, digestives were made with wholemeal, a combination of fine bran and white flour. Fiber was the initial attraction to the cookies for the sensitive crowd. But modern whole-grain bakers would rightly question the health benefits given the use of highly refined white flour. Taste is so often pinned to history.
Making digestives from scratch has its rewards. The aroma of toasted grain wafting through the house is appealing. A golden glow of good nourishment descends on the eater. “There are endless options for making them using oats and wholemeal flour,” Jullapat says. “You can get creative and use rice or barley flakes, flavor them with sage or add psyllium husks for more fiber.”
But there’s no shame in reaching for store-bought. The Brits buy 500 per person each year, and more than half the population, 53 percent, profess their love for the humble sweet. “When I was little, the biscuits in my grandma’s tin were plain,” says Roddy.
And 41 years on, Alyssa, the baby girl in Linda Becker’s arms, buys and eats Ovaltine Biscuits for herself.
You can fancy these simple biscuits up with a store-bought sweet seed mixture or make your own to suit any taste — pepitas, poppy seeds or fennel seeds would be great additions (as shown in photo; see NOTE). Mix currants into the dough for a bit of extra sweetness. Or please everyone and dip half the baked digestive in melted dark or milk chocolate.
Make Ahead: The dough can be tightly wrapped and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance.
Storage Notes: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
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- 3/4 cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 1/2 cups (187 grams) whole-wheat flour
- 1/4 cup (17 grams) wheat bran
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick/4 ounces/113 grams) cold unsalted butter, cubed
- 1/3 cup (113 grams) honey
- 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) whole milk
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, wheat bran, baking powder and salt. Pulse two or three times to blend. Add the butter, and pulse until the butter is cut in and the mixture looks like a coarse meal. Give it a quick stir to be sure there are no lumps of butter. With the motor running, add the honey and milk and blend until most of the dough comes together in a ball.
Shape the dough into a 6-inch square, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 3 days.
When ready to bake, position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
Lightly flour your work surface and roll out the dough to a 14-inch square. To prevent the dough from sticking, flour the surface and rotate the dough a quarter turn at a time, as needed.
Trim the edges of the dough for a more finished look. Using the tines of a fork, poke holes in the dough, then cut it into 1 1/2-by-3-inch rectangles. Gather any dough scraps, re-roll and cut as directed above to get about 36 digestives.
Transfer the digestives to the prepared baking sheets, spacing them at least 1/2-inch apart. The digestives don’t spread during baking.
Bake for 6 minutes, then switch the baking sheets to the opposite racks and rotate them front to back, and continue to bake an additional 6 to 8 minutes, or until the digestives are slightly caramelized around the edges. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and let cool completely, about 30 minutes.
NOTE: To make a sweet seed topping: In a medium bowl, combine 2 tablespoons each of sesame; chia; golden flax seeds; roasted, salted sunflower seeds; unsweetened, shredded coconut and turbinado sugar. When ready to bake, roll the dough into a 12-inch square. Sprinkle the seed mixture evenly on top and then, pressing firmly, continue rolling into a 14-inch square. Slice and bake as directed above.
Calories: 60; Total Fat: 3g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 7mg; Sodium: 22mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 1g; Sugar: 3g; Protein: 1g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From food writer and chef Deborah Reid.
Tested by Debi Suchman; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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