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Of Punch and Biscuits

Admittedly, I may have missed the episode, but I don’t believe that Leonard Nimoy ever went “In Search of… The Toasted Punch Biscuit”.  But he should have, because the toasted biscuit has been at the center of one of my greatest cocktail mysteries, and I for one, would have watched the show, copied it, and bought the deluxe edition DVD when it hit the street.  And, he would have saved me a good deal of research – not to mention several dozen eggs.  On the other hand, I’m glad that Nimoy never went down that road because he would have denied me the joy of hunting down a singularly elusive bit of drink history.

The first question I’m sure you have is “What is a toasted punch biscuit?”  As luck would have it, I shall tell you.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, things were changing on a global level, as merchant-focused companies from most of the sea-faring European powers set off in all directions.  They brought all manner of wonders back to the continent – furs, cocoa, spices, as well as new beverages like coffee, tea, and punch.  In his seminal book Punch, David Wondrich tells us that the first written reference to punch was made on September 28, 1632, in a letter from one Robert Addams to his colleague, Thomas Colley, both Englishmen stationed in India.  Over the next two hundred years, punch would become ingrained in the culture – specifically in English culture, and as the English had long enjoyed dunking toast in their ale drinks, it should come as little surprise that they soon started adding toast and toasted biscuits to their punch (as well as, to be fair, to their coffee and tea).

For the toast, we have clear records of the major varieties that were produced at the time, and of these, I’m going to cast my vote in favor of manchet for a couple of reasons.  Not only was it one of the finest – if not the finest – western breads of the period, but exquisite examples of it were made in the Indian city of Goa.  At the same time, Goa was also producing amazing Arrack, one of the earliest base spirits for punch (defined as “an Indian drink”).  In his A New Account of East-India and Persia from 1681, John Fryer tells us, “The finest Manchet it may be in the World is made here, and the purest Virgin Wax for Tapers.  At Nerule is made the best Arach or Nepa de Goa, with which the English on this Coast make that enervating Liquor called Paunch (which is Indostan for Five) from Five Ingredients.”  Manchet, Arrack, and punch all in the same sentiment, all from the same place.  I don’t know about you, but I’m sold.  Plus, manchet and dense breads like it toast really well and, based upon our own experiments, can hold up for hours in ale or in a punch.   But toast is the easy part.

The slippery fish that went into punch was the “toasted biscuit”.   Historic punch recipes are relatively vague on the subject.  One account of Admiral Russell’s monumental punch of 1694 tells us that “300 toasted biscuits” were added to the fountain which held the punch itself and the small boy in a rowboat who was charged with stirring and serving it.  Since Russell was a navy man on duty when he threw his party, it’s an easy assumption that the “toasted biscuits” mentioned were sea biscuits.  This leap is strengthened by a bit of verse, “Bacchinalia Coelestia, or A Poem in Praise of Punch” (1680) committed to paper by one Captain Alexander Radcliffe, as deft with a quill as with a saber.  One stanza from the poem begins:

NEPTUNE this Ocean of Liquor did crown
With a hard Sea-Bisket well bak’d in the Sun.

The “well bak’d in the Sun” part is key here because sea biscuits, also known as “maggot castles”, had a nasty habit of harboring insectile stowaways.  In the book The History of Jamaica (1774), we are advised concerning sea biscuits, that “the biscuit and flour, imported from North-America, are very apt to harbor weevils, especially when they are kept for any length of time… The best means of driving them away, or destroying them, is by exposing the flour, or biscuit, to the sun, in the heat of the day, before it is used, or heating it in a hot oven.”  Yummy, and that wasn’t the worst that could be said about sea biscuits.

Often made several months – if not years – before a voyage, sea biscuits were designed to deliver grains and calories to the sailors and, if kept dry, to last for the duration of an extended journey.  To serve this latter point, the biscuits were baked several times until rock hard and were inedible without a good soak in a stew or a drink.  Unfortunately, as ships’ holds were leaky places, biscuits were typically pre-soaked in putrid water before they reached the men, who were issued one pound of them (five biscuits) per day.  By the time the seamen got their rations, if the biscuits weren’t rock hard, they were infested with maggots and weevils.  Whether it was to soften or to drown the critters inside, the men dunked their biscuits.

Since we know that sea biscuits were indeed added to punch, I’ll offer a recipe for them here.  The biscuits are easy enough to make, but I doubt that you’ll make them more than once.  For the most authentic biscuits, use stone ground whole wheat flour and, despite what you may read elsewhere, do not add salt.  Salt will attract moisture and defeat the purpose of a well-stored biscuit.  Made properly, a sea biscuit should last you several years – if not a lifetime.

Sea Biscuits from Colonial Baker
2 Cups Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour
1 Cup White Whole Wheat All-Purpose Flour
9 oz Water

Preheat oven to 375° F
Weigh out the flour and make note of it (it should be 1 pound)
Mix the flour and water  until combined
Knead the dough until smooth and the dough doesn’t tear (take your time, as the flour will require time to hydrate)
Divide the dough into five pieces (a daily ration) and roll these into balls
Flatten the balls with the palm of your hand until approximately 3 inches across
Prick holes, about ¾ inch apart, on both sides of the biscuits
Place biscuits on a cookie sheet and bake for one hour
Let the biscuits cool and dry for a few days
Weigh the biscuits – they should weigh 1 pound or less
If the biscuits weigh more than 1 pound, return them to the oven and bake again until they reach 1 pound
Store biscuits in a dry place

Now, I have a few problems with sea biscuits.  They break apart horribly when placed into liquid – key if you’re using them for sustenance but lousy for a social punch.  Even after soaking for many hours, they’re still inedible in places (they were also called “tooth dullers”).  And, worst of all, they don’t taste all that great – well, no worse than an unsalted whole wheat cracker, I guess.  Honestly, unless you need them to survive – or you’re bent on writing a post on biscuits and punch – there’s no reason to make them.  Which left me kind of stuck.

Were sea biscuits the only biscuits that were used in punch?  Surely, over the two hundred years that biscuit and bowl shared popularity, some other type of biscuit might have existed.  So, I set out on my quest to find a different kind of biscuit – one which was not only contemporary to punch but which was also a good deal more enjoyable than a sea biscuit.  Those weren’t the only qualifications, however.  If another biscuit was going to convince me of its superiority, it needed to be run through the gauntlet, so I set up some qualifications:

The Biscuit Gauntlet

The biscuit must:

  • be historically contemporary to punch and the floating of biscuits therein (1630-1830)
  • have been called a biscuit (or variation thereof) at the time
  • be of English origin
  • float in a bowl of punch and rebound to the top if knocked by a ladle or oars of a small rowboat
  • not easily dissolve or break apart by itself
  • taste delicious

If I was going to make the argument for something other than a sea biscuit to be added to punch – especially to contemporary punch – the biscuit damned well better be a superstar.  One point of clarification for my fellow Americans – this isn’t the kind of biscuit you serve with gravy.  Old World biscuits are more akin to cookies, although typically rock hard and often somewhat savory.  The word “biscuit ” means“ twice baked” and Italian biscotti are a fine example of our prey.

The 1725 volume Dictionaire Oeconomique (London) describes “bisket” as “a sort of dainty Preparation well known and made several ways”.  It offers the following recipe for Common Biskets:

“take eight Eggs and break ‘em into some vessel, and beat ‘em in the same manner as you would Pancakes, put to ‘em a Pound of Sugar pulveriz’d, and some Flower soon after; take care to temper the whole until the Paste becomes very white, and that there be nothing like a Lump therein; pour this Paste into Moulds made of Tin and of an oblong Square.”

It goes on to describe the baking process, but this is a very different biscuit than a sea biscuit, and as the Dictionaire tells us, by the first quarter of the 18th century, they were “common” and “well known”.  Half a century later, a new Scottish book called the Encyclopædia Britannica provided this definition for “bisket”:

“a kind of bread prepared by the confectioners, of fine flour, eggs, and sugar, and rose or orange-water; or of flour, eggs, and sugar, with aniseeds and citron-peel, baked again and again in the oven, in tin or paper moulds.”

Which, aside from the flavorings, is pretty much unchanged from the Dictionaire definition (sea biscuits, it should be noted, are defined separately in the EB).  So, with this basic structure in hand – eggs, sugar, flour, maybe some flavoring – I set off in search of a good biscuit recipe.  As luck would have it, just a few years prior the publication of the EB, an English book called The Court and Country Confectioner was released (1770), and within its pages was a recipe for none other than “punch biscuits”.  How lucky could I get?  The recipe was on target – eggs, sugar, flour, and a little lemon zest.  Even better, when I reached out to our friend Conner at Historical Foods, he directed me to the same recipe – it was certainly the right place to start, he advised.

I prepared the punch biscuits in three separate ways – in a loaf pan, in small bundt moulds, and as drop cookies.  As the recipe called for separating the eggs – beating the yolks with the sugar and the whites to stiff peaks – then folding everything together, the results were extremely light, airy, and delicious.  It’s when I tried to float them, however, that things went astray.  The biscuits were simply too delicate to pass my gauntlet.  They took on water too quickly and dissolved within minutes.  I found a second recipe for “Punch Biscuit Sponge Paste” by the great Auguste Escoffier which was quite similar to the Confectioner’s recipe, save the addition of Rum to the batter.  As celebrated as Escoffier may have been – and still is – he had the misfortune of not being born until after the heyday of punch and biscuits, so I set his recipe aside.

I next looked to recipes that seemed to derive from sea biscuits – tea biscuits and digestive biscuits – but none of these successfully passed the gauntlet.  With my options running thin, I called in the heavy artillery – Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific, expert in food history, and author (or co-author) of books like Cooking in Europe 1250-1650, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe, and the brilliant The Lost Art of Real CookingKen’s direction was as clear as it was succinct:Take a look at Robert May.”

May was a 17th century cook who had been born into the trade and spent five years or so staging in France.  Upon returning to England, May cooked for the upper classes and, in 1660 (not long after the dawn of punch), published The Accomplisht Cook, one of history’s great cookbooks.   Following Albala’s direction that “there are some great bisket recipes around p. 273”, I found the recipe “To make Bisquite du Roy”.  If they were good enough for a king, certainly it would do me no harm to whip up a batch.   Shrugging off exactly how many ounces would have been in May’s pound and, in turn, exactly what constituted an “ounce” (there were competing measurement systems back then), I translated May’s recipe as follows:

Bisquite du Roy á la May
6 Eggs
1 lb Demerara Sugar, finely processed
1 lb White Whole Wheat All-Purpose Flour
Optional – 0.5 oz Aniseed, Citrus Zest, or other flavoring

Preheat oven to 445° F
Add the eggs, sugar, and flour to the bowl of a standing mixer
Using a whisk attachment, beat  on low until combined
Switch to the dough hook attachment and process on low (setting “2”) for half an hour, scraping down the sides of the bowl as required (or, per May, you can do this by hand for an hour and a half)
Add flavoring and process briefly to combine
Place batter, in bowl, in the refrigerator for approximately 10 minutes
Scoop 1 Tbsp mounds of batter onto a buttered or lined cookie sheet (I used a Silpat), making mounds as round as possible
Bake in oven approximately 10-15 minutes or until the edges just begin to turn light brown
Remove from oven and allow the biscuits to thoroughly cool
Return biscuits to oven at 225° and bake for one hour

Yield:  Approximately 4 dozen biscuits

The resulting biscuits are as hard as biscotti yet about the size and shape of sea biscuits.  They are pale in color and “ceramic” in texture.   You can use them without the second baking, but in punch, the toasting makes them much more attractive.  Typical flavorings of the period would have been rose water, orange flower water, ambergris, musk, aniseed, coriander seed, or citrus zest.  Feel free to use one or more as desired (musk is illegal in the US).  The biscuits can also be made in moulds, if you have such things – I don’t.

But, most importantly, how do they fare in the gauntlet?

  • Are they are historically contemporary to punch?  Absolutely.  Actually, the same base recipe – “To Make Fine Biscuit Bread” – appears back in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewell of 1596 (and, maybe in the 1588 edition, which I was unable to check).
  • Were they called a “biscuit” at the time?  Biscuit, bisket, bisquite – however you slice or spell it, they fit the bill.
  • Did they come from English?  God save the King (or Lord Protector, if you’re so inclined), sir, they did.
  • Do they float and do they stay intact?  Ah, here’s where testing on the level of MythBusters comes in.   I placed several biscuits in different bodies of water to gauge them over varying conditions.  Some I left alone, some I batted at with ladle and oar.  Some soaked for an hour and some – in what I consider the ultimate “morning after” test – were left to soak for twelve hours.  My rationale for this last test was placing myself in the role of drunken party-goer, awaking on the Earl’s lawn early the next morning, desperate for a little hair of the dog and a bite before galloping home.  Would it have been beneath me to fish a leftover biscuit out of the punch, like some 17th century cold pizza lingering after a kegger?  Certainly not.  And here, I’ll open the envelope and reveal that May’s Bisquites du Roy not only pass the extreme gauntlet, they remain perfectly delicious, if incredibly boozy.

In 1841’s Charles O’Malley, The Irish Dragoon, author Charles Lever describes a small party and tells us of the refreshments “for the negus is strong punch, and the biscuit is tipsy cake”.  Indeed, left to float in a bowl of punch for countless hours, Bisquites du Roy become very tipsy cake.  But still, with a minimal amount of care, they will remain intact over the course of an evening’s party, not fowl the bowl with grainy flotsam, and actually impart a lovely, buttery softness to your punch.  And, of course, with a simple scoop of a large spoon, they make a wonderful tipsy sponge cake.

Were Bisquites du Roy and their like actually used in punch?  I can’t say, as the only real evidence is tangential.  If you must have absolute accuracy, I’ll leave you to your sea biscuits and wish you “good day”.  Could they have been used?  Absolutely.  As the English have always been consummate dunkers, I have to believe that they tried dipping everything at least once.  I also can’t imagine anyone serving James II sea biscuits with his punch – they may indeed have, but even back then, sea biscuits had a nasty reputation.  No, in the age of sugar and spice, I trust Robert May and his compendium of delicacies served at court (sea biscuit is not among his recipes), and I certainly will adopt them as a part of my future punch making.  Not only do the biscuits add a level of excitement to the bowl, but both parts are improved by the other – the punch becomes smoother and the biscuits burst with booze.

To paraphrase Carl Sandburg, “Poetry is the synthesis of punch and biscuits.”

    Comments ( 3 )

  • I think Ken turned you to the right guy… May was a genius about food. I do love ratafia biscuits too… kind of macaroony and lovely with wines and fine punches.

    ANother great piece with so much good information… your cakes were much preferable to the hardtack buggy versions… no matter how much rum they soaked up…they would have been awful…. yours… well they look grand in the bowl.

  • Bravo Signor! What a great sleuthing story! I don’t think I’ve ever made his recipe, but it seems laborious enough (without the mixer that is). Maybe I can use it in the next cookbook. What fun this whole experiment turned out to be!

    • And a million thanks to you, sir, and all of your invaluable assistance and patience.

      We ate the biscuits you see in the photos, and after about a one hour soak in the punch (brandy, port, lemon juice, brown sugar, with a little nutmeg on top), they were glorious.

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