'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Biscuits VS Cookies (and two shortbreads)

Having lived in both the UK and the US, I'm constantly bewildered by the enormous differences between British and American English terminology. In my own field of music, I'm yet to come to terms with the American way of denoting note values - quarter notes, sixteenths, etc. In daily life, I still say dustbin rather than trash can, trolley rather than cart, socket rather than outlet. It goes without saying that I still ask my American friends occasionally for a rubber which always makes them burst out laughing. George Bernard Shaw's famous statement that 'England and America are two countries separated by a common language' really hits the nail on its head.

Since food is such an integral part of any culture, it is expected that British and American English would have very different vocabulary for food. The following are some of the new terminologies that I had to 'relearn' when I first came here three years ago:

 UK / US
rocket / arugula
swede / rutabaga
spring onions / scallions
crisps / chips
chips / French fries
treacle / molasses
icing sugar / confectioner's sugar
digestives / graham crackers
sultanas / raisins
muesli / granola
skimmed milk / non-fat milk
cling film / plastic wrap
cornflour / cornstarch

Last but not least, you have cookies in America but biscuits in Britain. I knew what cookies were but I was horrified to learn that there were actually biscuits in America, but they looked like scones. A closer scrutiny reveals that they are more differences between biscuits and cookies than their names after all. First of all you eat biscuits with a cup of tea, and cookies with a glass of cold milk. Cookies tend to be much sweeter and loaded with 'bits' like chocolate chips, raisins, nuts, dried fruits. Biscuits are plainer and are 'quieter'. They usually contain less leavening than cookies and tend to be bite-sized (I'm thinking of the giant-sized chocolate chip cookies here). One thing that really distinguishes biscuits from cookies, however, is that biscuits tend to be fully baked and therefore are either crisp or sandy (sablé), whereas Americans love their cookies half-baked so that the edges are crispy and the middle chewy. With due respect to America's ingenuity with its cookies, it's just a texture that I cannot bring myself to liking. It just feels... half-baked. I've actually tried baking American cookies with a significant reduction in the sugar amount, and the texture suffered. The whopping amounts of sugar in American cookies are responsible both for the crispiness and the chewiness, so if you want the textures of an American cookie, you better be prepared to deal with an insulin spike.

Would you call them cookies or biscuits?

All this may make me sound like I have some sort of cookiephobia, but no, I do adore the ingenuity of classic American cookie combinations like chocolate chip, oatmeal and raisin, macadamia nuts and white chocolate, etc. It's just that when I make them they're much less sweet and I bake them to a full crispiness that most Americans probably wouldn't recognise them as cookies. Perhaps I should just call my versions chocolate chip biscuits and be content with that. 

The lovely farmhouse butter I used for the plain shortbread

The only biscuit that seems to be 'circulating' in America is shortbread (right?). These are Scottish in origin and are probably the best compromise to eating a stick of butter directly - and I hope you find that appetising rather than offputting. Shortbread is very easy to make, and you will probably have the ingredients in your pantry already: butter, sugar, salt and flour. Needless to say you'd want to use the best butter you can get, and it's important that you use icing/confectioner's sugar rather than granulated sugar so that the texture is divinely sandy rather than gritty.

I had a busy week and didn't have much time to cook or bake, but I did bake two varieties of shortbread since they were a cinch to put together. A plain one and an orange-flavoured one loaded with chocolate chips, adapted from by Dan Lepard's recipe. I'm not sure this is what Dan had in mind, but I feel that this version is almost like an Anglicisation of the American chocolate chip cookie.

In terms of texture, the first one is more 'short' - less flour and therefore a more tender and sandy texture. The second one has a higher amount of flour so that the texture is slightly drier and firmer to withstand your biting into the chocolate chips.

Butter with a healthy dose of orange zests

Classic shortbread

200g best-quality unsalted butter, softened
60g icing sugar
1/4 tsp salt
300g plain flour

Orange-scented shortbread with chocolate chips

200g unsalted butter, softened
85g icing sugar
1/2 tsp salt 
Grated zests from 5 oranges (no misprint!)
350g plain flour
150g chocolate chips (60% is ideal)

The method is the same regardless of the version. You cream the butter, sugar, salt and the zests together (if using) till smooth, and then beat in the flour in a few additions until you have a cohesive dough. Add chocolate towards the end if you are making the second version. Roll the dough into a cylinder tightly with cling film/plastic wrap, and chill for at least 3 hours till firm. Do take the trouble of re-rolling the dough after 45 mins or so in the fridge since the bottom will have flattened out and you want to re-roll it to a roundish cylinder before the dough gets too hard.

Cut 0.75-1 cm slices from the cylinders with a sharp knife and place them 2-3 cm apart on lined baking sheets. If you are making the one with chocolate chips it may shatter a little as you cut through the dough. Try to hold (with your other hand) the the other side of where you are slicing to stop the slice from falling apart while you are cutting down. Bake at a low temperature - 150C/300F - for about 25-30 minutes so that the sugar has had a chance to caramelise thoroughly and the biscuits turn a lovely light golden colour. 

Creaming the butter with sugar and salt
How the dough looks after adding the flour
Gather the dough into a longish shape on a cling film
Use the cling flim to form a cylinder tightly
Smooth out the ends
Slice after chilling
Biscuit VS cookie?


  1. Nelson and I love reading your blog.

  2. i thought the difference was a cookie goes hard when it is old and a biscuit gets soft

    1. This is only because American like to underbake their cookie so that the cookies come out soft, but this means that over time it will lose its moisture. It's the other way round with British cookies because they're baked through, and over time they will lose their crispiness due to moisture in the air... I guess they meet somewhere in the middle!

  3. This is good. I really need to learn more, friend.