“The Housewife’s Referee”, subtitled ‘A treatise on culinary and household subjects’ was published in 1898. Written by Mrs de Salis, who you may remember from other books such as “Tempting Dishes for Small Incomes”, “New Laid Eggs”, and “Dogs and their Ailments”, it takes a rather unimpressed view of the modern woman.
This is my favourite bit from the introduction. I quote word for word because to edit it would be a crime:
The silly ignorance of so many gentlewomen is astounding. Let me give an example: I was present at a lecture a short time since at one of the recent cookery exhibitions, where Miss Young was teaching pastry making, when a lady among the audience asked,
“Must we put out bare hands into the dough?”
“Certainly,” replied the teacher; “you cannot make it otherwise.”
“Oh, then,” remarked the questioner, “perhaps that is the reason why I failed when I made my last tart; my gloves did seem in the way!”
I consider this a very good example of the terrible ignorance which prevails regarding the knowledge of the cuisine.
I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson there – the number of long white evening gloves I’ve wasted! Also, while Mrs de Salis is keen to point out the failings of others I would like to expose her, for this recipe undoubtedly contained a typo. She says to use the same quantity of flour as the sugar and butter; any seasoned biscuit maker will tell you that you need a lot more flour in order to bind the dough. Further, her instructions tell you to add flour until you have a stiff dough and then roll it out - so the dough is obviously not meant to be as soft and sticky as it was. The amounts set out below are what I actually used rather than her flawed recipe!
The whole tone of the book is rather high-handed and Mrs de Salis or Harriet, as she would no doubt not let me call her, can’t ever resist slipping in some heavily italicised French whenever the chance arises. These are actually called Sables Normands with the English provided as an afterthought.
I didn’t want to add too much flour and lose the buttery focus of the biscuit so I made a decision to roll little balls of dough between my hands rather than add more flour so I could roll it out and use a cutter. I think that was that right way to go as the texture was great – crumbly but rich and flavoursome.
As is often the way with old recipes there is no cooking time or temperature given. We are told the oven should be “brisk” which I’ve interpreted to mean medium-hot. You will note from the rather scanty ingredients list below that the biscuits are not flavoured. Personally, I’d be tempted to add some vanilla but wanted to keep them as the recipe stated for this first attempt.
230g/ 8 oz caster sugar
230g/ 8 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
460g/ 1lb plain flour – don’t be afraid to use more if the dough is too sticky
Preheat the oven to 180˚C/fan oven 160˚C/350˚F/Gas mark 4.
Line 2 biscuit sheets with baking paper.
Place the eggs, sugar and butter in a bowl and beat until well combined.
Using your hands (remember ladies – no gloves!) add the flour a little at a time until you have a thick and firm paste. I never actually achieved this state and my dough remained too soft to roll.
If your dough permits it, roll out the paste between two sheets of floured baking paper and use a cutter to cut out biscuits. As my dough was soft and I didn’t want to over flour it and diminish the butteriness I took walnut sized balls and rolled them between my floured hands.
Place on a baking sheet, leaving a little room for expansion. If you’ve rolled balls, flatten them slightly.
Bake for approximately 15-20 minutes until the biscuits have turned pale golden.
Remove and leave to cool on a wire rack. Remove the biscuits from the baking sheet when they have cooled – they are far too soft when straight from the oven.
Bask in the glory of the wonderful thing you have created.