Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Granny vs The Internet, the Great Bake-off

More than four months since the last post! One giant leap from sunny picnics to Christmas bake-offs! Here's my excuse: I had to finish that novel. And having finished it and handed it in last week (well, the first draft) I couldn't quite face writing a blog post about... finishing the first draft. I will, at some point, probably in January. In the meantime, I've found that baking is an amazing way to relax after writing a 120,000-word piece of fiction.

To make it more interesting, I decided to stage a baking contest between my lovely Granny and the Internet. My Granny left us one single biscuit recipe, aka "Granny's Biscuits". She used to bake these once a year around Christmas time and store them in a big tin, which I would open and sniff just to get that vanilla high.  Her competitor is a website called that features a recipe for Vanillekipferl, an Austrian specialty. So it's a double bake-off: Granny vs the Internet, and East Prussia vs. Austria.

The basic ingredients are the same for both recipes (fair is fair), but one thing struck me right away. Vanillekipferl have to be baked for about 20 mins, then carefully rolled in icing sugar (they break easily). Granny's Biscuits take 5 minutes, then they're ready. "Now why is that?" you wonder. Well, there's an easy explanation. Vanillekipferl were invented in old Vienna - think men sitting around in cafes with nothing much to do other than talk about mothers and penises. Occasionally one of them would get up and check on his Vanillekipferl. East Prussia, on the other hand, was all about waves of ethnic cleansing. So the point of Granny's 5-minute Biscuits is that you can bake about twenty trays before the Russians come.

And with that cheerful thought in mind, here we go. 3...2...1...

Check the oak sapling. We grew that from an acorn. Sorry, I digress. So, Granny's is the bigger lump. Of course it is. East Prussia doesn't do small. The winters are long and the fields are wide. Interesting fact: Granny's recipe includes a pinch of baking powder. Why add baking powder to crunchy biscuits that aren't supposed to rise? I scratched my head over that one, but I think it's because my Granny's generation was still idealistic about chemicals. Chemicals were supposed to be good for you. Natural food was what poor people ate. So I think the baking powder was just meant as a tribute to Science and Progress.

Left: Vanillekipferl. Right: Granny's dough, ready to be cut with a little tin biscuit cutter. I bought one in the approved shape that she always used. If you don't have one, and don't want to buy one, you can always use a drinking glass. But then don't complain if your husband runs off with a woman who uses a proper cutter.

Done!!! The little knobbly bits on Granny's Biscuits are a sort of almond-sugar-vanilla crunch. They're the best thing about the biscuits and the reason why Granny won the contest hands down (come on, you didn't really think I would let an anonymous website beat my own grandmother?).
I recruited two independent test subjects. One, let's call her the Academic Taster, is an assistant professor at Columbia University in New York. The other, let's call him the Entrepreneurial Taster, holds an MBA and is a world-class management consultant. Both have years of experience in eating cakes and biscuits.
And both preferred....
Granny's Biscuits!
"Because of the crunchy bits," they both said.
"Though the other ones are also nice, especially with a glass of whisky on the side," the Entrepreneurial Taster added.

To help you make up your own mind, here are both recipes.

Granny's Biscuits (aka "Omas Kekse")

500 g flour
250 g butter
150 g sugar with a vanilla pod scraped into it (the seeds, not the whole pod)
2 eggs
2 tsp baking powder (I just used one. They're meant to be biscuits, not panettone.)

Crunch: egg yolk, ground almonds, sugar with a vanilla pod scraped into it (the seeds).

Roll out, cut, top with a crunch mixture, bake for 5 mins at 250 degrees Celsius or the hottest (reasonable) setting on your oven. The original recipe says 259 degrees but I think that's just a case of mis-transcription over the generations.



250 g flour
210 butter
1 egg yolk (I added this as glue, though purists would leave the egg out)
100 g ground almonds
100 g sugar with a vanilla pod scraped into it

Knead, put in the fridge for 30 minutes, shape into little crescents, bake for 20 mins at 175 degrees. Let them cool for a few minutes - they should still be warm, otherwise the icing sugar won't stick - and drown in a bowl of icing sugar mixed with vanilla sugar. Take out and leave to cool.

Guten Appetit, merry Christmas, happy Chanukah and all the best for 2012!



  1. Great minds think alike - I had the last of your Viennese cookies (grandma's are long gone) with some single malt last night! Maybe I too can be a world-class management consultant one day. Anyway, must dash off to the kitchen store before my husband runs off with that bakeware-wielding harlot.

  2. And I tested your scone recipe yesterday - yum.
    (Oh dear, this thread is a bit pre-women's lib, isn't it? I bet Virginia Woolf never baked a scone in her life.)

  3. Neither did Hannah Arendt. In fact, she wrote a whole philosophic treatise on why any labor whose objective is to satisfy everyday needs is a betrayal of our human potential ( Oops! Maybe Jane Austen did? Mary Wollstonecraft? No, probably not them, either. I'm going to look my second-rateness in the eye, then slink off to the kitchen and make a batch of dulche de leche rice pudding to console myself.

  4. Here's a recipe for Sylvia Plath's tomato soup cake! Bit morbid though, given that she stuck her head in the oven.

    Also, Virginia Woolf's last diary entry:
    "Occupation is essential. And now with some pleasure I find that it's seven; & must cook dinner. Haddock & sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down."