Savory biscuits from a 17th-century recipe

Savory Cogs Biscuits. All photography by Brittany Diliberto. www.beetwosweet.com
Savory Cogs Biscuits

Jump to the recipe below for “Cogs Biscuits.” Interested in making other early modern foods? Explore our previous Thanksgiving recipes for pumpkin pie and sweet potato pudding.

The meaning of “biscuit” is divisive. For most Americans, a biscuit is a flaky, buttery bread that forms an essential part of Thanksgiving dinner; for the British, the same word refers to a hard, sweet cookie best enjoyed with tea. Back in the day, for mariners, a biscuit was a rock-solid block of bread that kept them alive; for Shakespeare, it was a biting insult (Jacques in As You Like It: “And in his brain, which is as dry as the remainder biscuit.”). Biscuits come in many flavors: sweet, spiced, cheesy, salty, bland.

This year for Thanksgiving, we’ve found something else; something that’s fluffy and sweet and savory and firm and spiced all at the same time, a kind of ur-biscuit. Around 1672, Constance Hall recorded in her recipe book a dish called Cogs Biskett, a dish she presumably cooked for her family. Her book is now part of the Folger collection’s strong holding of handwritten recipe books, and this biscuit recipe deserves a revival as the best bread to accompany your turkey this year.

The original recipe in Constance’s writing is quite brief:
To make Cogs Biskett
Take 3 pound of fine flower well dry’d a Ounce of Carraway seeds 6 spoonefull of suger Double Refin’d 6 spoonefull of Ale 6 Eggs the whites of Two and wett it with warm Milk 2 peny worth of safforn lett it Lye to Rise

What is the “cog” in Cogs Biscuits? Frankly, we don’t know. The recipe is something of an oddity, an isolated example in the Folger’s extensive recipe collection that bears little resemblance to the other biscuit recipes we’ve found. The word “cog” might refer to a bucket used in milking a cow, or to a measure of alcohol (equivalent to a dram), or to a kind of ship. But our best guess is that “cog” is Scottish dialect for a small wooden drinking cup, in which the biscuits could have been baked, technically making them “cupcakes.” Essentially, these might have been early modern savory cupcakes!

The unusual flavors used in the biscuit can tell us something about foodways in late 17th-century England. The presence of saffron stands out in this recipe book, which features butter, sugar, and spices imported from southeast Asia. The delicate threads of the saffron flower are essential to many Mediterranean dishes and give this recipe a savoriness usually associated with Provence and Andalusia. Caraway was used in cooking throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, but today it is mostly encountered via northern and eastern European cookery (think rye bread and sauerkraut). Justice Shallow talks about it in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2: “Nay, you shall see my orchard, where, in an arbor, we will eat a last year’s pippin of mine own graffing, with a dish of caraways, and so forth.”

By the 1670s, saffron was imported in sufficient quantities to become available to home kitchens and was even being grown in England itself, while the carrotlike caraway plant was one of the oldest and most widespread herbs in Europe. The use of beer for flavor and leavening is a distinctly northern European twist on a bread that otherwise could come from well south of the Alps. So here we have a biscuit cooked in a Scottish cup, with Mediterranean saffron, German caraway, and British ale as its main flavors, well-suited to a traditional holiday meal.

Steaming fresh biscuits
Steaming fresh biscuits

Constance Hall’s Cogs Biscuits

To make Cogs Biskett
Take 3 pound of fine flower well dry’d a Ounce of Carraway seeds 6 spoonefull of suger Double Refin’d 6 spoonefull of Ale 6 Eggs the whites of Two and wett it with warm Milk 2 peny worth of safforn lett it Lye to Rise

Ingredients:

5 cups of unrefined, white flour
3 tbsp. sugar
3 tsp. caraway seeds
1 generous pinch of saffron
1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
3 tbsp. beer (use a beer with yeast in the bottle; look for the phrase ‘on lees’)
4 eggs
About 1 ½ cups of whole milk
Optional: Additional sea salt for sprinkling

Directions:

Thoroughly mix the flour, sugar, caraway seeds, saffron, and 1 teaspoon of salt. To the dry mixture, add beer, 3 eggs, and 1 egg white; save the yolk. Stir the mixture as you slowly and sparingly add the milk, adding just enough milk that you are able to work the flour into dough. Put the dough on a floured surface and knead, drawing in flour if the dough is still sticky. Knead until the dough is smooth and bounces back when poked. Cover the dough with a dish towel and leave it to rise for 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 390F. Grease one or more mini-muffin pans with butter. Pull or cut away portions of the dough, roll each into a ball that is 1 inch across, and place it in the tray. Beat the remaining egg yolk with a little water, and use a pastry brush to brush it onto the tops of the biscuits. Finally, sprinkle the biscuits with sea salt. Bake for about 20 minutes and remove the biscuits from the oven when they are slightly browned on top. This recipe will make approximately 36 mini-muffin-size biscuits.

Making the biscuits. Select an image to see it more closely.

Alternatives:

The biscuits can also be prepared in any size on a cookie sheet (perhaps as 18 biscuits in a larger size) or as a single loaf in a loaf pan. This will affect how long it takes to cook them, however. Watch closely to avoid over- or undercooking them.

If you cannot locate beer with yeast in the bottle, you can try a filtered beer, but you might want to add a bit of yeast. See our notes below.

Modernizing the recipe and cook’s notes:

Converting a period recipe to modern methods can be a challenge. In this case, the most accessible ingredient for a 17th-century household is actually the least accessible for us. The original text implies that the ale in Cogs Biscuits was used as a leavening agent, which means that the beer had to have active yeast in it. Most modern beers are pasteurized and filtered—processes that kill yeast—whereas early modern brews would have been quite alive and active. Our solution was to use a beer with yeast in the bottle (look for the phrase “on lees”); we used a beer by the Unibroue company of Québec, available from Trader Joe’s. The lack of availability of living, yeasty ale is a reminder of how much the brewing industry has changed since the 17th century.

As modern cooks, the original recipe gave us pause. There is no added fat (butter or oil) in the biscuits. No mention is made of salt, and the recipe calls for a large amount of flour with relatively little sugar.  It asks the cook to “wet”’ the mixture with milk (requiring quite a lot of milk), after adding only a dash of ale. The recipe also gives no instructions as to how to actually cook the biscuits—it assumes you’d already know how! It was not even clear if we were supposed to knead the dough. However, in the process of cooking the Cogs Biscuits, we found that the recipe worked just fine. The milk and eggs added enough moisture and fat to give a nice texture. We opted to knead the dough to help it rise, and we cooked the biscuits at 390F until they were lightly browned on top.

We also discovered that the basic Cogs Biscuits recipe easily lends itself to improvement and variation. We recommend being generous with the caraway and saffron. We tried the biscuits in a variety of sizes and chose tiny muffin-like poppers, baked in a mini-muffin pan, our version of a “cog.” But we also tried making a big loaf. Every size turned out well; the sliced loaf was lovely with some cheddar. You can also roll the dough into whatever shape you like.

Freshly baked Cogs Biscuits
Newly baked biscuits

So how did the Cogs Biscuits taste? They were better than we expected, and there was much happy munching of fresh biscuits around the kitchen. The consensus was that Cogs Biscuits would pair very well with gravy and other Thanksgiving fare and are ideal for sopping up liquid. The biscuits are fairly dense, with a thin crust, and are only lightly sweet; a comparison was made to pretzels. There was very little taste of beer, but the two spices stand out. The caraway adds a savory aroma and the saffron was subtle at first, but builds over time. Note, however, that the biscuits are definitely better fresh out of the oven. They become a bit too firm if they sit overnight.

To find out more about Constance Hall’s recipe book, check out blog posts by Marissa Nicosia, who cooked Hall’s recipe for syllabub, and Jessie Foreman, who made carrot pudding.

You can also read the original handwritten recipe for Cogs Biscuits in the Folger image database and explore the other pages of the recipe book there as well–it’s very legible. For more information on the recipe book (Folger shelf mark V.a.20), review its Hamnet catalog entry or read a detailed and fascinating description of the recipe book in the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey.

This holiday recipe post was produced in association with the Folger Institute and the Mellon-funded initiative in collaborative research, Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures

Special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help with this post. All photography by Brittany Diliberto.

2 Comments


  • The title of this recipe sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary, where I discovered that “cog” once meant ship. This suggests to me that these are ship’s biscuits, which at the time of this manuscript were generally formed as free-form round rolls and then, after baking, split in half horizontally and returned to a very slow oven until crisp and dry throughout, so as to be long keeping. The “ale” called for in the recipe is actually ale yeast, a byproduct of the brewing process that was the usual 17th century English leaven in bread and cake. This explains why the recipe instructs to let the dough rise.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)