There is an unmistakeable power of food that can, at times, evoke powerful memories and emotions in all of us.
In Australia and New Zealand, the Anzac biscuit most certainly qualifies as one of those foods. Even as a relatively simple recipe featuring little more than rolled oats and honey, these little cookies serve as an invaluable symbol of a seminal period in both nations’ histories.
Anzac Biscuits and The Gallipoli Campaign
Understanding the true power of the Anzac biscuit involves going back all the way to the early stages of World War I. More specifically, the legend begins with one particular campaign fought in the Middle East: the Gallipoli campaign.
The Prelude to Gallipoli
To understand how the Gallipoli campaign even came to be, we’ll start even a little earlier than the 1915 campaign itself.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, the Ottoman Empire had long been the predominant force in the Middle East region from their 13th century beginnings all the way until their ~1918 dissolution. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the Ottomans’ glory days were well behind them as it faced increasing political and economic instability from within. Suddenly, the once strong Empire was now the “sick man of Europe,” and their previously formidable control over loosely associated semi-autonomous ethnic groups was already showing signs of fracturing and impending weakness.
While Britain had traditionally been the foremost and influential ally in the Empire even until the final days leading up to the war, a new wave of younger, more impassioned Ottoman politicians developed relationships and investment support from another faraway European power: the Germans. While initially kept fairly hush-hush, this German influence became far more pronounced and powerful in the lead up to World War I.
As other powerful empires began declaring war on one another – particularly the British and the Germans – the domino effect ultimately reached the Ottoman doorstep, who surprisingly (at the time) threw their support in favor of the Germans instead of the Brits. At the time, this was a pretty big deal.
The Gallipoli Campaign Itself
For the Allied Powers of the French, British and Russian empires, there was one sea strait, the Dardanelles, in particular that could have provided immense strategic benefit in their war-faring efforts against “Germany & Co” (including the Ottomans). The only problem, however, was that the Dardanelles passed directly through lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
By 1915, since the Ottomans had made their alliance to the Germans publicly known, the Allied Powers were left with little choice than to launch a military campaign to secure this crucial connecting sea route. This campaign would come to be known as the Gallipoli Campaign.
Without going into too much detail about the campaign itself (a topic that deserves its own dedicated post), Gallipoli turned out to be an abject failure for the Allied Powers. The campaign itself was not much more than a stalemate, but it came at an incredibly high cost. Considering that the Allied Powers had written this off as a “sure thing” even before the battle began, eight months of fighting and ~188,000 Allied casualties (~57,000 fatalities) placed an unexpected resource burden on the Allies that would last them the rest of the war.
And while the Ottomans themselves incurred a hard cost of nearly ~175,000 casualties (also ~57,000 fatalities), the final surge of defense provided a massive moral boost to the crumbling empire as they stayed relevant in the war.
New Zealand and the ANZAC Involvement
While widely considered a failure among many of the fighting Allied nations, the Gallipoli campaign has often been recognized as the birth of an independent national consciousness in both Australia and New Zealand.
Up to that point, New Zealand, for example, was home to one of the most prosperous and progressive colonies within the British Empire. Especially from the late 19th century onward, the economy prospered, the standard or living was higher than most, and New Zealand was even one of the first societies to implement and introduce universal women’s suffrage.
Nevertheless, the formation of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and the resoundingly bloody effects of the Gallipoli campaign triggered an ideological shift more towards independent nationalism instead of the previous “colonial territory” mindset. The ~35,000 casualties (~10,000 fatalities) for the Anzacs led to what some might consider a “baptism by fire” at the expense of the nations’ fallen soldiers. Even to this day, ANZAC Day on April 25 – the day marking the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign – remains a significant holiday and day of commemoration for those in Australia and New Zealand.
And on ANZAC day, you can readily find copious amounts of Anzac biscuits.
Enter the Anzac Biscuit
What makes the Anzac biscuit so special even today is how closely linked it became to this seminal moment in both nations’ histories.
The original incarnation of the Anzac biscuit, however, was probably not thought of as a patriotic treat at all. The earliest version of a similar cookie made with rolled oats and honey called the “surprise biscuit” purportedly first appeared in the region as early as the 1820s. As the Great War gained steam, however, these cookies were rebranded to help engender a patriotism and pride in the war effort.
There are two differing schools of thought, however, as to why the Anzac biscuit became as symbolic and popular as it did during this time.
The first theory was that it was an easy and effective way for soldiers’ wives to send treats to their spouses fighting on the frontlines. Without any facilities for extended refrigeration, any food sent to soldiers needed to remain edible for 8 weeks at the very least. And with eggs already relatively scarce during the war, the ingredients for Anzac biscuit (as we’ll see soon) made for the perfect snack that would both stay and taste good.
Another theory, however, is that the Anzac biscuit rarely made it to the fighting soldiers if at all! The biscuits – at least in their current everyday cookie-shaped form – might not have actually been able to last the entire trek from Australia/New Zealand to the Dardanelles… although amaller, sturdier pellet-sized gingernut cookies might have fared a little better here.
Instead, these rolled oat cookies were branded both Anzac biscuits and “soldier biscuits” domestically and were served at events ranging from Red Cross fundraisers to galas and other private parties of the affluent. These types of fundraising efforts did have an impact on the war in their own way, as these types of biscuit-laden events helped raise 6.5 millions pounds – or nearly ~631 million pounds in today’s money – in New Zealand’s war effort alone.
That’s not to say that both theories are necessarily mutually exclusive. It could very well be that the Anzac biscuit made its way to both soldiers fighting the war as well as the rich Australians and New Zealanders financing it.
Regardless of consumption pattern, the Anzac biscuit in its current war-related form made its way into the mainstream in both New Zealand and Australia from 1915 onwards. While the first cited Anzac-related treat was published in a 1915 New Zealand cookbook St. Andrew’s Cookery Book, the Anzac biscuit has made an appearance in just as many Australian cookbooks since then to make it a shared tradition between the two nations.
About the Recipe
The key to Anzac biscuits – and why it became so popular and ubiquitous in the first place – was its easy and functionality as a recipe.
The recipe itself might be based on an older and more traditional Scottish biscuit recipe, where rolled oats were eaten more extensively and a highly nutritious part of the everyday diet.
At its core, there are three main components to making the contemporary version of this traditional treat: rolled oats, golden syrup and baking soda. No doubt there are additional ingredients thrown into the mix, but the key elements of flavor and texture come from these three ingredients first and foremost.
To make the dough for Anzac biscuits takes almost no time at all. First, you’ll want to start by heating up your golden syrup (or, in the absence of this sugar cane syrup, use honey) and, in most cases, adding an additional melted fat in with it. Most recipes will call for melted butter to act as a binding agent and help create a fuller taste, but as you’ll see with our recipe later on, the butter can be swapped in and out fairly easily.
Once you have heated your honey and fats over a small stockpot, you’ll set it aside to let it cool briefly as you mix together your dry ingredients. You’ll start with a bowl in which you’ll sift some flour and add some rolled oats as well as your baking soda leavening agent and any additional flavors and spices you would like to add into your biscuits. Common additions to put in here include more vibrant flavors like ginger and cinnamon.
As your syrup has returned to an agreeable room temperature (or slightly warmer) by now, you can pour it into the dry mixture and with your hands mix everything together as it starts to clump together. Mixing with the hands is highly preferable here since you can help ensure that the dough clumps together as it should.
Continue making your dough by adding cold water bit by bit as you continue to mold the dough with your hands. Once you’ve added in all your ingredients, you should have a relatively wet but easily formable dough to work with and create your biscuits from.
To cook, you’ll prepare an oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 Celsius) and, as the oven is preheating, take a small spoonful of the Anzac biscuit dough into the palm of your hand. Using both of your palms and inner hands, roll the dough into the shape of a ball and place onto either a greased pan or some parchment paper. This is where your baking soda will shine: as the biscuits bake, they will flatten out into more of a cookie form. If you forget your leavening agent, however, you’ll be left more with gingernuts than with the flatter, rounder biscuits.
Pop them in the oven for 15 minutes, and you’re done! They really are that simple.
Our Take on the Recipe
Given the wide variety of delightful recipes out there, it was hard to choose one particular recipe as a source for our own Anzac biscuits… until we came across Mrs. Barnard.
At least from the New Zealander vantage point, the biscuits (well, technically gingernuts) recipe that Mrs. Barnard actually made during WWI might be as authentic as it would get, hence we started with it as our original reference recipe. Her particular recipe can be confirmed as having both made its way to the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign, and variations of it were also used in fundraising efforts locally. Everyone can be happy with that!
Even in the presence of such an authoritative recipe (Mrs. Barnard won the British Medal of Freedom for her work!), I guess you could say we had the moxy to try something a little different with our own Anzac biscuits. Namely, we ventured into trying to make a vegan-friendly version of the cookies.
To do so, we first made some needed ingredient substitutions and additions. Much in line with many other contemporary Anzac biscuits, we did add back in rolled oats and baking soda while still attempting to retain the essence of her original intended gingernuts.
To stay vegan-friendly, we used coconut oil in place of butter. In place of golden syrup, which we found difficult to procure in the US, we opted for this Bee Free Honee (an all-natural syrup made from apples and sugar cane) to stay within vegan-friendly boundaries. From there, we also swapped in coconut sugar for brown sugar per a usual change, and we also used organic pastry flour in place of regular all purpose flour.
All of these ingredients were, however, scaled down considerably so that we weren’t exactly feeding the likes of an entire Anzac army. :-)
Other than that, the rest of the recipe is so straightforward that there were few other changes that were needed from us. Vegan friendly or not (our test audience was split down the middle between our vegan and non vegan versions), both recipes of the biscuits are fun and easy to make and will surely yield delicious results.
That it links to and hearkens back to one of the most impactful periods of human history is, you could say, an added bonus.
How do you prepare your Anzac biscuits? Comment below!
- 1 cup organic pastry flour
- ½ cup coconut sugar
- ½ cup rolled oats
- ½ tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 tablespoons Bee Free Honee (if not making vegan, use regular honey or, even better, golden cane syrup)
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- Start by preheating your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit
- Take a small saucepan over medium-low heat and add your coconut oil. Let the oil melt and distribute evenly throughout the saucepan
- With the coconut oil melted and heated, add your honey and stir thoroughly. You want to get rid of any clumps in the honey and have one consistent liquid created
- Take the saucepan off the heat and set aside
- Start by sifting your pastry flour and coconut sugar into a large bowl
- Next, add your rolled oats, ground ginger and baking soda and mix all your ingredients with a whisk
- Create a small well in the dry mixture and pour the heated honey mixture in the middle. Use your hands to mix everything together
- As the ingredients begin to mix and clump together, add your cold water and continue to mix the dough for your Anzac biscuits with your hands. By this point, you'll be able to squeeze it together and form the dough into a large ball
- First, set aside a baking tray lined with parchment paper
- With your dough formed, take either a melon baller or a small spoon and break off a piece
- Take the small piece of dough in the palm of your hand and roll it into an even sized ball
- Place your ball of dough onto the parchment paper, and continue until you've created all the Anzac biscuits possible from your dough
- Put your baking tray into the oven and bake your Anzac biscuits for 15 minutes
- After 15 minutes, take your Anzac biscuits out, let cool and enjoy!