Women of earlier days were real wizards in the kitchen. They could turn out finger-licking dishes and meals with the most rudimentary equipment, improvising and innovating as they went along. And what is more, they didn’t make tiny batches of anything. With large families and sometimes joint and extended families, everything had to be in large quantities. The standard containers for any namkeen for instance were the Britannia biscuit tins sourced from the local bania.
I remember the scrumptious biscuits mother used to make on her Primus stove and a quaint contraption, which she referred to as biscuit tin. It was a square steel box, with two drawers arranged one above the other. The biscuits would be arranged in rows in them and baked with the flame of the stove suitably adjusted for even baking. The trick was to rotate the shelves so that the biscuits got the right amount of heat.
Now, to bake a large tinful of the biscuits, one can imagine how much dough had to be mixed and how long it would take to bake in those tiny trays! But then the women of yore were also gifted with a lot of patience. So mother would finish her work quickly on the day she had to bake the biscuits and skip her lunch, making do with an extra cup of coffee and some fruit. She claimed that lunch made her feel heavy and lethargic!
Her recipe included maida, milk, vegetable shortening, ammonia, vanilla essence and powdered sugar. Ammonia? Oh yes, in olden days this was commonly used in biscuits and cookies in place of baking powder. It was called baker’s ammonia (ammonium carbonate) and was bought at the chemists.
As awareness about the harmful effects of the maida and other ingedients increased, she substituted maida for whole wheat flour and baking powder for ammonia. Likewise she discarded shortening and replaced it with homemade white butter creamed with sugar. The biscuits were slightly harder but the taste was even better than when made with maida. I wish I had taken the recipe for this awesome biscuit from mother. Alas, it is too late now! So while I know the ingredients, I am not able to share the recipe.
Mother didn’t cut them into fancy shapes but simple squares out of large thick chapatis with a cookie cutter. This used up the entire chapati in one go unlike when shapes were cut out of the dough, which meant rolling the leftover dough again. We sorted the good ones and stored them separately with the family getting to eat the uneven small bits cut from the edges.
She was at the task almost through the day, as the baking contraption could only accommodate a handful of biscuits at a time. Slowly the huge tins would begin filling up and by evening the whole house would be fragrant of baking that lingered for hours alerting neighbours about a bonanza to come!
The biscuits tasted great, were light, crisp and a beautiful brown. I call them biscuits because they were crisp, flat and smooth as compared to your ordinary cookies. For weeks after, we would never have a cup of tea without a handful of the crunchy brown squares, which we dunked into it.
I wonder if the likes of my mother’s biscuit tin are still available in the markets!
The columnist is your regular granny next door. She loves cooking, feeding friends and family, reading, writing and telling tales. Children’s stories are her favourites. She has seen the telegram transform into Twitter and telephone into WhatsApp and has adapted herself well to the changing times. In fact, you could call her Gadget Granny Seeta.
Stay tuned for her spicy and juicy tales of food and fun.