Whenever I think of Empire Biscuits I think of my Nanna. Every Thursday was market day in our local town. Once upon that time market day meant something, it was the day of the livestock auction and it was the day all the stall holders set up on the cobbles of Market Street, New Market Street and Brogden Street. The town was buzzing with activity.
Nanna couldn’t drive so every Thursday we would walk from her house on the hill, down the country lane with no pavements to the bus stop in a gateway along the main road. And there we would wait. All the way down Nanna would say, ‘Keep in the side!’ We’d walk and talk, Nanna was wonderful, I loved her, she taught me so much and she shared so much. Teaching was her vocation and her occupation, she continued to teach throughout her life. Wildflowers, mathematics, games, religion and baking … but she taught me so much more than that she taught me how to serve and to feel gratitude and gladness for all we have. She had so many sayings: ‘we don’t have much money but we do see life’ ‘accidents happen in the best regulated families’ ‘if it doesn’t turn up it’ll carrot’ ‘a whistling woman and a crowing hen will drive the devil right up from his den’ ‘sing before your breakfast you’ll cry before your supper’ ‘don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’ too many to list. She was superstitious and nervous at times, she had minor panic attacks if she thought she had lost her handbag or her purse. She was over cautious with us and we weren’t allowed grapes or chewing gum or bananas before bed incase we choked. If there was an unexpected noise she would shriek, ‘Oh my nerves!’ I don’t know if she had always been that way but she certainly wasn’t weak. She was strong, focussed, flexible and clever. When I look back now I am amazed at all she did and how she never ever moaned or wished for more; her acceptance of life and what it brought her was remarkable.
As I’ve said before her husband was blind she did everything in the home and she looked after him well. They farmed hundreds of battery hens, reared and farrowed pigs, kept and milked goats and reared bucket calves up into cattle. She taught in a Primary School until she was 60, 3 intakes a year with 40 pupils per class. She baked all her own bread, cured meat, made bacon, butter, yoghurt, and a huge array of bakes. My roasts are made Nanna’s way, my cottage pie is her way except she minced the onion and cold beef from the weekend to make hers. She could sew by hand and machine, darn, knit, crochet and do drawn thread work. She could pluck and dress a chicken, grow vegetables, use a scythe and she played the piano. I can still picture her hands, when I close my eyes I can still smell her and see her. She was very religious and we weren’t allowed to use God’s name in vain.
When I began college in 1993 I returned to live with her. Both Keith and I lived with her for 8 months after we were married, until the cottage we were renovating was finished. She was older and more difficult to live with by then, when I look back I was self focussed and busy, I saw her as interfering and she wanted to control me, we clashed a lot. But now what I would give for one day or even one hour of her company and love.
She had a long passing she went into hospital and over the weeks she got weaker and weaker until she lost her speech and couldn’t eat. Nobody really knew what was going on because she had only had a fall and they said she had broken her leg. But nothing was done, she was catheterised and put on a number of drips ‘she lost her faculties’ as Nanna would have put it. She passed away with my mum by her side in hospital on the 7th of June 2005, she was in her 90th year. My mum asked me to go to the hospital that evening before she died but I couldn’t, I had two young little boys and Keith was silaging I wish I could have been there but my mum described how vocalised her passing was crying out and uncomfortable and I think I was spared the trauma that my mum had had to experience.
But there are many many happy memories of times with my Nanna and out of those, the weekly trip to town was definitely very special. In the holidays, as children my brother and I would stay a week each. Nanna would take us to a toy shop called Harvey Jackson’s for a treat and it was amazing in there. They had every toy imaginable including bikes and Steiff bears. I loved to look in the glass cabinets where all the miniature doll’s house furniture was locked inside. A dining table laid out with miniature crockery and cutlery with a Christmas turkey as its centre piece. I still love miniature things. Nanna would allow us to pick something and I remember choosing a jew’s harp, a plastic camera, Pocketeers, a slinky, a loom doll and a game called Top the lot over the years.
We would go to buy fresh bacon sliced on the machine thick or thin, tobacco weighed out on the scales for my grandad’s pipe (there were two tobacconists in town) and we’d buy fresh yeast to bake bread. The last shop was always the visit to one of the many bakeries to buy fresh cakes to bring home. Grandad liked cream horns, a vanilla or a meringue and I usually picked an Empire Biscuit ( German Biscuit as Nanna would call them ) or a fondant fancy in the shape of an animal. The Empire Biscuit would be topped with a sugar flower, filled with butter cream and a dot of slightly chewy jam. I loved them. I always separated the two halves to eat them and loved both, the buttery jammy side and the iced other.
Years later when I had my own children they started school in a little village with a bakery shop. The shop sold Empire Biscuits, the biscuits were also topped with a sugar flower and at Easter topped with an egg. My youngest son loves them and unfortunately when the bakery changed hands the biscuits were no longer made there. So as a special treat to my son (and me) I make them myself but I often top them with cherries and sometimes I buy the sugar flowers so they are like the ones I used to get when I was a girl.
If anyone is interested in reading the history of the biscuit there’s a little more information below.
The recipe to make them is quite simple. I use a traditional shortbread recipe which makes about 12 biscuits sandwiched together. So 24 rounds.
For the biscuits
1 block of butter 250g ( I always buy salted ) 12oz plain flour & 4oz caster sugar
Baking tray, lining paper, fork, rolling pin, round cutter, cooling rack
Beat the sugar and butter together and add the flour. I use a mixer for my shortbread. I keep mixing until a lovely light dough appears in the bowl and all the ingredients are combined. If you don’t have a mixer you will just have to keep rubbing in the sugar butter mixture into the flour until it forms a dough.
Flour a flat surface and roll out the dough a couple of mm thick. Remember you are sandwiching two biscuits together so you don’t want them to be too thick but not too thin for them to break when you assemble them. I usually split the dough into two and try to get 12 rounds out of each portion.
Place 6 on a baking tray, depending on the size. I always put lining paper on the tray or I use a reusable sheet. Make sure the unbaked biscuits aren’t touching each other and leave a little room for them to grow. I prick each biscuit with a fork before baking.
Bake at 160 degrees C for 15 mins or until they begin to change colour to a light brown.
Leave a minute until you remove them from the tray to allow the shortbread to settle and then place them to cool on a wire rack.
Once all the biscuits are baked and cooled you can assemble them.
When you have baked them a few times you might like to experiment with different shapes.
For the filling and topping
I am guessing these quantities as I never weigh the ingredients for my butter cream I do it by look. So see how it goes.
2oz butter 8oz icing sugar combined if it’s a little dry you can add a touch of milk
1tsp vanilla essence (optional)
Icing sugar and water
Make the icing after you have assembled the biscuits, make it thick and work quickly. The worst mistake is making it too wet to work with. Make sure it is glossy though.
Assembling the biscuits
Take 2 biscuits and turn them over so you are working with the undersides.
On one biscuit place a small blob of jam and spread the other biscuit with buttercream then sandwich them together.
I assemble all 12 before topping to make sure the icing doesn’t set.
Once assembled ice the top with water icing leaving a small gap at the edge (see photo)
Decorate with whatever topping you like: sugar flowers, half cherries, smarties or jelly tots or hundreds and thousands.
They really are an indulgent cake and would be very special to be served when you have visitors. They are a little time consuming but each process is quite simple.
Make sure you make time to sit and enjoy your biscuit when you get chance with a pot of tea.
Please let me know how you get on.