This blog is the third installment of our series, Retro Recipes. These blogs feature historic recipes that are researched, tested, and reviewed by Loudoun Museum staff Paige Armstrong.
As we get deeper into fall and the weather gets cooler, warm drinks like hot tea and warm cider will be enjoyed more frequently. Tea lovers will once again be able to relax at home with a freshly brewed cup of tea, snuggled on the couch, trying to chase off the cold. Some may even enjoy a biscuit or two—dunking them into the warm liquid, softening the cookie before taking a bite. In this installment of Retro Recipes, I’ll be making “Fairy Wafers,” a sort of tea biscuit. The recipe comes from an item in the Museum’s collection: the same issue of the 1898 “The Ladies Home Journal,” that included our "Sweet Raglets" recipe.
In certain parts of the world, tea and biscuits are a well-known combination. They fall into a similar vein as milk and cookies. With both, you are expected to dunk the cookie or biscuit into their respective drink before taking a bite. How did this tradition begin? In this Retro Recipe I’m going to explore the history of why we dunk biscuits into our tea, and how it became popularized.
Ancient Rome has a long list of technologies it can be credited for inventing. From concrete to bound books, ancient Roman inventions have helped shape the world as we know it today. Romans can also be credited with starting the tradition of “dunking.” It was common for Romans to dunk their hard, unleavened wafers into their wine. This softened the wafers, making them more bearable to bite into. These wafers were known as “bis coctus,” (meaning twice baked, since after the initial baking, biscuits were dried so that they would last longer) which gave us the word biscuit.
In more “modern” tradition, dunking can be traced back to the 16th century. It was common for naval rations to be made of whole wheat flour, water and sometimes salt, which created a mixture known as “hard tack,” or “ship’s biscuit.” Often times bakers baked the hard tack twice, or dried it in a warm oven, in order to hasten the final hard and dry stage so that it could be packed and shipped out faster. The end product was a very bland, hard biscuit that was edible for months. It never expired due to the fact that no perishables were ever used in its making—milk, eggs and sugar were never added. The problem was that the more time passed, the harder the biscuit became. It was for this reason that “hard tack” also became known as “tooth dullers,” or “molar breakers.” In order to make eating these abominations remotely possible, sailors dipped them into water, beer or even brine to soften the rock-like ration.
In the 17th century a tastier, richer biscuit recipe was developed. Wealthier families served these sweeter treats with tea during midday tea parties and at dinner. These biscuits were often eaten after meals, mostly as a digestive. Dunking during these events was frowned upon and was something to be done only in the privacy of one’s home. Once tea became affordable to the lower classes and many different types of biscuits were manufactured, public dunking became less taboo.
“Why dunk?” you might ask.
The sailors and the Romans dunked to make a practically inedible food edible, but what about those simply enjoying a cup of tea after a long day? Why did they dunk? For some, it is a matter of taste -- dipping a biscuit into a beverage can cause the flavors of the two to blend and intermingle, in addition to softening the biscuit. Of course this changes from person to person, and at the end of the day modern dunking is based more on preference than necessity.
When I first come upon a recipe that I decide I’m going to make, I like to do a little research on it first. I like to be able to see what my end result should look like in order to help guide me. Searching “fairy wafers” into Google yielded little to nothing. So, I decided to try many different combinations until I came upon fairy gingerbread. The recipes were similar enough and the end result would leave a biscuity cracker.
I apologize if this comparison is incorrect and the final result is not a “true” fairy wafer at all. Niche recipes such as this one can be both enjoyable and frustrating to research. So please keep in mind that this is my own take on the recipe. I encourage readers who decide to bake this dish to experiment with it and make it to your own preferences.
This recipe makes a very large serving and depending on how thick you make each batch can affect how many wafers/biscuits you end up with.
Since I was unsure of how the end result should turn out I did a lot of experimenting with each batch. My one constant was that I had the oven set to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I cooked each batch for a different amount of time and changed how much batter I laid out on the pan. I was aiming to make a thin, crispy batch in the end. Luckily the batter was tasty on its own, so even the “failed” batches were a nice treat (A failed batch, in my eyes, simply meant that the end result came out too thick, and or not crispy enough. Leaving me with a more cake-like pastry, rather than a thin, crispy cracker).
The recipe itself is straightforward and easy to prepare. It doesn’t take long at all to whip up, which makes it a good recipe if you are looking to make something quickly.
I cooked the first batch for about ten to twelve minutes and made the batter layer fairly thick. The end result was not able to be rolled at all, because it was far too thick. I essentially had thin cake squares. I cooked the second batch for about fifteen minutes, and the layer of batter was thinner than batch one, but it was still too thick to be rolled. For the final batch, I cooked it for eighteen minutes and made the batter layer as thin as possible. Some parts came out thicker than others, which made rolling the squares tricky. In areas where the batter was spread the most thinly it cooked to a nice crispy texture that crunched when bitten into.
In the end I wasn’t super happy with how all my batches came out. None were crispy enough for my preference, and I feel like I was never able to spread the batter thin enough. If I were to bake this recipe again, I would bake the dish for at least twenty minutes, in hopes of getting a browned and crispier final product. I would also learn better techniques for spreading batter thinly.
In the next installment of Retro Recipes I will be making a cranberry pudding and cranberry punch, while also diving into the history of cranberries. Both recipes are from the 1900s and come from the cookbook, “What Salem Dames Cooked,” which was published in 1910. I hope you join me again next time for my next Retro Recipe!
"Biscuit," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biscuit.
Cornick, Nicola, "A Brief History of Dunking Biscuits," Historical and Regency Romance UK, 7 Sept, 2016, https://historicalromanceuk.blogspot.com/2016/09/a-brief-history-of-dunking-biscuits.html.
Dora, "More Tea with That? England's Tea Time Biscuit Tradition," Made in England, 7 July, 2020, https://madeinengland.com/blog/more-tea-with-that-englands-tea-time-biscuit-tradition/.
Franks, Richard, "The Reason Why the British Serve Tea with Biscuits," Culture Trip, 5 Jan, 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/articles/the-reason-why-the-british-serve-tea-with-biscuits/.
"Tea and Biscuits: What Kind of Biscuits are Served with Tea?" Red Rose, https://redrosetea.com/blogs/red-rose-blog/tea-and-biscuits-what-kind-of-biscuits-are-served-with-tea.
Wier, Stuart, "Biscuits, Hard Tack, and Crackers in Early America," Boulder, Colorado: 2014, http://www.westernexplorers.us/Biscuits_Crackers_Hard_Tack_2010_SKWier.pdf.