Cooking with biscuits

The birthday cake I most commonly requested as a child was a Martines Cake. This was a cake composed of Marie biscuits dunked briefly in strong (presumably instant) black coffee and shaped into a log sealed by layers of slightly sweetened whipped cream, and finally enrobed in more cream. Then it is chilled, ideally overnight, so that, in the same way that Tiramisu is metamorphosed from layers of biscuits and mascarpone cream into one lushly textured dessert, all components have melded wonderfully together when you come to slice into the log.

Oddly enough an online search for information about Martines Cake proved fruitless; I must ask my mother how she chanced upon the recipe. I know she didn’t invent it because my partner claims his grandmother made a similar cake – biscuits dunked in coffee and sandwiched with cream into a log – although the slosh of brandy into the coffee may have been her own touch.

In ways it seems like cheating when you make a dessert out of biscuits – or, in the case of trifles, cake – but it is a time-honoured culinary custom. Perhaps, originally, it was a way to avoid waste, to use up leftovers, Bread and Butter Pudding being a prime example. At any rate, some of the most- loved sweets fall into the category. Tiramisu has already been mentioned, a form of trifle with mascarpone cream substituting the custard, and an airily light biscuit like Savoyards replacing the sponge cake. Cheesecakes count as well, their base made of crushed biscuits bound with melted butter to comprise the base for the cream cheese filling.

Pesche Ripiene are Italian Baked Peaches stuffed with a blend of crushed amaretti biscuits and egg yolk, sometimes with nuts, white wine, honey, candied or dried fruits added. Then there is Tortoni – or perhaps Biscuit Tortoni to distinguish it from the Italian classic, a sort of semifreddo made out of eggs and cream and nuts and frozen. The biscuit version involves crushed macaroons folded through whipped cream, nuts, sugar and some sort of liqueur, then frozen.

Chocolate Crunch Slice briefly entered my life about 15 years ago when I was working
in a Balmain deli. Delivered daily among the raspberry Bowen Island muffins, brownies and other sweetmeats we cooks were too busy to make were these gloriously simple bars composed of nothing more than roughly broken shortbread biscuits suspended in a ganache – dark chocolate, butter and cream. As the expression goes, they ran out the door, so great was their popularity. I notice with interest that the startlingly reinvented Donna Hay seems to have appropriated this recipe as her own.

You can whip up lazy fruit crumbles using coarsely crushed wheaty biscuits instead of the more usual flour, butter and sugar mix. It becomes a sort of deconstructed cheesecake base essentially, with butter rubbed through the biscuits until they resemble breadcrumbs. Shredded coconut is a happy little addition here as well. Pile it on top of stewed fruit in individual ramekins then bake until golden and bubbling. Finally, who can forget Hedgehog Slice? The precursor to Chocolate Crunch, it can still be found at fetes and CWA stalls. All you do is melt 160 grams of butter then stir it through two tablespoons cocoa, two beaten eggs, one packet broken biscuits (Milk Arrowroots are the usual), 3/4 cup sugar and one cup coconut. Press into a slice tray and refrigerate until set, then cut into squares. You can make it even more wicked by melting 150 grams of dark chocolate with 60 grams of butter and smearing it thickly over the top before setting.

About victoria

Author of the gastro-memoir 'Amore&Amaretti: A Tale of Love an Food in Tuscany', I am a Byron Shire-based food and travel writer, food columnist, cooking teacher, recipe editor and chef. Born in Canberra, ACT, I have a BA in languages although am only really passionate about the Italian one, in which I am fluent, having spent four years in Tuscany in my late twenties, and returning reasonably frequently ever since. Despite that, my partner of many years, a wonderful artist, clothes designer and aged carer, is half-Greek!
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