Behind the Recipes

Anzac Biscuits

Part patriotic icon, part everyday sweet, these Antipodean biscuits are like my favorite oatmeal cookie—but with a decidedly golden touch.

Published Dec. 7, 2020.

If you want to get a sense of just how deeply Antipodeans cherish their Anzac biscuits, you can start by consulting the regulations outlined by the Protection of the Word “Anzac” Act 1920. Issued by the Australian government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the law states that any biscuits bearing that name must “generally conform to the traditional recipe and shape” and must never be referred to as “Anzac cookies.” Doing so, it says, would suggest “non-Australian overtones.”

Ironically, there isn’t much consensus on what defines a traditional Anzac biscuit. The basic idea has always been a simple oatmeal cookie–like confection with distinctly rich caramel flavor and color, cobbled together from pantry staples that were available during the first World War: rolled oats; flour; sugar; butter; baking soda; and a viscous, amber-toned liquid sweetener called golden syrup. (Eggs, which were scarce during the war, were usually omitted.) Treacly and much more palatable than the hardtack that sustained soldiers on the move (ANZAC is the acronym used during the First World War for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), the biscuits were care-package fodder for overseas forces. Their accessible ingredients and stir-together method made it possible for wives of soldiers and women’s groups throughout both nations to regularly bake and ship their own versions to soldiers (for more information, see “The Biscuit Backstory”).

No doubt, that widespread popularity led to the eclectic mix of biscuits called Anzac today. Many modern versions contain flaked coconut, and some are embellished with nuts or raisins or dipped in chocolate. But in most cases the distinction from biscuit to biscuit comes down to the proportions of the ingredients: Depending on the precise amounts of dry mix, water, fat, and sugar, they bake up thick, thin, dense, lacy, crisp, or chewy.

Hoping that the Anzac world had room for one more interpretation, I got to work on a version that boasted the texture of my favorite oatmeal cookie—crisp at the edges and evenly chewy within—with the nutty richness of coconut and the lightly caramelized, distinctly Anzac sweetness of golden syrup.

The Biscuit Backstory

Exactly when sweet, eggless, rolled oat–based biscuits came to be called “Anzac” is unclear, but most sources agree that the iconic Antipodean confection—and its name—evolved over time around the first World War. According to Allison Reynolds, author of Anzac Biscuits: The Power and Spirit of an Everyday National Icon (2018), various types of biscuits existed before the war and initially came to be known as Solider’s Biscuits or Red Cross Biscuits when wives and women’s groups started posting them to soldiers overseas as sweet relief from the jaw-breaking hardtack rations, packing the biscuits in airtight tins so that they might withstand the months-long journey via ship. After 1915, when troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) stormed the Gallipoli peninsula, these homemade provisions were dubbed “Anzac biscuits.” However, Reynolds guesses that versions more closely resembling contemporary Anzac “bikkies” laced with oats, golden syrup, and coconut probably didn’t emerge until a bit later, around 1920.

April 25—the anniversary of the troops’ arrival at Gallipoli—now marks Anzac Day, the annual commemoration of soldiers from New Zealand and Australia throughout history. But it’s worth noting that the biscuits’ connection to patriotism is fraught. At the time, the Australian government barred people “not substantially of European origin or descent” from enlisting, though thousands of Indigenous Australians and immigrants from countries such as China served anyway.

Photo: Creative Commons

Dry Times

I started by trying the most common approach, a ratio formula: 1 cup each of rolled oats, flour, sugar, and unsweetened coconut. After stirring together the dry mix, I melted a stick of butter with a tablespoon or two of golden syrup and dissolved a teaspoon of baking soda in a couple tablespoons of hot water­—an unusual step that almost all recipes include. Then I stirred the baking soda mixture into the butter mixture (the two components reacted and foamed up; see “The Soda-Syrup Reaction”) and added the dry mix directly to the saucepan I’d melted the butter in (as convenient a vessel to mix the dough as a bowl). Then I dropped spoonfuls of the dough onto a baking sheet, flattened them, and baked them until they were golden.

I could feel how little moisture there was in the dough as I was mixing it, so I wasn’t surprised when the biscuits baked up dry and dense, with virtually no chewiness. Adjusting the flour and/or golden syrup would address that, but I decided to zero in on the coconut first. I’d been using the unsweetened kind that most Anzac recipes call for, but it seemed pretty absorbent—almost like dry flour. That made me wonder if sweetened coconut might behave differently, since the sugar it contains is hygroscopic (retains water). I tried a one-for-one swap, and the biscuits baked up thinner, moister, and (of course) sweeter, which was great since sweetened coconut is more widely available in the States than unsweetened. I stuck with it and liked the results even more when I cut back on the sweetened coconut by 25 percent.

Golden syrup—and plenty of it—gives our Anzac biscuits satisfying chew and rich caramel color and flavor.

The Golden Ratio

From there I circled back to the golden syrup: Its caramel-like flavor and color hadn’t been prominent enough, and I’d done enough baking with corn syrup (a close relative) to know that it’s also invaluable for ramping up moisture and chewiness (learn more about golden syrup here).

I turned out several more batches with increasingly higher amounts of syrup. Each one was moister, chewier, and more flavorful than the last, but when I got to ⅓ cup, I stopped: The crumb of that batch was rich-tasting and gold-toned, but that much syrup caused the dough to spread so much that the biscuits were wafer-thin and lacy like Florentine cookies and so chewy that they bordered on candy—and, in combination with the sugar and coconut, it made the biscuits much too sweet.

The Soda-Syrup Reaction

Most modern baking recipes call for adding chemical leaveners such as baking soda to the dry mix. But almost all Anzac biscuit recipes suggest mixing the soda into a little hot water and then stirring that solution into a mixture of melted butter and golden syrup, causing a bubbly reaction. Historically, bakers did this to break up clumps of baking soda (early formulations didn’t contain anticaking agents). But this method also makes for a biscuit that’s pleasantly dense and chewy, since activating the soda before adding it to the dough blows off some of its leavening power, so it’s less able to aerate the dough. What’s more, it deepens the crumb’s color and flavor: When the alkaline soda reacts with the acidic syrup’s plant pigments (which respond dramatically to pH change), the syrup darkens, and the darker dough develops more flavorful Maillard browning as it bakes.

If I wanted to keep that much syrup in the biscuits for its flavor and color, I needed to adjust the other ingredients. I spent the next several tests pushing and pulling at the amounts of granulated sugar, coconut, oats, and flour. Ultimately, I cut back on the sugar to tone down the biscuits’ sweetness and chewiness, added a bit more flour to reduce the dough’s spread, and added lots more oats so that the biscuits baked up with more substance and toasty flavor.

Whether my biscuits would pass muster with the Australian government, I can’t say. But they’re crisp at the edges and chewy within; boast robust caramel‑like richness, loads of oats, and lots of nutty‑sweet coconut; and come together on a whim. What more could I ask from a drop cookie biscuit?

Anzac Biscuits

Part patriotic icon, part everyday sweet, these Antipodean biscuits are like my favorite oatmeal cookie—but with a decidedly golden touch.
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