I can’t get excited about root vegetables. Pressure-cooked parsnips and celeriac and the flaccid broths I am now closely acquainted with have started to distance me from their virtues. Yes, warm, inviting, steamy, filling, healthy, earthy, beefy and sustaining etc. Worthy.
If I want something wet and warm it is to be tea; strong, lactic and the colour of a cheap suntan. The cup is important: wide, thin-lipped and bone china, something that warms the hands through. And then there is the all important dunking element: the biscuit. Not cookies, which are too soft and yielding and will flop into the tea and turn it to mush. It must be a digestive. Sandy, burnished brown, the texture of rubble. A slight saltiness. Plain as plain can be. My childhood friend, Tuppy, would layer her digestives with butter and salt, an act I found impressive – she was the first as a child to make the connection between sweet biscuit and salted dairy. Digestives and cheddar are also a winner.
Digestives are also the fulcrum of the NHS – after a short stay you will be offered a dainty red packet of two and a cup of tea. It gets your blood sugar up, gives you something to gnaw on, brings you back to life. Sitting the other day with the curtain round me in a hospital ward, after a routine though still rather rugged procedure, I ripped open the red wrapper; the two fitted into my palm like medals. I made them last as long as I could.
“Are you alright in there?” the nurse asked, suspicious at my lingering. My answer was muffled with starch and sugar. I couldn’t just have one. “Fine!” I called out. She whipped the curtain back, but I’d already eaten most of the evidence. 24 hours of not eating and nothing can prepare you for the high. Digestives are genius. And she gave me another packet to go home with. She balanced them on a tray and walked beside me like a butler.
My cousin was waiting for me looking normal and smiling with the colour of a windswept sea walk still on her cheeks. I showed her my little red packet and she was impressed. It reminded me in that moment to be grateful – to be there in the first place and to be going home. With her, with digestives.
You can dip the digestives – once cooled – in melted chocolate, and then leave them to harden on non-stick baking paper. Here I used dark chocolate but milk would also work. As you can see, they are not particularly pretty to look at, but very nice to eat, and will enrich your tea dunking activities. The unchocolated ones mimic shop-bought digestives in their sheer plainness. They are also nicely crisp and not overly sweet – you can serve them with cheese or pâté. They are very good eaten on the day but can be stored in an airtight container and enjoyed a few days later.
The term ‘digestive’ was reportedly derived from the belief that the biscuits had antacid properties due to the use of bicarbonate of soda. They were originally made with exclusively ‘brown meal’ – composed of fine bran and white flour. Because brown meal includes the germ, the flour was sweet, and perhaps because of this, digestives have also been called ‘sweetmeal’ biscuits.
Ginger and chocolate digestive biscuits
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The Guardian
No, he’s not paying me. I just happen to like his column. These are based on the classic River Cottage digestive, but made with the addition of ginger and dark chocolate. Both are optional, but if you do go down the ginger route, be generous with the little squares of stem ginger or the flavour and texture can get a bit lost. I used light muscovado here for the soft brown sugar. Makes 20-25.
125g wholemeal spelt flour (or plain wholemeal flour), plus extra to dust
125g medium oatmeal
75g soft brown sugar
½ tsp ground ginger
Big pinch of fine sea salt
1 tsp baking powder
125g cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
5 – 6 largish squares of stem ginger, finely chopped
A little milk (I didn’t find this necessary)
200g dark chocolate (or good milk chocolate), broken into small pieces
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and line two baking trays with nonstick baking parchment. Put the flour, oatmeal, sugar, ginger, salt and baking powder in a food processor and pulse. Add the butter and pulse again until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. (Alternatively, combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, then rub in the butter with your fingertips.)
Add the stem ginger and, with the processor running, trickle in just enough milk (about 30ml) to bring the mix together into clumps. I didn’t need to add any milk in my batch, my dough was already fairly sticky, but see how you go.
Lightly dust a work surface with flour, tip out the dough and knead gently into a ball. Press into a fat disc, wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
Cut the dough in half. Dust one half with flour and roll it out to 3-4mm thick, dusting regularly with flour to stop it sticking. The dough is slightly sticky and crumbly, so don’t worry if it breaks up a bit; just squash it back together and re-roll. Use a 7.5cm cutter, or a glass or cup, to stamp out biscuits, and transfer these to the baking sheets with a palette knife; re-roll the offcuts to make more. Repeat with the second piece of dough (or chill for use later), then bake for 10 – 12 minutes, until golden brown at the edges and lightly coloured on top.
Remove from the oven and leave the biscuits to cool and firm up on the baking sheets, then transfer them to an airtight container or eat them all.
If you want to: melt the chocolate in a basin over a pan of simmering water. Dip in one half of each biscuit, and leave to set on a silicone mat or a sheet of nonstick baking parchment, before serving.