Ok, before we go any further lets clear something up. SWEETMEATS are articles of confectionery; not to be confused with SWEETBREADS which are gross bits of an animal (some kind of gland, I believe). Meat comes from the Old English ‘mete’, which basically means any kind of food. Right! Let’s get on.
You’ve probably noticed that I’m really into vintage cookbooks. As well as being fun to read, they’re a great source of inspiration. The recipes can be a little bit hard to interpret though.
Take, for example, this recipe for Rich Sweetmeat Gingernuts; found in the first edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The list of ingredients is a little bizarre from the point of view of a modern reader.
There’s 1lb of treacle, 1lb sugar, 4 ounces of melted butter etc. But no quantity is given for the flour, just the tenuous direction to add as much as “may be necessary”.
Believe it or not, accurate lists of ingredients weren’t even a thing until Eliza Acton’s groundbreaking Modern Cookery for Modern Families was published in 1845. A book which was liberally plagiarised by Mrs Beeton.
Flour aside, that’s a lot of treacle. Like, A LOT. And it’s pretty powerful stuff. I knew I’d made these before for a Victorian tea party, and found them a bit strong (even though I’d cut the amount right down). The trouble is, I really can’t remember what I did with the recipe, so it was back to square one. Using a recipe for Cornish Fairings as a base, and interpreting the original quite loosely, I think the end result has turned out rather well.
While homemade candied peel will give the best results, use shop bought if you need to. The same goes for angelica, which can usually be found at this time of year, in those shops that specialise in gigantic bags of prunes and stuff. They could also be left out entirely if you’re not keen on that sort of thing.
Rich Sweetmeat Gingernuts makes 12-14
- 180g Plain flour
- 2tsp ground ginger
- 1tsp ground coriander
- 90g golden caster sugar
- 90g butter
- 1tsp caraway seeds
- 30g candied peel
- 30g candied angelica
- 4tbsp golden syrup
- 1tsp treacle
Preheat the oven to 200c/180 fan/gas mark 4. Grease a couple of baking trays.
Sift the flour and ground spices into a bowl. Stir in the sugar. Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs.
Chop the peel and angelica into small pieces. Add to the bowl. Stir in the caraway seeds.
Gently warm the syrup and treacle in a saucepan or microwave until they are runny. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix together till it forms a stiff dough. If it seems a bit dry you can drizzle in a bit more syrup.
Divide into pieces about the size of a walnut, or just divide into the number of biscuits you want. Roll into balls, put on the baking trays, flatten slightly with your hand, and pop in the oven.
Bake for around 15 minutes, or until a rich golden brown. If you want a decorative effect on top, once the biscuits have puffed up and are starting to brown, squash them down the middle with a fork. This is purely optional.
They will still be soft when they come out the oven. Allow to firm up a little before transferring to a wire rack. Once cool, they should be crispy on the outside and delightfully chewy in the middle.