It has come to my attention that today is National Biscuit Day and while I sympathise with the sentiments of those who argue that esteem for this excellent creature should not be restricted to a single 24 hours, it does beg the question of which saint ought to preside over this august feast. Is there such a thing as a patron saint of biscuits?

macaroon-1680701__340I did a little googling to find out, but the results were singularly disappointing. St. Macarius of Alexandria seemed a likely candidate at first: a hermit who became a recluse after a career as a vendor of sweetmeats and is thought to have some connection with macaroons. But alas, the more I read about his unusual life the more I perceived a marked trend towards the renunciation of biscuits: a doctrine I find most unpalatable. (Wouldn’t you?)

Next on the list was St. Lucy, who wins gratitude for inspiring many delicious-looking specimens. However on closer inspection I was a little concerned by the stories put about on the tins. Apparently the poor girl had her peepers gauged out — or, in some accounts, removed them herself — in the fourth century, and while I’m pretty sure all the biscuits made in honour of this grisly affair don’t contain real eye-balls, the thought of wolfing down a plate of Occhi di Santa Lucia suddenly became less appealing…

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Hildegard and friends

Thank God for Hildegard of Bingen. My last ditch attempt to find a biscuit-loving patron was rewarded with a saint who enjoyed a good biscuit so much she actually designed her own recipe. A pioneering thinker in a range of fields, Hildegard would have been an exceptional woman whichever age she lived in, but it’s particularly wonderful to find her tucked away in the twelfth century making biscuits (and lovely music as well). There are a number of versions of Hildegard’s ‘cookies of joy’ recipe online, but all agree that they should contain spelt flour and some combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg for the spice part. Here’s the recipe and commentary in her own (translated) words:

“The nutmeg has a greath warmth and a good mixture in its powers. When a human being eats nutmeg it opens his heart, and his sense is pure, and it puts him in a good state of mind. Take nutmeg and (in the same amount) cinnamon and some cloves and grind them up. And then, from this powder and some water, make flour – and roll out some little tarts. Eat these often and it will lower the bitterness of your heart and your mind and open your heart and your numbed senses. It will make your spirit happy, purify and cleanse your mind, lower all bad fluids in you, give your blood a good tonic, and make you strong.”

(Physica, I, 21)

With a press like that, how could I not have a go at making such doctors of grace myself? (Confession: this is the first time I have made biscuits to a medieval recipe and though I followed it to the letter, I may have baked them a teensy bit too long). Despite their dense appearance, the taste and texture feels light. You can taste the spice, but it’s a lot fainter than gingerbread spices – still warm, but not overpowering – leaving you with a gentle, happy, subtly piquant kind of biscuit. A very welcome treat on a dismal day like this. And the moral? I find it comforting to reflect that a woman as phenomenally intelligent and creative as Hildegard knew that there would be times when we simply feel bitter, or numb, or sad. And in those times, treating yourself as well as you can manage (the body included) is a necessary kindness. Medicine for the soul comes in many forms, and may even include the odd biscuit…

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Further Delectation

You can find some online versions of Hildegard’s recipe (with suggested quantities  of ingredients) here or here.

Proof that John Donne found St. Lucy’s Day a trial as well.

A fun, scholarly post from a linguist at Stanford which makes a helpful distinction between macaroons, macarons, macaroni (and the Macarena).

Happy National Biscuit Day, everyone!

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2 thoughts on “Cookies of Joy

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