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19 June 2008

Regency Refreshments: Ratafia Biscuits

Finally something that worked out the very first time! My prep for the Historical Writers Conference continues. This week I attempted Ratafia Biscuits (a “biscuit” is a cookie, just as it is today in England). The name delights me (and how can you go wrong with an almond macaroon?). The Oxford English Dictionary dates “Ratafia” (for a cookie) to 1845. I’m a bit stumped by this, as I find recipes for them more than one-hundred years earlier than that.

A Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts (1734):

Recipes for “Ratafia Cakes” or “Ratafies” (which isn’t in the OED at all) are common throughout the Georgian era. As are their slightly blander sister-cookie: The Macaroon (essentially the same cookie, but without bitter almonds*).

*Note about bitter almonds: bitter almonds are very hard (if not impossible) to come by in the United States due to their poisonous nature. What using them gets you is a very intense almond flavor, so the substitution of almond extract (which is, in fact, made from bitter almonds, but is safe) is a reasonable choice in my opinion.

A Complete System of Cookery (1816):
My recipe:

3 cups blanched slivered almonds (about 12 ounces)
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3-4 egg whites
1 teaspoon almond extract (for Ratafia Biscuits; Leave out for period Macaroons)

Heat oven to 325º. Line your cookie sheet/s with parchment paper or a Silpat® sheet (they will stick to an ungreased sheet and spread too much on a greased one).

Put the almonds into food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade; process 1 minute. Add sugar; process 15 seconds longer. Add whites and extract (if using); process until the paste wads around blade. Scrape sides and corners of workbowl with spatula; process until stiff but cohesive, malleable paste (similar in consistency to marzipan or pasta dough) forms, about 5 seconds longer. If mixture is crumbly or dry, turn machine back on and add water by drops through feeder tube until proper consistency is reached.

Make balls of dough about the size of a walnut for each cookie, form a dozen cookies upon each paper-lined sheet, spacing the cookies 1 ½ inches apart. You can drop the paste from a spoon or for a neater look, roll it into 1-inch balls between your palms . (Rinse and dry your hands if they become too sticky; slightly damp hands or oiled hands keep the dough from sticking too badly.)
Bake until golden brown: 20 to 25 minutes. If overbaked, macaroons will dry out rather quickly when stored. Leave macaroons on papers until completely cooled or else they may tear. Store in an airtight container.

My friends’ reactions:

Everyone really liked them, though there were differences as to which one was preferred. Something about the addition of the almond extract intensified the sweetness of the cookie. Several people like the more subtle flavor of the macaroon as opposed to the strong almond flavor of the Ratafia Biscuit. We all agreed that they were both great with a glass of whisky.

I really love this kind of hands-on exploration of my characters' world, and it’s something I can do here on “my” side of the pond (much as I’d rather be romping around England taking pictures and visiting historical sites and museums). And yes, I do picture the hero of my newly released novel eating Ratafia Biscuits while lounging around and drinking far too much whisky.

5 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Delicious post, Kalen! Ratafia cakes (and the bitter almond/prussic acid issue) figure rather importantly in my Georgian time-travel, BY A LADY. But I'd never tasted them. Now I just may give it a whirl!

3:39 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Sounds scrumptious, Kalen! My hero in LOST IN LOVE has a real sweet tooth and is always snatching an extra biscuit or tart from the tea tray to his wife and mother's amusement. I am really looking forward to the kickshaws workshop!

6:48 AM  
OpenID meopta said...

I wonder why we stopped using apricot kernels. The almonds are obviously a second choice in the first recipe. My kids love these pastries from europe that have apricot kernels ground up and used as part of the filling - they don't taste apricot at all, but cinnamon and 'other'. Delicious.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

They were super easy to make (with the use of a modern food processor, LOL!) and they're really tasty.

I think almonds are simply far easier to get than apricot kernels. I live in CA where we grow A LOT of apricots, but I was unable to find kernels anywhere (also, I think they're a source of cyanide, so that may why you can't obtain them easily).

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Julia Justiss said...

Kalen, they sound delicious. I'm looking forward to sampling all the refreshments at the Historical Writers conference (as if I needed anymore biscuits, given my fatal passion for Oreos...

Just picked up your new release and can't wait to read it. IMHO, you are one of the very very few who can combine high sensuality with a real flavor of the Regency period. All too often, the spicer the read, the less authentic it feels. Bravo, bravo!

12:21 PM  

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