Before we begin, I think we should review some differences between British and American terminology. If you’ve watched The Great British Baking Show long enough, you know that biscuits are what we in America would normally call cookies. But the two terms are not exactly interchangeable. Biscuits, in the U.K., are generally hard and flat, and they can be sweet or savory, whereas American cookies can be soft or hard but are almost always sweet. So what Americans call crackers, Britons would call savory biscuits. (The softer American-style cookies, by the way, such as chocolate chip or snickerdoodle, would still be called cookies in the U.K.)
The word biscuit is derived from the Latin panis biscotus, which means twice-baked bread. This method of baking bread twice not only made it crisp but also helped it keep longer without spoiling, which came in handy on long voyages and for soldiers’ rations. In fact, one such biscuit — also known as hardtack — dating from 1874 and used as rations on board a ship, has survived pretty much intact and is part of the National Maritime Museum collection in Greenwich, London.
Once sugar became more widely available (although most of it came from sugar plantations in the West Indies, where it was produced under horrific conditions by enslaved people) biscuits grew both in popularity and variety.
The two types of savory biscuits Mary Berry mentioned in this episode are digestives, which have a more crumbly texture, and water biscuits, which should have a firm snap when broken in two. Digestives are traditionally a semisweet biscuit and slightly thicker than most crackers (similar to an American graham cracker). Water biscuits are more like American crackers: thin, hard and brittle and often served with cheese. Savory biscuits may contain additional ingredients, such as herbs, seeds, cheese or olives, and in America at least, are often topped with salt or other seasonings.
The inspiration for my savory biscuits came from a bread my mom baked occasionally when I was growing up. We called it dilly bread, and it was seasoned with dill seed and onion. Dill seeds have a slightly stronger flavor than dill weed, reminiscent of caraway. I crushed mine with a mortar and pestle to bring out the flavor even more.
I started with a recipe from Food52 for fennel seed crackers, substituting dill seed for the fennel and adding onion powder for additional flavor. Instead of using all whole-wheat flour, I used half whole-wheat and half all-purpose flour. I also topped my crackers with dill weed, for a little color, and salt.
The dough is quite dry and crumbly. I ended up using more water than the recipe originally called for, but it may depend on the humidity in your home. During our Wisconsin winters, the air in our house is pretty arid. As with shortcrust pastry, you don’t want to overwork the dough or the crackers will be tough when baked. My biggest concern was that the crackers be thin and crisp, so I rolled out the dough as thinly as possible. I chose to cut mine using a rectangular cookie cutter, but you could use any shape, even cutting them freehand if you like.
The brief was for 36 biscuits, and I had enough dough for that and more, so I didn’t reroll the leftover dough but simply baked the offcuts as they were. I have to admit, these “rough around the edges” biscuits were thinner and crispier than the ones cut from the middle of the dough, so if you’re not making your biscuits for Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, you might just want to cut them all out freeform and bake them as is. They’ll still hold your cheese no matter what their shape!
These crackers aren’t crisp right out of the oven, but they harden as they cool. So be sure and let them cool completely before packing them in an airtight container for storage. They make a great accompaniment to soup and pair well with many cheeses—havarti, perhaps, or gruyere. Serve them at your next wine-and-cheese tasting, or add them to a charcuterie board!
Dill and Onion Crackers
- 2½ c. whole wheat flour
- 2½ c. all-purpose flour
- 6 ounces cold salted butter, cubed
- 1 t. sea salt, plus more for sprinkling on top
- 2 T. dill seed, slightly crushed
- 2 t. onion powder, or more to taste
- 10-16 T. cold water
- Dill weed, for sprinkling on top
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
- Put flours, butter, 1 t. sea salt, dill seed and onion powder in a large bowl. Squish the butter pieces into the flour with your fingers, and keep working it all together until small crumbs form.
- Add water a little at a time, still mixing by hand, until the dough holds together in a ball. (If it gets too wet, add more flour.) Don’t overwork the dough or the crackers will be tough.
- Divide the dough in half and, working with one half at a time, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Cut into desired shapes and place on prepared cookie sheets, leaving some space between each cracker.
- Sprinkle each cracker with dill weed and salt, then press lightly with your fingers to make sure the toppings stick to the dough. Dock the crackers by pricking each one with a fork or toothpick a few times to prevent large bubbles from forming as they bake.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes until crackers are slightly browned around the edges. Leave to cool, then transfer to an airtight container.