Saturday, March 24, 2007

Digestive Quest

[Warning: this post is LONG! If you just want the final recipe go here]

While I was over in Scotland I became quite fond of the McVitie's Plain Chocolate Digestive Biscuits. I always had them with me on my travels. They made a great snack to get rid of hunger as well as keep me energized. They are extremely popular in Great Britain and Ireland. McVitie's is actually an Irish company. And coincidentally enough, on St. Patty's Day I found them in a store here.

World Market. One of the best stores ever. Love It! Love It! Love It!

We went there after catching a movie with some friends of SSB and myself. As I was walking up to my friend in the store, she showed me the package of McVitie's with chocolate and started to tell me I HAD TO GET THEM when I reached into my own basket and pulled out my own package! We both had a good laugh. SSB said it looked just like a commercial.

But they were fairly expensive too. $3.99 for a package of 18 biscuits. (I should point out at this time for those of you not in the know that biscuits in Great Britain/Ireland are actually cookies - not our biscuits). So I decided that I might just have to figure out how to make these myself. I mean, there's got to be a recipe for them SOMEWHERE on the internet, right?

Well, I found quite a few recipes for digestive biscuits, but I also found a lot of comments about how they weren't the same as McVitie's because those particular biscuits just couldn't be replicated at home. I was not discouraged. I figured that if I collected enough of the recipes, saw what they had in common and compared them to the ingredients on the package of the McVitie's that I had purchased, I might just be able to crack the code. I did some research on McVitie's digestives to find out how they were created, how they got their name, what makes them special, etc; to try and get some clues.

One clue that helped me in tweaking the recipes that I found was that they are called digestives due to the large amount of sodium bicarbonate in them that helps settle the stomach (and here I thought it was because of all the bran!). Most of the recipes that I found did not seem to have much baking soda in them at all.

I started with a recipe that I Frankensteined from several of the recipes that I had retrieved. I baked one biscuit at a time, recording the results and changes I made to the dough as I went along. The following is the unedited process of creating the biscuit I wanted:

Sy's first batch

3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon rolled oats
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoons Crisco
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and oats with a pastry blender. Mix in sugar with a pastry blender. Throroughly mix in vanilla, then add fats. Mix these in with a pastry blender until the mix is uniform.
Knead dough on a floured surface until smooth. Roll out dough to
approximately 1/8" thickness. Cut into rounds with cookie cutter about
2 1/2 inches in diameter. Transfer to cookie sheets and prick with a
fork. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden. Let cool on wire rack.
Store in an airtight tin.

I would cut back on the sugar by about half.
I did add two singles of half-n-half after trying one biscuit. This made the biscuit a little less grainy. I think I would try adding more to see if I could get them fluffier this way too. I found a soda cracker recipe that calls for quite a bit of liquid. Maybe replace 1 TBS of the butter for liquids.
The McVitie's biscuits use palm oil - I would try that. It seems that there is a slightly bitter taste to the McVitie's that you can't get with this recipe and I think that it is the palm oil.
I tried chilling some of the dough before rolling and cutting. This really didn't seem to make too much of a difference in the final product, but it did make the dough easier to handle.
This recipe uses oats, but McVitie's does not contain any so I would substitute some wheat product for the oats.
They also need to be fluffier, so I might try adding a bit more baking powder - this would also add a little of that bitterness that I am looking for.
I also reduced the heat to 350F which got rid of the uneven browning that I got in the first batch.
I also did all the biscuits, after the first one, on the baking stone instead of a cookie sheet. I think this was a good move.

wheat flour, plain chocolate (29%), sugar, cocoa mass, palm oil, butter oil, cocoa butter, emulsifiers (soya lechithin, polyglycerol, polyricinoleic acid), natural flavor (vanilla), palm oil, wholemeal, sugar, glucose fructose syrup, raising agents (sodium bicarbonate, tartaric acid, malic acid), salt.

plain chocolate = bakers chocolate
sugar = dark brown sugar
cocoa mass = the precursor to cocoa powder
emulsifiers = things like egg yolks and lecithin - they hold the crumb together and give the biscuit greater shelf life
wholemeal = whole wheat flour
glucose fructose sugar = corn syrup
raising agents = baking soda, precursor to cream of tartar (it's a byproduct of wine), found in apples (makes things sour)

Sy's 2nd batch:
I halved the sugar and subtracted 1 TBS butter.
I added 1 TBS milk powder and 1/3 cup water
Along with the 1/2 tsp baking powder I added a 1/2 tsp baking soda as these biscuits are said to be known for their high content of baking soda - hence the name "digestive".
I substituted wheat bran for the oats as the original biscuits have no oat in them.

My first biscuit came out too chewy and blonde.
I added another TBS of both butter and sugar.
I also added a bit more wholemeal flour and baked another cookie.

The biscuit was still too sconey, so I added another TBS each of butter and sugar. I also raised the temp of the oven to 360-370F.

This batch was kind of turning into a train wreck, so I set it aside and started a new batch.

Sy's third batch:
I went back to the original recipe.
I realized after I mixed this third batch that I had added WAY too much wheat bran. It was supposed to be 1 TBS to replace the oats and I put in 1/4 cup. OOPS!! I think that this won't be so bad since oats puff up so much and wheat bran doesn't nearly so much.
I also added 1/4 tsp baking soda and 1/4 tsp cream of tartar (since the McVitie's use tartaric acid).
I also used 4 half-n-half singles this time.

After the first biscuit I added another TBS each of butter and sugar to make up for the extra bran.
I also turned the heat back down to 350F since I was getting the extra browning around the edges again.

That batch that I thought was a goner - the last biscuit that I got from it was actually REALLY CLOSE!!!
It just needed a bit more sugar and butter! WhooHoo!
So I went back to that dough, added 1 TBS of each and baked another biscuit.
I think baking these a little longer than 15 mins at 350F might also make them crispier - so I tried that too.

Actually, on second thought, I should have only added the butter - but c'est la vie! That's why I wrote down each step of this process.

In the end, I came 90% close to a perfect match with the third batch with all the extra changes. But the second batch with the final changes was pretty good too.

I have now been baking for over 6 hours, but not bad for cracking a mystery code of ingredients for such a sought after delicacy!

Once I had the biscuits I wanted, I baked the rest of them and coated the backs of them with melted semi-sweet chocolate chips. YUMMY! I, my family, and the neighbor kids highly approved!

The finally winning recipe is as follows:

3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 baking soda
1/4 cream of tartar
1/4 cup wheat bran
4 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoons Crisco
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
4 half-n-half singles (little more than 3 TBS half-n-half)

Preheat oven to 350F.
In a large bowl, mix together the flours, bran, baking powder, baking soda, and cream of tartar with a pastry blender. Mix in sugar with the pastry blender. Mix in fats with the pastry blender. The mix at this point should be crumbly and uniform. Mix the vanilla in the half-n-half and add to the mix. Mix with pastry blender until it is uniform and resembles really soft playdoh.

You can at this point refrigerate for 20 minutes to make the dough easier to handle, but it is not necessary. Be sure to roll out dough between two pieces of waxed paper! Roll to approximately 1/8" thickness. Cut into rounds with cookie cutter about 2 1/2 inches in diameter (I used the ring off one of my canning jars).

Transfer to cookie sheets and prick with a fork. Bake 15 to 18 minutes (adjust the baking time up to dry them out more if the biscuits are too soft and fluffy), or until golden. Let cool on wire rack.

Optional: spread the backs of the cooled biscuits with melted semi-sweet chocolate (as in chips - almost everyone has these for chocolate chip cookies). Set the biscuits chocolate side up on the rack until chocolate hardens.

Store in an airtight tin -if storage is even necessary! They will go fast!

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