Saturday, January 8, 2011

Spinster's Buttons (thanks, Green & Gold Cookery Book)

I have 500 grams of mascarpone in my fridge and I do not want to use it for tiramisu or a creamy pasta.  Ice cream is an option, but having just made some last week, I was hoping for something a little more interesting to do with my stray mascarpone.  And, as frequently happens, while searching my cookbooks for a recipe, I got distracted by something completely different (ie non-mascarpone-related).  But there you have it - I am now the queen of Spinster's Buttons, but am still looking for a mascarpone recipe!

My cookbook collection is quite extensive, which is a habit I picked up from my mother.  Most of the really nice, expensive and/or glossy ones are gifts from her, actually.  But there are the odd ones I picked up in secondhand book stores when I was writing my history thesis.  Yes, I wrote my thesis on food.  To be precise, on the introduction of non-English cuisine into Australia between the 1920s and the 1970s.

My research took me to the archives of the Woolworths supermarket chain, every Australian Women's Weekly magazine from 1920 onwards and all published editions of the Country Women's Association Cookbook since the thirties.   It was one of the most enjoyable and indulgent things I have ever done.  And along the way I picked up a few gems for my cookbook library, including a first edition copy of the Green and Gold Cookery Book (NSW Edition), alas sadly bruised and battered, and most recently disused and neglected.  If truth be told, I haven't cooked out of it since I bought it.  But now that has all changed.

Originally published in Adelaide in 1923 as a fundraising vehicle for King's College, my edition is the first NSW edition issued by the Women's Auxiliary of the Congregational Union of NSW around 1932.  It's actually quite an amusing read, but also full of recipes that I am dying to try out (like Melon and Passion Fruit Jam, Queen Pudding and Bombay Toast), really helpful tips on preserve and jam-making, and some other things I am less willing to try myself, like a "Cure for Bilious Attack" involving lemon juice, bicarbonate soda and hot water. I also feel for the poor soul afflicted with "quinsy" who was supposed to have a vinegar-soaked bread poultice wrapped around their neck with oilcloth.  Fun times.

But amongst the merely amusing and intriguing recipes were a few I am actually very keen to try.  With my Sunday afternoon stretching out ahead of me, I decided to experiment with a fairly straight-forward biscuit recipe (cookies, for our American friends) called "Spinster's Buttons".  After some speculation about the name we came down to two options:

a) Spinster's Buttons are a simply recipe for unpracticed/unmarried cooks to make on a reduced budget, or
b) these biscuits were so good they could effectively remove a spinster's buttons with a single taste.

God knows what explanations we can come up with for "Stuffed Monkeys"...

 I have tweaked the recipe a bit because I think that, without some additional flavourings like vanilla extract and cinnamon, Spinster's Buttons would have been a tad bland... but that's just my opinion.

Spinster's Buttons

-  4 ounces self-raising flour
-  2 ounces butter
-  2 ounces white sugar
-  1 egg
-  1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-  4 tablespoons caster sugar
-  4 tablespoons raw caster sugar
-  1 teaspoon cinnamon

First off, pre-heat your oven to 215 degrees (fan-forced, 220 degrees if you have a normal oven).  Line your biscuit tins with baking paper if you want to minimise clean up (and who doesn't?!).  Otherwise, grease up your biscuit tins.

Now in a large mixing bowl pop in 4 ounces of self-raising flour - I didn't bother to sift it, as the recipe didn't specify, but feel free and sift if you are so inclined.   Either rub the butter into the flour using your forefinger and thumb, or find yourself a pastry cutter and cut it in.  I have a picture of one I bought at a secondhand store about ten years ago, and it's the bomb.  Buy one.  Steal one.  Find one - it makes everything from pastry to crumble a cinch.  But I digress, rub or cut your butter into your flour.

In a smaller bowl beat your white sugar and vanilla extract into your egg - I used a whisk which gave it a lot of air.  By the time I was done it was foamy and creamy.

Pop this into your flour-butter mix and stir with a wooden spoon until it's all combined.  Don't stir too much though, as I have a feeling these light biscuits could become quite hard pretty quickly.

Meanwhile, set up a shallow bowl nearby and combine your caster sugars and cinnamon.  You will be rolling the biscuits in this before baking them, so it's good to have something like a pie dish which is nice a wide and shallow.  You can ditch the raw caster sugar if you like, but I had images of cinnamon sugar donuts in mind when I mixed this up and I thought the golden colour looked just like my childhood memories of fresh cinnamon donuts.

Now, back to the Spinster's Buttons.  Take walnut-sized amounts out of the bowl and rub between your two hands to make them into balls.  Then roll the balls in your sugar-cinnamon mix until they look like lovely little marzipan potatoes.

Line them up on your prepared baking trays and then squish them with a fork to make sweet little stripes across the top.

Easy peesy, into the oven they go for about 10 minutes or until golden on top.  Don't leave them in too long, you want them to be moist inside and they will harden when they cool.  So there you have it, Spinster's Buttons.  Call me crazy, but those spinsters have some mighty fine buttons - excellent with a cup of coffee too.  Enjoy!

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