I’ve not done a post on something Scottish for a while, so time to change that. These are Empire Biscuits, which are made from two layers of shortbread, filled with jam and topped with sweet icing and a cherry on top. Well, that’s the story that I know, but they do also go by different names, including Belgian biscuits, but that’s a name I never heard of where I grew up!
They are, in one way, just another variation on Linzer biscuits, but their name is where things get a little interesting. They were known as German biscuits until World War I, at which point they took on a more patriotic name, perhaps taking their lead from the rebranding of the Germanic-sounding House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha over to the much more British-sounding Windsor around the same time?
These are the sort of biscuits that I can remember from when I was growing up, either behind glass counters in a bakery or as part of a selection of cakes in a tea shop. For me, they have a certain retro charm, the sort of thing that is actually very simple to make, but also utterly delicious when made well, with buttery biscuit and good, fruity jam. Perhaps if I was faced today with the sort of biscuits that I ate as I child I might be a little more picky about them, but in my mind, they are a firm favourite. Certainly my inner child was quite excited with how this little batch of biscuits turned out. They looked just right!
To make the biscuits, you can use whatever recipe you want, but I think a simple shortbread works best (I re-used this Christmas recipe to good effect). It’s also best to go with a recipe that does not contain too much sugar – you’re going to be adding jam and icing to the finished biscuits, so you don’t need to worry about them not being sufficiently sweet. I also cut them out using a scalloped cutter as I think the effect is rather pretty, but you can go for circles, or get creative with stars, squares or stars.
When it comes to the filling, it has to be jam and it has to be something with a good, fruity flavour. It’s got to stand up the biscuit and the icing, so something with only a very delicate flavour will be overshadowed. Robust raspberry or strawberry is traditional, but blackcurrant works well too (in fact, that’s what I used here). I recommend being fairly generous with the jam – probably veer on the side of being a little too generous, because Empire biscuits actually benefit from being left overnight for the icing the set and for the jam to merge into the biscuit.
Empire biscuits are finished off with a simple water icing, and then a cherry on top. You might think that you could add all manner of interesting and exciting flavours to Empire Biscuits, but my own preference is to keep things traditional. Play around with the jam, but beyond that, enjoy the retro feeling you get with these tasty little morsels. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could replace the cherries with some sort of jelly sweet. Me? Always a glacé cherry!
To make Empire Biscuits (makes 10):
For the biscuits:
• 85g butter, softened
• 40g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 dessert spoon water
• 125g plain flour
• jam (one teaspoon per biscuit)
• 100g icing sugar, to dust
• cold water
• 2 glacé cherries, each cut into 8 pieces
1. Beat the butter until soft. Add the icing sugar, salt, vanilla and water and beat until pale, fluffy and completely combined. Sieve the flour and add to the rest of the ingredients. Mix until you have a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°C). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Roll out the dough to 1/3 cm (1/4 inch) and cut 20 shapes with a round or fluted cutter. Pop into the fridge for 5 minutes, then bake the cookies until just golden at the edges (5-10 minutes depending on size – mine baked in 6).
3. Once the cookies are cooled, it’s time to assemble them. Put the jam in a saucepan. Heat until runny, then pass through a sieve. Allow to cool slightly, then spoon a little jam onto the bases. Smooth with a spoon, then add another biscuit on top.
4. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough cold water to make a thick but spreadable icing (I used 4 teaspoons of water). Spread on top of the biscuits. Don’t add too much or you will get drips down the sides. Add a piece of cherry to the middle of each biscuits and leave for the icing to set.
Worth making? I love these! They are easy, look good and taste great. They work well as part of an afternoon tea, and (keep it a secret) they’re really not much effort to make.