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In the UK, What is a Biscuit?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2014
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In British English, the term “biscuit” has the same meaning as the American “cookie.” Both refer to a type of small sweetened baked bread which is often offered as a dessert. Some examples of traditional British biscuits include digestives, shortbread, and Jaffa cakes. Many residents of the United Kingdom are also familiar with American classics like chocolate chip cookies.

The history of sweets is quite ancient, as many human cultures have had a sweet tooth. In the Medieval era, sweets were primarily prepared with honey, until sugar began to be available, thanks to colonization. Many modern consumers would not recognize medieval versions of sweets, as they were often heavily spiced with things like cloves, taking advantage of the import of novel spices, and the honey created a distinct mellow flavor which is markedly different from that of sugar.

”Biscuit” is derived from a Latin word which means “twice baked.” The earliest form of biscuit was probably hard tack, a very durable bread which was packed for long journeys. Biscuits can range in texture from soft and chewy to hard and flaky, with a wide assortment of flavors and fillings. Some biscuits are dipped in chocolate or other ingredients, and they may be turned into sandwiches with a layer of filling such as apricot paste or ice cream between two biscuits.

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Over time, cooks developed small flat cakes which slowly evolved into the modern biscuit or cookie. These were made with ingredients like flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, along with spices and salt. Dried fruit and nuts were also not uncommon additions, along with cracked whole grains like oats and sometimes frostings as well. Around the 1700s, speakers of American English began to refer to such sweets as cookies, while speakers of British English retained the traditional word, “biscuit.”

Informally, a biscuit may be called a bikkie or biccie. Just as in the United States, young consumers are quite fond of biscuits, and it is not uncommon to hear mothers bribing their young with a promise of a bikkie later. Biscuits may be dipped in tea, as is the case with the classic digestive biscuit, a whole wheat semi-sweet biscuit which is well known in Britain, and they can also be served on their own, with milk, or in a spread of sweets at a party or social event.

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