Cookie of the Month: Hunting an Irish ‘biscuit’

I can certainly be accused of “procrastibaking” that “practice” of baking when you should (“should”?) be doing something else (I’m also guilty of its flipside — procrastinating on getting baking projects done). But in that same vein, I also fall under the spell of what I call “escape baking” or “esca-baking” (you heard it here first – ha), where I disappear into another world, another time, another kitchen, through a cookbook or recipe.

St. Patrick’s Day, and its attention to all things Irish, is a perfect excuse to disappear to the Emerald Isle, if only through the pages of a wee book called “The Little Irish Baking Book,” by Ruth Isabel Ross (St. Martin’s Press: 1995). I thumb through this little book all year, noting recipes I’d like to try, but mostly whisking myself off to some sturdy little farmhouse in the Irish countryside, a fire in the kitchen hearth, a pot of strong tea always at the ready, and the basic staples on hand to bake a number of homey treats.

[I]n earlier readings of this charming little book, I had bookmarked a curiously named cookie or, properly termed for the region, “biscuit.” “Hunting Nuts” are a rolled cookie, redolent with molasses (or its British counterpart, treacle), spices, oats and a hefty dose of candied peel, and were so named because with their sturdy bar shape, they could be easily pocketed and carried by huntsmen into the outdoors and “will survive any amount of jolting.”

[L]ong intrigued by this recipe, I wanted to make it for my March cookie. I already had a supply of candied orange peel from my stash of fruitcake ingredients. Regular all-purpose flour, rolled oats and “pinches” of baking soda (or “bread soda”), ginger and “mixed spice” (of which I did my own mix of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves) are blended as the dry ingredient base of the recipe.

[A] large amount (3/4 cup) of molasses, white sugar and butter are combined and heated on the stove until the butter melts.

[T]his dark mixture is stirred into the dry ingredients to form a stiff, but sticky dough. Here, the recipe instructs to “Put aside for 4 hours.” Put aside? What did this mean, exactly? There were no eggs in the recipe, so there would likely be no harm in putting aside at room temperature, but I opted to cover the dough and stick it in the fridge. I understood the waiting time (as many of us do now), as a needed one for many successful cookie doughs, allowing an opportunity for all the dry ingredients to absorb the wet ones.

[R]oss’s cookbook photo on the jacket flap I used to mark the recipe in the book dissuaded any doubts I had about the recipe (looking at her here, wouldn’t you be reassured, too?). While I waited for my dough to congeal, I looked up a little about Ruth Isabel Ross, or “Ru-Bel,” as her family called her. She was not only a famed “cookery book” writer, but a horticulturist, gardening writer and wartime code breaker (there, now, doubts completely silenced), who died in 2016 at the age of 96. She wrote a number of books on cooking and baking, including”Irish Family Food” and “The Little Book of Irish Family Cooking,” as well as her revered books on Irish wild and garden plants. 

[A]fter waiting out the dough, I will admit, I should have just stuck with Ross’s original instructions to put the dough aside, not refrigerate, as I had a dickens of a time getting the stiff mixture to release from its chilled condition, welded to the bowl, but a bit of a warming at room temp and some coaxing got the dough out on the floured board, where I rolled it to 1/4-inch thickness.

[I] decided to use a 3-inch square fluted cutter to make my shapes, using the edge of each cutter to cut the squares in half so they would be the proper dimension of little rectangles. The stiff dough was very easy to work with.

[T]he cookie rectangles were a rich, lovely dark brown, flecked with an occasional cream-colored oat and already gave off a deep aroma from the spices, peel and molasses. I lightened their look a bit with a sparkly finish of a sprinkling of white sugar crystals.

[W]ith that pinch of soda, the cookies puffed slightly, but held their shape…sturdy-looking little bars. They reminded me of other richly spiced Old-World cookies, like Germany’s Lebkuchen, which also feature candied peel.

[A]fter a bit of cooling, a bit of a taste (with a cup of strong black coffee, but they would be great with tea, too). Sturdy, but quite tender, given an extra chewy moistness from the orange peel, the cookies have appeal beyond the fact that they can be carried for long distances (although, for a cookie, this is a rare, but valid selling point, and I consider long spring walks in a cool, but greening outdoors). They have all the molasses-y ginger flavors for those who love molasses cookies like gingersnaps, plus a bit of hearty from the oats. A very satisfying and trusty cookie from an Irish kitchen, which in itself, should be reason and reassurance enough to bake.

Hunting Nuts

“Many years ago, these fortifying biscuits were made for hunstmen. Their long, flat shape, like a bar of chocolate, makes them fit easily into a coat pocket. Long and solid, they are wonderful for the outdoor life as they do not crumble and will survive any amount of jolting.” 

From “The Little Irish Baking Book” by Ruth Isabel Ross (St. Martin’s Press; 1995)

Makes about 2 dozen

  • 1 3/4 cups white (all-purpose) flour
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup candied peel
  • Pinch of ginger
  • Pinch of mixed spice
  • Pinch of bread (baking) soda
  • 3/4 cup black treacle (molasses)
  • 2/3 stick butter and margarine, mixed
  • 1/4 cup caster (superfine) sugar

Mix the flour, oatmeal, candied peel, spices and bread/baking soda in a bowl.

Melt the treacle/molasses, butter and caster (superfine) sugar in a saucepan. Mix in with he dry ingredients and knead it lightly into a hard ball. Put aside for 4 hours.

Roll the dough out carefully on a floured board. When it is 1/4” thick, cut into rectangles of about 3” x 1-1/2”. Bake at 400° for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet before putting onto a wire rack. 

Blogger’s Note: I used a mix of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg for my pinch of “mixed spice” and I used all butter in my version of this recipe. I finished the unbaked cookies with a sprinkle of sparkling sugar. I baked the cookies at a slightly lower temp — 375°. 

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