Saturday, August 02, 2008

Brandy Snaps

I've decided to apprentice myself to the arts of pliancy. Quiet habits of severity have edged into my life. Which is not to say that all severe habits are bad. I expressly cultivate some, like teatime, and I find them to be sources of great pleasure. Strong tea, made of just boiling water and steeped for precisely four minutes in a pre-warmed pot, then consumed at 5 o’clock along with one too many biscuits, makes a happy moratorium to the workday. But there are other, perhaps equally English habits of judgment or complaint, that can turn a life just a little bit brittle. Institutions and corporations – both the labours of inhabiting them and the labours of avoiding them – have taken the bend straight out of me. I want to restore the pleasures and the ethics of laxity. So I made Brandy Snaps.

It might be objected that anything snappish is the exact opposite of anything pliant. True. But the glossy honeycombed tube known as the Brandy Snap, which shatters under the edge of a fork, paradoxically springs from viscous ingredients, and owes its rigid shape to a phase of lollopy malleability. Brandy Snap batter is made from a melt of butter and sugar and syrup, and the tunnel shapes are formed by wrapping warm-from-the-oven tuiles around the handle of a wooden spoon. And anyway, I have a peculiar association of this treat with bendability. As a child I loved the Brandy Snap, and would watch eagerly for the slim, cellophaned box of them to be lodged in a high-up cupboard, “in case,” my mother said, “of guests.” But the goodies bestowed upon guests did not always trickle down the food chain to me. So after what seemed like weeks of waiting for the occasion when I might taste a Snap, I decided to hasten things along a bit. I reasoned that if I breached the cupboard, and sabotaged the wrapping on the box, the row of crisp Snaps inside would go soft. Ruined, the softened Snaps were more likely to be put into my, as opposed to adult, hands. My plan worked perfectly, and more than once. Having successfully clambered up onto a counter and effected some quiet perforations a couple of times, I developed a taste for the toffeed suppleness of the snapless Snap. Being an agent of wilt in my otherwise regulated household taught me something about manipulating the passing point between two opposed states – and the pleasures of riding exactly that crest.

I remember that once or twice we made, rather than bought, Brandy Snaps. The kitchen became deliciously fuddled by warm butter and sugar, and an assembly line – consisting of me and my younger brother – was arranged. The secret to a good brandy snap is timing, and you learn this timing through repetition. The batter should be spread thinly into as perfect a circle as possible, but not so thinly that there are any holes in the slick, raw surface. They should be baked until they bubble and just – only just – darken. As they cook, the smooth rounds become as lacy as doilies. Then you and your palate knife must wait until they are cool enough to hold together, but not so firm that they refuse to be curled. This can all be described at length, but there’s no substitute for making a large batch and learning as you go. Brandy Snaps demand knack from their cook, but unlike many a baked goody, they also offer the benevolence of a second chance: if you let them cool too long, you can pop them back in the oven for a few minutes and they will once again become game for all manner of shaping.

The Brandy Snap is tubular, but if you drape the warm rounds over a mould such as a drinking glass, or even (as I once did) a can of baked beans, they make excellent baskets for filling with ice-cream.
In my youth there was no such high falutin’ deviation: my brother and I lined up to turn the Snaps around the handles of wooden spoons, pressing our thumbs on the overlap to weld the join, then gently extracting the spoon handle. (That these same spoons were once or twice swatted against our bottoms for misbehaviour lent a little menace to the business – though to our great glee and eternal triumph, a spoon once snapped in two when it hit the doorframe instead of the small behind disappearing around it.) You had to then cradle the delicate Snap as if it were a cocoon, and transport it to a cooling rack to fully set. Soon every surface in the kitchen would be covered in piles of these vacant treats and they would be tucked away in old but airtight biscuit tins, waiting to be filled with piped cream - right before serving, of course, in case they softened.

My fondness for the Brandy Snap has much to do with its constitutive and reversible shifts of form. Now I learn that this trickery is part of its history as well as its physiognomy. The Brandy Snap has pulled the ultimate identity trick on us. In 1854 George Read published The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant, a charming little book furnished with an equally charming subtitle: Practical Directions for making all kinds of plain and fancy biscuits, buns, cakes, drops, muffins, crumpets, gingerbread, spice nuts, etc. Adapted for the trade or for private families. The only work exclusively on this subject. In a section that promises, among other things, to teach us about Brandy Snaps, Master Read instructs the trade or private family cook that “When they are baked and a little cool, cut them from the tins, by passing a thin knife under them; turn them, whilst warm, in the form of a cone, the same as the grocers make up their sugar papers, or turn them round a stick as the last. If they should get too cold to turn, put them again into the oven to warm.” So far, so good – all this had been passed down to me without benefit of book learning. But his last sentence in this entry is a shocker: “Brandy Snaps are the same as these, without being turned.” The Snap, it seems, was originally flat!

Theodore Francis Garrett, writing a little later in 1898 in his 12 volume Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, addresses the confusion: “Brandy Snaps are sometimes confounded with Jumbles, but these have a distinctive characteristic, in that they are curled round the finger or a stick before cooling, while Brandy Snaps are flat – a distinction that can only be appreciated by the young. See JUMBLES.” What we call Brandy Snaps were originally Jumbles, which we would know had we not yet again ignored the chubby-kneed vehemence of young persons. My guess is that the Brandy Snap was metamorphosed when it changed hands not only between young and old, but also between working and middle classes, and from street vendor to factory worker. Treats like snaps and gingerbreads – in the form of ginger nuts, or gingerbread people – were originally bought at fairs, bitten into in the street, or taken home as penny-cheap tokens of a day of fun. Garrett is both wistful and snobbish as he notes that “These delights of our youth were probably originally made with a Brandy flavouring as one of their ingredients; but with that lack of discriminative taste peculiar to uneducated palates, the presence of the Brandy flavour was not sufficiently appreciated to render its presence essential to the success of the manufacture; hence, as the “snaps” could be made cheaper without Brandy, and yielded more sweets for the same money, the spirituous prefix became but a name.” I, of course, would be adding the spirits right back in.

But if liquor can be abandoned, an absolutely key ingredient in Brandy Snaps (and the reason most Americans don’t make them) is one of the oldest industrial food products around: Golden Syrup. Alright, I suppose treacle would work, or even that abomination, corn syrup -- but Golden Syrup, with its mild caramel flavour, is just perfect. I recently unearthed a cache of Golden Syrup in my basement. One of the curious features of being expatriate is my tendency to hoard. I haul suitcases of food products back with me from the Mother Land, then cherish them in my basement until their expiration date looms (or passes). Then I subject my household to days on end of beans on toast, or pickled walnuts, or, in the case of a stash of Golden Syrup, endless puddings and biscuits of the sweetest, most nurseryish sort.

Like so many of its industrial descendants, Golden Syrup is a commercial product that mimics a natural one – it is a by-product of sugar refining, and was originally marketed as poor-man’s honey. The tin has not changed since the nineteenth century: amidst flourishes of green and gold, it bears a logo that confounds syrup with honey via the citation of a biblical riddle. This logo is a prostrate lion, over which hovers a swarm of bees. The inscription reads: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness.” It comes from a story about Samson, better known for his disastrous haircut. Before he was transformed from strong to weak with a wifely snip of the shears, Samson fancied a comely lass from the unsuitable, unsnipped (in another way) ranks of the Philistines. On his way to check out his ethnically troublesome girlfriend, he is attacked by a young lion, whom he rips apart as easily as if that lion were a kid goat. On a return visit, this time to marry the woman, Samson passes the now long-dead lion and sees that a swarm of bees have set up their hive in the carcass. The strong man snacks on the honey they are producing in that dark, satanic mill. Sweetness from strength, then, is honey from the lion. What proceeds from there in Samson’s story is an epic tangle of wedding feasting, in-law baiting, ethnic violence, wife-swapping and yet more ethnic violence, all rolled around Samson trying to score some nice wedding linens by using this riddle – how can sweetness come from strength? Despite the fact that he was clearly a prize ass, Samson always seemed an appealing figure to me. Perhaps it was his sweet tooth – for honey and foreign women – that pleased.

I thought I would blend a little Samsonian strength with the sweetness of Golden Syrup in my Brandy Snaps, so I added a fiery trace of black pepper. Visually too, I liked the idea of seeing flecks of pepper trapped in the caramel pores. When it came to it, there was no brandy in the house, but I had Grand Marnier in my sideboard. Since many Brandy Snap recipes use orange zest anyway, the citrus spirit would get two jobs done at once. To echo the Grand Marnier, I laced my filling – a mix of crème fraiche and marscapone – with some orange flower water.

But the colours were too bland, and the taste too harmonious. As a final touch, I reached for strawberries, just in season and perfectly red. The colour would gladden the eye, and the bright acidity would cut across the sweetness of the Snap, stinging the taste buds. Black pepper makes an excellent condiment for strawberries, and they blend with orange smoothly. The berries formed a thematic fit, too. Just as Samson’s encounter with honey on his way to visit his Philistine bit of skirt ends up destroying his marriage, strawberries centre another story of forbidden and ultimately tragic cross-racial passion. When jealous Iago sets Othello against Desdemona, he provides “ocular proof” of her supposed infidelity by producing her handkerchief. This handkerchief is the first gift Othello gave Desdemona, and it is “spotted” with strawberries. In choosing this design for the condemnatory linen, Shakespeare was drawing on a tradition of figuring the strawberry as akin to the snake - both are seductive denizens of the low-growing grass – and another tradition which associated the fruit with the Virgin Mary, as a symbol of purity and humility (again, the low grass). Othello, Desdemona and her handkerchief become players in the usual hopscotch of whether women should be voluptuous or virtuous, and of course tragic ends await everyone. Just like in the Samson story, all is lost to quick and brittle passions. In both tales wedding linens, misplaced rage, cross-racial desire, and political intrigue drive the heroes to - in each case - murder and suicide. And at the heart of each of these stories, sweet foods are riddles that twist and twist again - the strong men bait their traps with honey and strawberries, only to be caught in their own snares.

But (and this digression continues only because I am apprenticing myself to elasticity), I take particular pleasure in Desdemona’s handkerchief, because it is a wonderful portrait of the torment of the lost item. As someone who was once sent to school with a large sign pinned to her jumper that read “FIND LOST MITTEN,” I feel catharsis in following the guilt trip that Othello lays on Desdemona about the mislaid handkerchief. Othello pretends to have the sniffles and casually asks Desdemona if he can borrow her hankie. Desdemona clearly has no idea where the hankie is, and starts bluffing furiously about having it safe and sound somewhere. Othello then launches into a description of the thumping preciousness of the thing. He begins by describing how this first love-gift of his is in fact a re-gifting. And here is where the story gets good. It was given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian woman of mystical powers, who had said that if Mum ever lost it or gave it away, her marriage would crumple and her husband would stray. When Othello’s mother (clearly having kept her hankie drawer and her marriage safe and sound all her living days) is dying, she bequeaths it to Othello, telling him to pass it on to his own wife. Not only is the hankie his dead mother's – a burden of guilt overwhelming enough – but the very warp and weft of the thing is saturated with the sweet smoky scent of generations of women who have smugly immolated themselves upon the altar of marital fidelity and domestic rectitude. Othello invokes the guilt trip, but the guilt itself is stitched and restitched in scarlet thread by women, against women, and there ain’t nothing like it:

'Tis true: there's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number'd in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew'd the work;
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.

Losing your husband’s dead mother’s handkerchief, a handkerchief sewn by a 200-year old prophetess, of silk spun by holy silkworms, and coloured with a dye wrung from the mummified hearts of virgins – that all puts a lost-and-never-found mitten into perspective. Though my mother did knit it . . .

And so I curl around the wooden spoon, back to where I began. It is all a lesson, literary and culinary, in the course of pliancy I have set myself. I lost a mitten once, and there are many other things I have lost – squandered, even. I am very good at counting wrongs and losses, wrongs and losses as sticky as Golden Syrup, and as plentiful as the seeds in a strawberry. I am good at it, but I am trying to bend – or maybe snap? – away from that particular talent. If you want to keep counting, you may. But if you want to wave aside infidelities and transgressions real or imagined, and taste instead the sweetness that is released by shatter, and seasoned by pliancy, you may rather.


Makes approximately 30 biscuits


100g/4oz butter
100g/4oz caster sugar
100g/4oz golden syrup
100g/4oz plain flour, sifted
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of salt

150g/6oz mascarpone
150g/6oz crème fraiche
orange flower water to taste
one pint strawberries
mint sprigs for decoration

Heat the butter, sugar, syrup, lemon juice and Grand Marnier gently together in a saucepan until the butter melts and the sugar has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat, mix in the flour and leave to cool.

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350F/Gas 4, line 2 baking trays with non-stick baking paper with 6 circles of about 5 cm marked on them, with good space between each. Alternatively, place this template under a Silpat – the circles will show through and you can slide the template out and reuse it. Place a teaspoon of the mixture in the centre of each circle and smooth out to the edges of the circle with a wet flat knife or back of a spoon. Spread them thinly, but not so thin that there are holes. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until lightly browned. To ensure enough time to roll the brandy snaps, put one tray into the oven 5 minutes before the other.

Remove the brandy snaps from the oven and cool on the baking tray for a few seconds, then lift the biscuits off with a palette knife and roll around wooden spoon handles. Don’t wrap them tightly around the handle – the snap will dangle off it, and the only bit of the snap that needs to be held tightly against the handle is the overlap: press that join firmly to seal. Then slide off the handle and place on a wire rack. If the snaps become too hard to roll, pop them back in the oven for a few seconds. Repeat with the remaining mixture.

Dice the strawberries and taste: add a little sugar if they are not sweet and juicy enough. Let them sit while you fill the snaps, so that they release a little juice.

To fill the brandy snaps, stir together the filling ingredients and spoon into a piping bag fitted with a small star nozzle and pipe into each end of the biscuits.

Top with a spoon or two of strawberries, and a sprig of mint if available. Serve as soon as they are filled.


Blogger Laurel said...

Fantastic! Syllabub is SO worth waiting for. I've never had a brandy snap and didn't know about jumbles either, but had heard of both, and am grateful now to know (though biblical knowing requires the experience in the flesh, so I suppose I don't yet know either one....) I love the acknowledgement by Garrett that only the young truly understand the difference shape makes in a baked good, making wholly different names perfectly reasonable and even necessary. By the way, I have assumed that American ice cream cones are descended from waffles, but do you know if there another relation here?

8:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I just say that a fondness for honey and foreign women is to be lauded and makes on this Sunday for fond thoughts of Samson. Enjoyed as always the history and the syllabub-like delivery: pay off always delivered. Makes sense that originally brandy snaps were flat, since ginger snaps still are. In the high desert, brandy snaps and tuiles of all kinds last and last very crisply until of course we eat them. Welcome back syllabub.

12:57 pm  
Blogger BreadBox said...

As Laurel said, so worth the wait!
I'm planning on trying these out sometime very soon: do you think that, Golden Syrup being a poor-man's
honey, one could substitute honey for the syrup?

And Laurel, I suspect that ice cream cones are descended from pizzelles, rather than waffles... which if memory serves, are shaped in much the same way as brandy snaps, except over a conical form...

Thanks for another lovely piece, Syllabub!


11:14 pm  
Blogger Kellie Allen said...

Another beautiful post. Thanks.

4:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Syllabub

Thanks for such a fine post. It's a long time since I made brandy snaps, but you have put me in the mood.

Tate and Lyle's Golden Syrup! How splendid to find you had a stash in your cellar. You don't mention the marvellously metallic tinny taste of the stuff. Do you remember when some bright supermarket spark thought it might be better - more sensible and modern, I daresay - to sell it in glass jars instead? And of course, it doesn't taste half as good without the tin in it, or it in a tin.

Good luck with letting go the wrongs and losses (not my strong point, either)... Your brandy snap looked like it could cure the deepest of wounds, though. Most redeeming.


9:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have wrought what my cap'ain used t' call "an exemplarily flexible yarn," lassie! Me old Shaker mother used to sing a lovely tune about "to bow and to bend we won't be afraid," so I intone a chorus of it as I call for my brandy -- and make it SNAPPY!


9:12 am  
Blogger Allie said...

Such beautiful writing - always worth the wait.

I've never tasted a brandy snap, but I have tons of syrup lying around that until now I had no use for (it's quite easy to find here in Texas). Thank you, again, for sharing with us. I'm excited to try out these snaps (and to get the syrup off my shelf and into use).

10:15 pm  
Anonymous Sophie said...

We would like to feature this recipe on our blog. Please email if interested. Thanks :)

You can view our blog here:

10:42 am  
Anonymous B's Mom said...

My dear --

How could you take yourself away to Jolly Old London for an entire year! Thank God, Sampson, Shakespeare and Brandy Snaps for bringing your brilliant wit and wisdom over the whale pond to me here in Massachusetts on a night when sleep won't come and so at 4AM I opened Syllabub and meandered with you through murder and mayhem all the way to unutterable sweetness spiced with just a touch of pepper. And maybe that's the way it always is when we find ourselves twisted around unbendable things like murder, mayhem, and the injustices (or perceived injustices) we are want to suck on. I think I'll go to the 'fridge and find something sweet. In the absence of your gifted creations, it will probably be some Stop and Shop yogurt sweetened with Stevia. Sigh. When did you say you'll be back????

5:28 am  
Blogger R2K said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:24 am  
Blogger Paul said...

As usual, unusual and wondrous! When do I get some?

2:26 pm  
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4:32 am  
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9:05 pm  
Anonymous Richard said...

I'm doing some research on Victorian Yorkshire dialect words and I've come across 'brandrey' which was an iron frame to hold a Yorkshire pudding (a savoury batter pudding) that was used 'when baking before the fire under meat.' I guess this explains the mysterious lack of brandy in brandy snaps. You'd use a sweet batter in the same frame for the 'brandrey snaps'.

4:13 am  
Blogger Sandra Rowney said...

Enjoyed ready this post, thanks! I made a pile of cream filled brandy snaps for my Dad's 90th birthday dinner party this week. It must be forty years ago now since I was taught to make them at school. The trick is don't give up on the first disasters, try again! Most things in life get better with practice.

9:28 am  
Anonymous xavier said...

What is described here is the work or arts
Marvelous idea

5:36 am  

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