Monday, September 27, 2010

Ash Cakes, Hardtack, and Biscuits

Alright, so I know I said  would write about tea kettles next, but the fact of the matter is that the topic is quite a bit more extensive than I had originally realized. I've decided that in order to write about the matter with any sort of knowledge, I'm going to need to borrow some books from the library and do some intensive studying. Until that gets done, the tea kettles will just have to wait.

In the meantime, I thought I would write about hardtack, also known as ash cakes, also known as biscuits. I made my first batch for our last event, and while I wouldn't call them the tastiest things in the world, they're certainly edible and can sustain long periods of time without going bad.

Okay, so what is it, exactly? during the 1700s, hardtack was known as "biscuits." These weren't your Pillsbury Doughboy fluffy biscuits, but rather a flat, often square bit of flour and water, cooked until all the moisture is gone and all that's left is an extremely hard morsel. Biscuits were great for long campaigns, because (since they didn't really have any moisture in them at all) they would last for weeks upon weeks, if not months upon months. You could toss half a dozen of these into your haversack and not worry about them for at least a few months, provided they didn't come into contact with water or other moisture. The idea of baking flour and water together has been around for centuries, and this hard bread was used by pilgrims coming over to the New World.

British soldiers during the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War) were frequently issued flour as part of their rations (along with salt pork, peas, and rice). It was their responsibility to use the flour as a meal item. Since this was usually the only ingredient issued, the soldiers had to figure out a way to make almost solely flour into an edible bread substitute. Thus, biscuits (now known as hardtack) sprouted into existence.

How were they made? There were two main ways to make these biscuits. One way would be to make them in an oven before the campaign started. Ingredients were about two cups of flour, enough water to make the mixture stiff (not sticky), and a dash of salt. Mix the ingredients together and roll the dough out flat. make scores into the dough so it's easier to break into pieces later, and then punch several holes into each scored piece so the moisture can escape. When I made these, it took about an hour in a 350 degree oven.

The above is the more "refined" way of making biscuits. The other way is to take a small handful of flour, add in enough water until you have a stiff dough, and then flatten the dough out and place it on a flat rock under the ashes in a fire. The term "ash cakes" came from this practice. It was a quick, easy way to bake up your flour ration into something you could eat on the trail (if you had enough teeth). With a little salt, biscuits really aren't that bad. If you use a 50/50 white/whole wheat flour mix (which, from what I've heard, is the closest we can get nowadays to the kind of flour they had in the 1700s, minus the maggots!), the biscuits take on a slightly nutty flavor.

I took our biscuits with us on our six mile trek to our last event, and ended up munching on a single one the whole way. I hadn't finished it by the time we'd arrived in camp. Additionally, it caused me to drink more water just because it was so dry, which led to better hydration for me throughout the walk. I highly recommend them!

I didn't take any pictures of the biscuits I made, and I think they were so popular with the other re-enactors from our unit that we didn't have any left over. Here's a picture (from of biscuits that highly resemble the ones I made:

And for your own personal enjoyment, here's a picture of a round ship biscuit from 1784:
(from Inscribed on it are the words "This biscuit was given – Miss Blacket at Berwick on Tuesday 13 April 1784, Berwick."

1 comment:

  1. Greetings!
    There is documented hardtack, that was discovered in firepits from the Civil War! I still have some from when I started the whole reenacting thing back in '77.