Hello, I’m Dr Rachel Moss, lecturer in medieval history at the University of Northampton. I’m also an enthusiastic cook, and today I’m bringing together my love of history and food with a little lesson in baking medieval biscuits of happiness.
The recipe for these biscuits comes from Hildegard von Bingen. You might not have heard of this German nun, which is a shame because she’s one of the most brilliant women to have ever lived. In fact, in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church – a saint who has made an extraordinary contribution to the theology or doctrine of the church – because of the significance of her teaching.
Hildegard was born around 1098 and entered a convent in childhood. A medieval polymath, she had far-ranging expertise in theology, music, science and medicine. She was a talented composer and visionary theologian, but today we’re interested in her medical expertise, because that’s where the biscuits come in.
Yes, Hildegard’s recipe for spice cookies is actually intended as a healthy remedy. I am all for any kind of prescription that involves biscuits.
Her first great scientific work, Physica, details the scientific and medicinal properties of various plants, stones, fish, reptiles, and animals. Under the entry for nutmeg is the following recipe:
“Nutmeg has great heat and good moderation in its powers. If a person eats nutmeg, it will open up his heart, make his judgment free from obstruction, and give him a good disposition. Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of cloves, and pulverize them. Then make small cakes with this and fine whole wheat flour and water. Eat them often. It will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful. It purifies your senses and diminishes all harmful humors in you. It gives good liquid to your blood, and makes you strong.”
This sounds like a very highly spiced cracker to me, because there is no fat or sugar. This would make a lot of sense for a recipe by a nun! It is meant to be medicinal, not a treat. You might be surprised by the quantity of spices. People often assume medieval food is bland. In fact it was entirely the opposite – highly spiced and innovative. If people could afford it, they spent huge sums of money on spices – and not, as popular culture has it, because they were hiding the taste of rotten food. Trust me, that doesn’t stop food poisoning and medieval people knew when food was bad. They just liked spicy food.
Today I’m going to make two versions – one as close as I can to the original, so we can see how it tastes to the modern palate, and then one that’s more of a cookie, because I have a five year old and I’m not going to inflict sugar-free spice crackers on her.
I decided to use spelt flour, because that’s probably what Hildegard used. Spelt is an ancient grain, but you can now buy it from health food shops because it’s packed with protein and fibre – much more than regular wheat flour. It has a slightly nutty taste, and a lower gluten content than regular wheat flour. That means it can be easier to digest, but it’s also more prone to crumbling, so this isn’t the flour to use to make robust sugar cookie-style cut out cookies. Watch the video to see how they turn out!
And here is my basic recipe, done two ways…
The original biscuit (more of a savoury-ish cracker):
A cup of spelt
Two teaspoons of cinnamon
Two teaspoons of nutmeg
A few pinches of ground cloves
Mix the spices and spelt together and gradually add water until you can form a not-too-sticky paste. Roll out to a few mm thick and cut out with a small cutter. Bake at 160C fan (add 10C if you don’t have fan assisted) for about 10 minutes. Leave to cool. You could try rolling them even thinner and that way they would probably end up more like crackers! I think these would taste nice with cheese or butter; eaten plainly they are quite austere.
The modernised version:
Spelt flour, butter and sugar in 3 – 2 – 1 quantities, depending on how big a batch you want to make. I used around 2 cups of spelt and that made a dozen or so biscuits.
The same spices as before – so these will be slightly less spicy (as I’ve doubled the flour), but still very flavourful.
Make sure the spelt and spices are well mixed. Then rub in the cold butter until you have a breadcrumb texture. Crack in your egg and mix in gently until you have a sticky dough.
I suggest you then roll the dough into a ball, then place between 2 sheets of parchment paper and use a rolling pin to roll out to cookie thickness. Place on a baking sheet and chill for an hour.
Cut out the cookies and bake at 160C fan for a mere 7-9 minutes. They should be fairly soft when you take them out; they will firm up as they cool.