Sunday, 9 September 2007

Afghans (Μπισκόττα Νέας Ζηλανδίας - chocolate cookies)

A cup of tea in New Zealand meant bringing out a round biscuit tin containing a variety of shortbread and chocolate biscuits. Here's my second all-time favourite biscuit: crunchy chocolate biscuits, which we called afghans in New Zealand (first in place are gingernuts; I miss them most of all, because you simply can't make them in Greece - golden syrup is not available here.)

No one really knows where they got their name, but here's a bit of trivia for you: they are not included in the fifth edition of Edmonds cookbook, which is in my possession, among other bits of New Zealand trivia that I could not bear to part with: a set of Maori poi, an Air New Zealand souvenir tiki and a pestle and mortar made out of rimu wood. The first edition of the Edmonds cookbook came out in 1907, while the third came out in 1914. I also own the 19th printing of the 19th De Luxe edition published in 1983. I'm wondering if they were invented during a war period; they are a relatively recent invention, but then New Zealand hasn't been around that long either, and cornflakes are quite a novel way of eating corn, which is one of the earliest grains.

I don't know if their name has changed for politically correct reasons (and it should, don't you think?), but I can't imagine why these biscuits should be called afghans. They are normally iced with chocolate and have a walnut stuck on the top; still, does that make them resemble an Afghani? My friend Mike from Wales showed me a photo of his Afghan father in military uniform; was it the different shades of brown from his face and hair, ending off with the peaked cap, that lent the biscuit its name? Or was it the little woollen squares (afghans) patched together to make a blanket (I made a few of those in my younger years)? They had a distinct round link of double crochet stitches (maybe that's the walnut), after which the colour was changed (that could be the icing) as the pattern spread from one row to the other (the biscuit is the third colour); still, they were square, not round.

I remember the afghan biscuits sold in the university cafeteria; they were as large as a dessert plate. They were also sold as good NZ chow in teashops, and later at various trendy cafes ike Esspressoholic in the then up-and-coming Courtenay Place. I always had them with a huge cup of frothy cappuccino almost as large as a soup bowl. And I didn't blush, not even a hint, when I said to the multi-pierced shop assistant: "One Afghan, please." Oh, for the pre-PC days. Afghans also started to be mass-produced by the Griffins biscuit company (it was one biscuit they didn't stock in their enormous range of biscuits); I tried them when I visited New Zealand in 1994, but I felt they didn't live up to the real thing. For a start, they don't use cornflakes.

The recipe I used comes from keewee, another NZ ex-pat, who makes these for Christmas. She ices them with chocolate, and then sprinkles them with dessicated coconut resembling snow.
You need:
7 ounces butter
3 ounces sugar
6 ounces flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 cup corn flakes, slightly crushed after measuring
1/2 cup desiccated coconut
Cream softened butter and sugar, add sifted flour and cocoa. Stir in coconut and crushed corn flakes. Put small spoonfuls on a greased oven tray (I sometimes use baking paper, but this is not environmentally sound; I greased the baking tray with olive oil) and bake for about 15 minutes at 350F. Leave them on the oven tray a few minutes before removing them to a wire rack to cool.

They are lenten biscuits if made with margarine, but they don't taste as good as when they're made with butter. The Edmonds cookbook states: "200g butter, 75g sugar, 175g flour, 25g cocoa, 50g cornflakes".

The traditional recipe does not use coconut, but I liked these better because they were firmer and crunchier. Keewee's idea is better than the original, which contains whole walnuts; I don't like whole nuts in my cookies, either. I also made them without the coconut another time, and they tasted just like the New Zealand variety. These cookies can probably be kept for at least a week if you make a big batch, but they are so moreish, that I doubt you will resist the temptation to eat them all in one go. I didn't even get as far as icing them, which is probably not such a bad thing after all; they contained less sugar, meaning I could help myself to more than one at each coffee break.

This post is dedicated to Row, because she liked Espressoholic, just like me.

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Chocolate balls