Baking for Bookworms: Sugared Biscuits from Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

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There’s not much food mentioned in The Luminaries, and most of it revolves around tea, a tradition observed even in the sparse, rustic setting of gold rush era New Zealand. The rest of the food mentioned is alternatively gruel type porridge dishes and various camp stews, neither of which is as appealing as a cookie…

The sugared biscuits are mentioned around the middle of the novel, during the repast of one of the twelve main characters:

“Harald Nilssen had just brewed and steeped his four-o’clock pot of tea, and was sitting down to a plate of sugared biscuits and a book, when he received a summons in the penny post. It was from George Shepard, and marked “urgent,” though the gaoler did not specify a reason why. Doubtless it concerned some detail of infinitesimal consequence, Nilssen thought, with irritation: some piece of gravel in the gaol-house foundation, some drop of coffee on the gaol-house plans. Sighing, he fitted a quilted cozy around his teapot, exchanged his jersey for a jacket, and reached for his stick. It was jolly bad form to bother a man on a Sunday afternoon.”                  422

What the book seems to show is that even in strange circumstances, people hold onto rituals and regimes. This is more than just a comforting way of making the best of uncomfortable circumstances, it’s the way we make a home and a fulfilling life for ourselves. It is the measure by which others judge us, the yardstick by which we are held as capable or not capable of certain things. And in a mystery novel, attention to the little details, to these routines, is paramount.

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Sugared Biscuits

This recipe is adapted from the Cooks Illustrated Cookbook

These cookies do not need, and indeed are really too soft, to be rolled, but they are quite delicious.

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar (plus 1/3 cup for rolling, you can use colored sugar)
  • 2 ounces mascarpone (or cream cheese or goat cheese or ricotta)
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

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Preheat the oven to 350F.

Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper (or silpats) and whisk dry ingredients together.

Combine sugar and mascarpone. Pour butter over the top and then whisk until smooth. Whisk in oil. Add egg, milk, and vanilla, then beat in flour mixture until just combine.

Roll tablespoon sized balls of the dough into a small bowl of sugar and flatten with the bottom of the glass or with your hand.

Bake one sheet at a time until the edges are set and just beginning to brown (about 11-13 minutes but mine cooked faster).

Let cookies cool on baking sheet for five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

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