Biscuits & Cakes.

by Mark Tully

Thomas Simes suggests "biscuit" as part of the menu for feeding British soldiers,1 and Captain Johann Ewald of the Jägers talks of eating biscuit on campaign several times in his diary.2

These biscuits were not the light, fluffy, baking soda-type that Hardee's makes for breakfast -- no. In England, even today, a biscuit is what we would call either a cracker or a cookie, depending on whether you are having it with cheese or with tea. In the case of the 18th-century soldiers, biscuit was definitely of the "with cheese" variety -- or more specifically, a thick, hard cracker more commonly known today as "hardtack".

Hardtack, a form of unleavened bread, is perhaps the oldest known prepared food and has been a staple in the foot soldier's diet for centuries.3 And why not? It keeps well on campaign, is durable, and making it is a breeze. Hmmm, maybe it should be called "easy-tack"?!

INGREDIENTS: 2 cups of flour, 1/2 tablespoon salt, 1/2 cup of water.

DIRECTIONS: Mix all ingredients well to make a very stiff (not sticky) dough. Roll the dough out until it is about 3/8 inch think and deeply score into 4" square pieces. Punch 12-16 holes into each square to help let the moisture escape. Put onto a cookie sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1/2 hour or until it begins to brown and all the moisture is out of it. Break into squares. Serve cold.4

Don't try to make your hardtack biscuits more palatable by adding sugar, shortening, or any special flavorings. Adding any sugars or fats to the cracker will shorten its haversack life dramatically and it will soon turn moldy (icky). Biscuits are great items to have in your haversack for "show and tell" with the public (I wouldn't hand them out as souvenirs though, as you can never be sure of the quality of other people's dental work).

Biscuit can also be made-up on the spot as a camp food demonstration! In the period these were called "ash cakes", and an early field recipe for them comes from the Journal of Captain Knox: "Both officers and men mixed their own meal with a little water, and baked it in cakes, by putting it on a flat stone under the ashes ...".5

In camp, try placing a flat rock into your fire pit first thing in the morning and start your fire on top of it.6 By the time your coffee is done and the fire has burned down, the rock should be at perfect ash-cake temperature!

There were also other types of "cakes". James Boswell mentions having "oatcakes" on March 23, 1776: "I drank here for the first time oat ale, and saw oatcakes, soft like Yorkshire ones of wheat flour, at breakfast. It was pleasant to find the food of the horses so much used in Dr. Johnson's own town [Lichtfield]."7

Boswell's oatcakes were most likely of the "with tea" variety, so any oatmeal cookie recipe would probably do, or you could try simply substituting oats for flour in the ash cake recipe (I have not tried this, so I can't say if it will work). British soldiers were issued a lot of oatmeal -- it was often substituted for the regular rations when items were scarce.

Why not make up a big batch of biscuit this winter? Try experimenting with different flours, proportions and baking times -- what else do you have to do over the long winter months? Oh, and don't worry about your biscuits getting stale, they will keep forever -- I am still working on a large batch I made last January!


1) Simes, Thomas, A Military Course for the Government and Conduct of a Battalion, London, 1777, page 39.

2) Captain Johann Ewald, Field Jäger Corps, Diary of the American War, A Hessian Journal, edited by Joseph P. Tustin, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1979 (also see October issue).

3) Hard tack was issued during the Civil War and several recipes using hardtack as a primary ingredient appear in the 1917 U.S. Infantry manual.

4) This recipe came from the internet: http://soar.berkeley. edu/recipes/snacks/hardtack1.html My personal experience has been that it takes a LOT longer than 1/2 hour to bake hardtack -- 45 minutes to an hour is probably better. There are HUNDREDS of recipes for hardtack on the internet but, in my opinion, this one is the best. "Reproduction" Civil War hardtack can be bought for around 65c each from The Mechanical Baking Company, P.O. Box 513, Pekin, Ill 61554-0513.

5) Knox, Captain John, An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America For the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760, edited by Arthur G. Doughty, Toronto, The Champlain Society, 1914.

6) Don't count on finding a flat stone at an event, start looking for one this spring and bring it with you to events. If nothing else buy yourself a nice cooking rock from a landscaping service!

7) Boswell, The Ominous Years, 1774-1776, edited by Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1963, page 291 (23 March 1776). The "food of horses" is a reference to an entry in Dr. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: "OATS; A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."