Tomorrow is Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, commemorating the bravery of troops lost in the invasion of Gallipoli that began April 25, 1915, and I’ll mark the occasion with one or two homemade biscuits from the recipe named in their honor.
I’m not that into military history, really, but I don’t know of a better single fuel source to carry on a hike, a bike trip, a day of kayaking or any other activity, outdoors or in, than the Anzac — a reliably nonperishable, high-energy bundle of oats, coconut and less-refined sugars.
There have been days I paddled a kayak 30 miles on little else, and I credit Anzacs with helping to ward off mild hypothermia.
And so, with rising optimism that our long and awful winter is finally done, I baked a few dozen Anzacs on Wednesday and put them in the pantry for the months of adventure ahead.
Precursor to power bars
You could think of the Anzac as an ancestor of the modern power bars, which sadly seem to grow sweeter, gooier and more cloying year by year.
Or maybe as an epicurean alternative to such hardcore staples of backcountry travel as hardtack or Logan bread — not only tastier, but less likely to break a tooth.
I think I happened on the Anzac in the mid-1990s as I searched for a healthier, cheaper, home-cooked alternative to the Clif bars I was consuming in high numbers to fuel my daily bicycle commutes from southwest Minneapolis to the Strib offices, sometimes with a long meander along the Mississippi thrown in.
This was a discovery process of many trials, much error and a dearth of good advice.
I remember approaching Al Sicherman in the newsroom one day to ask if he thought I might reasonably substitute carob powder for chocolate, in the promising-looking recipe for dessert bars I hoped to turn into a cycling staple.
He considered me balefully: “And why would you want to do that?”
Well, I said, the carob kind of looks like chocolate but has a lot less sugar and fat.
“Yeah,” he said. “So does dirt.”
I tried the carob anyway, with forgettable results, and messed around awhile with marshmallow fluff and beaten egg whites as binding agents.
And I tried, God knows I tried, to love Logan bread, for which batter is not so much baked as dried for hours in a slow oven, producing a pumpernickel-colored brick that feels more like construction material than food. It, too, has a long shelf life, but may require a folding camp saw to slice.
Fresh after 8 weeks at sea
And then, one happy day, I stumbled on Anzacs in “Simple Foods for the Pack,” an excellent if sometimes austere guide to trail cookery published by the Sierra Club in 1976 and still in print:
This is an Australian recipe from World War I, when Australian women baked these biscuits (cookies) to send to their men on the beaches of Gallipoli. They were still fresh after an 8-week boat trip!
The biscuit’s history is a bit more complicated than that, of course, and a lot more interesting.
There is great disagreement over whether the recipe originated in Australia or New Zealand, with each country claiming authorship, and also on the question of whether it wasn’t just plagiarized from a traditional Scottish oat biscuit.
Some say that eggs and other rich ingredients were left out of the confections because they would promote spoilage; others say they were simply scarce in wartime and the biscuits’ longevity was but a happy accident.
If you look very far into their history, you’ll soon encounter smug-sounding essays claiming to puncture the purported “myth” of the Anzac biscuit, like this 2006 piece from Allyson Gofton, a Kiwi cookbook author and TV personality.
Often the authoritative source is one Helen Leach, an anthropologist and food historian from Otago University in Dunedin, NZ, who has said that while both the basic recipe and the term “Anzac biscuit” were in use at the time of the Gallipoli invasion, their first known appearance together is in a cookbook published six years later.
On the other hand, Leach has said that it’s more than possible that older cookbooks linking recipe and name will turn up someday.
A bi-national treasure
A more neutral survey is available from Modern Baking of suburban Melbourne, which produces the biscuits commercially and, like many bakers of Anzacs in Australia and New Zealand, donates part of the proceeds to veterans’ programs.
In any case, the principal issue of debate in the lands of the Anzacs would seem to be which is better: biscuits that are crisper and thus more crumbly, or softer and thus chewier.
Both types are in production under license from the two national governments, which control all uses of the term “Anzac” and require biscuits (never “cookies”) sold under the name to adhere to a more-or-less official recipe, with only slight variations allowed.
Several years ago, the Subway chain got into trouble with the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs by selling a highly inauthentic, U.S.-made cookie under the Anzac name. Given the choice of changing either the recipe or the name on the menu, Subway decided the hell with the whole thing.
My own recipe has evolved over the years as I’ve moved in the direction of more chewiness and gradually reduced the sugar content, substituting common U.S. syrups for the sort of light molasses sold as “golden syrup” in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.