The Dunk Heard 'Round the World
THE DUNK HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD:
Biscuits, Rusks, and Cookies for Beverages
A biscotti dunked into a coffee, a madeleine slipped into a cup of chamomile, a British biscuit doused in a cup of Earl Grey. What is it about dunking a cookie into liquid that has appeal around the world?
A little historical research unveils that even the Romans found both pleasure and function in dipping cookies, albeit into wine. Theirs was an unleavened wafer, bis coctum, or a twice baked cookie. With the November Burgundy wine tastings soon upon us, adding a variety of biscotti flavors to dip into the wine might make a charming alternative to the wine-and-cheese standard. The Greeks have their own wine-dipping tradition using a rusk-like, twice-baked cookie called paximadi made from chickpea or barley flour.
Hard tack biscuits, almost inedible but shelf stable for UK sailors of the 16th Century, were dunked into beer, and both sides of the US Civil war during the 19th Century found hard tack edible, if not totally digestible, when dipped into campfire brewed coffee.
Queen Victoria was known to be a dunker, a carryover from the German custom learned when she was a child probably using mandelbrot, a twice baked cookie. The British high society of the 18th Century frowned upon dunking except by children and the working class. And, despite a recent poll that 50% of today’s British think dunking is a no-no, an active biscuit dunking appreciation society is dedicated to the enduring biscuit dunking art.
Known for its crunchiness, the British biscuit takes on a whole new texture and flavor after absorbing the hot liquid of tea, coffee, tisanes or hot chocolate. British dunkables include thin wafer cookies filled with cream or the Jammie Dodger, filled with jam. (The American version would be dunking an Oreo or Hydrox cream-filled chocolate cookie into milk.) Other British loves are chocolate bars or malted milk balls, croissants, and toast as dunkables. Shortbread, a close Scottish cousin, is softer and buttery, a pleasant alternative to eat, but caution is advised. It absorbs liquid faster and can disintegrate into mush in a microsecond.
Australia carries the physics of dunking a bit further with the Tim Tam Slam or tea sucking, with science as its core: The Washburn’s Equation. This principle explains that when dunked, porous material (the biscuit) draws liquid (hot tea) into the spaces between the crumbs. It’s called capillary action. Try that one at your next Charades session!
RUSKS, THE DUNKER DUNKED AROUND THE WORLD
Rusks, or twice-baked dried cake-like toast, are a hugely popular dunking item around the world. Known as khasta in India (aka russ or katti toos) they’re used to dip into either coffee or tea. It is made as a cake and sliced, then baked again for the taste and texture of a sweet melba toast or zwieback. The twice-baked yellow cake batter of Cuba’s sponge rusk is eaten with espresso; Denmark’s tvebak and Finland’s korppu are dipped into coffee. Iranians love naan sukhaari for dunking into Persian chai, and the alternative to biscotti in Italy is fette biscottate. In The Levant, the boksum, usually topped with roasted sesame and black caraway seeds, is the prized dunker for herbal teas.
There are more! Caramel-filled stroopwaffels in the Netherlands are dunked in either tea or coffee but only after it has laid atop the steaming cup to melt the caramel. The Dutch also love their crispbakes (beschuit,) crumbly rusks sprinkled with anise seeds and colored sugars. The Phillipines eat cake rusks called mammon tostado; the Russians eat sookhar, made from a sweet bread, sliced, and double baked or air dried, served with kefir, tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
Many cultures use the double-baked technique, usually as a way to use leftover bread. Waste not, want not!
THE BRITISH ART OF DUNKING
Whether it’s coffee, tea, or wine, dunking is a messy experience, and much practicing is advised, in the privacy of one’s home, before venturing out to a tea room or coffee shop to dunk a donut or dip a madeleine.
If you want to try this yourself, be aware the size of the cup and the size of the cookie both matter.
For particularly crumbly biscuits, catch them with a plate or saucer set under the mug. Even at home, neatness counts!
Use a mug, not a dinnerware cup and the opening should be wider than the biscuit. Otherwise, one must break the biscuit in half to get a good dunking. Some think this is a plus, just ask deotees of America’s Dunkin’ Donut shops where breaking a donut before dipping is an objet d’art.
Choose your drink carefully for flavor marriages: hot black tea or coffee with milk, not plain! Or, hot chocolate or hot milk. The creaminess of the milk adds smoothness to the liquid and sweetness to the biscuit.
Chocolate selections offer a two-fold experience, flavoring your drink with chocolate or the glaze from a donut, giving a pleasant little oomph of sugar. Alas, soggy bits fall to the bottom and you either leave them there (the messy part) or use a spoon to scoop them out, (a neater alternative, but still …)
Timing is everything! Soak the biscuit for 30-60 seconds, remove the cookie, and eat it. Too long, and the biscuit dissolves into a crumbly gunky mess at the bottom of your mug. Too little time, and your cookie remains too hard to enjoy. The goal is that coveted marriage of hot liquid and cookie.
How to achieve that just-right-bliss? Practice, practice, practice!
NOTE: Although dunking sounds pretty straightforward a word, it is actually slang for intinction which dates to the millennia-old practice of the Eucharist in which consecrated bread (the host) is partly dipped into consecrated wine, by a priest or officiant before offered to the faithful during mass. For you language lovers, the British biscuit originated with 16th century biscotto then segued to 19th century bisket, and good old Latin contributed panis (bis+coctus or bread, twice cooked) which became beschult. Now, you’re ready to be a Jeopardy contestant!