Food & Drink: The way a cookie crumbles: Baking requires good ingredients and good recipes. These take the biscuit

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To bake a good biscuit, you need to start with a good recipe. I have tried more than a few which yielded up slabs of lead-weight substance that could not be called a biscuit. There is no way of telling at a glance how a recipe will work out - it comes down to trial and error. All I can promise is that the four recipes here work brilliantly for me, and seem to meet with enthusiastic approval from those who eat them.

As important as the recipe are good quality ingredients. Cheap chocolate is a route to disaster: always use the best you can find, with a high percentage of cocoa solids (50 per cent is the absolute minimum). Margarine is out, and I would not advise using bargain-basement butter either, particularly for biscuits such as shortbread that rely on butter for their fine flavour.

You also need an attentive and patient disposition. Biscuit-baking, once you get past making the dough, is not child's play. You really have to watch them as they cook, and be immensely wary of timings given in recipes. Ovens vary quite enough to make a difference to a dough that is high in sugar and/or fat. While it may take 12 minutes to bake a biscuit to perfection at Casa Grigson, the difference of a degree or two in your oven may mean it takes only 10 minutes to do them to a turn. Burnt biscuits are fit only for the dustbin.

Judging 'doneness' is not always easy, and may take several tries. Never overcrowd the oven in an attempt to save time, electricity or patience. It is far more sensible to bake two (or at most three) trayfuls at a time, so you can keep an eye on them, changing their positions if necessary so that they cook evenly.

Cheese sables

I always think of this recipe as a family possession - my aunt and cousins make them, my mother did, and so do I. But I have just discovered that it comes originally from The Constance Spry Cookery Book. These little cheese biscuits are irresistibly crumbly and crisp, and so simple that you barely even need a recipe.

If you like them, it is worth making up a large batch of the dough and freezing what you do not immediately need. With a sharp knife dipped in hot water, you can slice it straight from the freezer.

Ingredients: For the biscuits, you will need equal weights of:

lightly salted butter

strong-flavoured hard cheese (such as cheddar or red leicester), grated plain flour

a pinch of cayenne pepper

To finish:

lightly beaten egg

caraway, fennel, poppy or sesame seeds (optional)

Preparation: Use a processor if possible. Whizz the butter with the cheese. Sift the flour with the cayenne and work it in. (If you do not have a processor, rub the butter roughly into the sifted flour; add the cheese and work to a homogenous, pasty mass.)

Mould the mixture into a sausage, about 1 1/2-2in (3.5-5cm) in diameter on a sheet of greaseproof paper or silver foil. Roll up and chill until hard.

Line baking sheets with non-stick baking parchment. Slice biscuit mixture as thinly as possible and lay slices on the baking sheets. Brush with egg and sprinkle with seeds if using. Bake at 190-200C/375-400F/gas 5-6 for 5-10 minutes until golden and slightly puffed. Cool on a wire rack.

Bourbon biscuits

I have always loved bought bourbon biscuits, but I do genuinely think these home-made ones are even nicer. If time is short, make plain chocolate biscuits without any filling.

Makes about 12

Ingredients: 5oz (140g) plain flour

1 1/2 oz (40g) cornflour

1 1/2 oz (40g) cocoa

pinch of salt

4oz (110g) butter, softened

4oz (110g) caster sugar

3-4tbs milk

For the filling:

3oz (85g) plain chocolate

3oz (85g) butter

3oz (85g) icing sugar

Preparation: Either line several baking sheets with non- stick baking parchment, or grease thoroughly.

Sift the flour with the cornflour, cocoa and salt. Cream the butter with the caster sugar until light and fluffy. Work in the flour mixture, adding enough milk to form a fairly stiff but not crumbly dough.

Knead the dough briefly, then roll out to a thickness of about 1/8 in (0.3cm) on a lightly floured board. Cut out rectangles about 1in by 2 1/2 in (2.5cm by 7cm). Lay on the prepared baking sheet and prick with a fork. Chill in the fridge for half an hour. Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for 12-15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

For the filling, melt the chocolate over a pan of simmering water. Leave to cool until tepid. Cream the butter until light and fluffy, then work in the icing sugar and finally the chocolate. Chill until thickened. Sandwich the biscuits together in pairs.

Digestive biscuits

These are great either/or biscuits - they are just sweet enough to satisfy with morning coffee or afternoon tea, but plain and unfussy enough to set off good cheese.

Makes about 18

Ingredients: 6oz (170g) 100 per cent wholemeal flour

2oz (55g) plain flour

4oz (110g) fine oatmeal

1/2 tbs bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

5oz (140g) butter

2oz (55g) light muscovado sugar

2-3fl oz (30-45ml) milk

Preparation: Line a baking sheet with non-stick baking parchment, or grease well.

Sift flours with bicarbonate of soda and salt. Stir in the oatmeal. Rub in the butter until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, then stir in sugar. Add just enough milk to form a soft but coherent dough.

Roll out to a thickness of about 1/8 in (0.3cm) on a lightly floured board. Stamp out 3in (7.5cm) circles and lay on the baking sheet. Prick with a fork. Bake at 190C/375F/gas 5 for 10-15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Toll house cookies

The original chocolate chip cookie, said to have been invented by Ruth Wakefield of the Toll House Restaurant in Massachusetts. She sold the recipe to the Nestle company which made it famous throughout America.

Makes 25-30

Ingredients: 10oz (280g) plain flour

1tsp baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

3tbs milk

1tsp vanilla essence

6oz (170g) slightly salted

butter, softened

5oz (140g) caster sugar

4oz (110g) light muscovado sugar

14oz (400g) chocolate chips or diced plain chocolate

4oz (110g) chopped pecans or walnuts

Preparation: Line several baking sheets with non-stick baking parchment, or butter them generously.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt. Beat the egg lightly with the milk and vanilla essence. Cream the butter with the caster sugar until light and fluffy. Add the muscovado sugar and keep beating until it is evenly incorporated. Now add about a third of the egg mixture, beat well and then stir in a third of the flour. Repeat until all used up, by which time you should have a thick, smooth batter. Stir in the chocolate and pecans.

Drop dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to the sheets, leaving plenty of space between them. Bake at 190C/375F/gas 5 for 12-16 minutes. Cool for a couple of minutes on the sheets so they begin to firm, then transfer to a wire rack.

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