Saturday, March 24, 2007

Digestive Quest

While I was over in Scotland I became quite fond of the McVitie's Plain Chocolate Digestive Biscuits. I always had them with me on my travels. They made a great snack to get rid of hunger as well as keep me energized. They are extremely popular in Great Britain and Ireland. McVitie's is actually an Irish company. And coincidentally enough, on St. Patty's Day I found them in a store here. World Market. One of the best stores ever. Love It! Love It! Love It!

We went there after catching a movie with some friends of SSB and myself. As I was walking up to my friend in the store, she showed me the package of McVitie's with chocolate and started to tell me I HAD TO GET THEM when I reached into my own basket and pulled out my own package! We both had a good laugh. SSB said it looked just like a commercial.

But they were fairly expensive too. $3.99 for a package of 18 biscuits. (I should point out at this time for those of you not in the know that biscuits in Great Britain/Ireland are actually cookies - not our biscuits). So I decided that I might just have to figure out how to make these myself. I mean, there's got to be a recipe for them SOMEWHERE on the internet, right?

Well, I found quite a few recipes for digestive biscuits, but I also found a lot of comments about how they weren't the same as McVitie's because those particular biscuits just couldn't be replicated at home. I was not discouraged. I figured that if I collected enough of the recipes, saw what they had in common and compared them to the ingredients on the package of the McVitie's that I had purchased, I might just be able to crack the code. I did some research on McVitie's digestives to find out how they were created, how they got their name, what makes them special, etc; to try and get some clues.

One clue that helped me in tweaking the recipes that I found was that they are called digestives due to the large amount of sodium bicarbonate in them that helps settle the stomach (and here I thought it was because of all the bran!). Most of the recipes that I found did not seem to have much baking soda in them at all.

I started with a recipe that I Frankensteined from several of the recipes that I had retrieved. I baked one biscuit at a time, recording the results and changes I made to the dough as I went along.

If you just want the final recipe, click here.
Otherwise, the following is the unedited process of creating the biscuit I wanted:

Sy's first batch

3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon rolled oats
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoons Crisco
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and oats with a pastry blender. Mix in sugar with a pastry blender. Throroughly mix in vanilla, then add fats. Mix these in with a pastry blender until the mix is uniform.
Knead dough on a floured surface until smooth. Roll out dough to
approximately 1/8" thickness. Cut into rounds with cookie cutter about
2 1/2 inches in diameter. Transfer to cookie sheets and prick with a
fork. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden. Let cool on wire rack.
Store in an airtight tin.

I would cut back on the sugar by about half.
I did add two singles of half-n-half after trying one biscuit. This made the biscuit a little less grainy. I think I would try adding more to see if I could get them fluffier this way too. I found a soda cracker recipe that calls for quite a bit of liquid. Maybe replace 1 TBS of the butter for liquids.
The McVitie's biscuits use palm oil - I would try that. It seems that there is a slightly bitter taste to the McVitie's that you can't get with this recipe and I think that it is the palm oil.
I tried chilling some of the dough before rolling and cutting. This really didn't seem to make too much of a difference in the final product, but it did make the dough easier to handle.
This recipe uses oats, but McVitie's does not contain any so I would substitute some wheat product for the oats.
They also need to be fluffier, so I might try adding a bit more baking powder - this would also add a little of that bitterness that I am looking for.
I also reduced the heat to 350F which got rid of the uneven browning that I got in the first batch.
I also did all the biscuits, after the first one, on the baking stone instead of a cookie sheet. I think this was a good move.

wheat flour, plain chocolate (29%), sugar, cocoa mass, palm oil, butter oil, cocoa butter, emulsifiers (soya lechithin, polyglycerol, polyricinoleic acid), natural flavor (vanilla), palm oil, wholemeal, sugar, glucose fructose syrup, raising agents (sodium bicarbonate, tartaric acid, malic acid), salt.

plain chocolate = bakers chocolate
sugar = dark brown sugar
cocoa mass = the precursor to cocoa powder
emulsifiers = things like egg yolks and lecithin - they hold the crumb together and give the biscuit greater shelf life
wholemeal = whole wheat flour
glucose fructose sugar = corn syrup
raising agents = baking soda, precursor to cream of tartar (it's a byproduct of wine), found in apples (makes things sour)

Sy's 2nd batch:
I halved the sugar and subtracted 1 TBS butter.
I added 1 TBS milk powder and 1/3 cup water
Along with the 1/2 tsp baking powder I added a 1/2 tsp baking soda as these biscuits are said to be known for their high content of baking soda - hence the name "digestive".
I substituted wheat bran for the oats as the original biscuits have no oat in them.

My first biscuit came out too chewy and blonde.
I added another TBS of both butter and sugar.
I also added a bit more wholemeal flour and baked another cookie.

The biscuit was still too sconey, so I added another TBS each of butter and sugar. I also raised the temp of the oven to 360-370F.

This batch was kind of turning into a train wreck, so I set it aside and started a new batch.

Sy's third batch:
I went back to the original recipe.
I realized after I mixed this third batch that I had added WAY too much wheat bran. It was supposed to be 1 TBS to replace the oats and I put in 1/4 cup. OOPS!! I think that this won't be so bad since oats puff up so much and wheat bran doesn't nearly so much.
I also added 1/4 tsp baking soda and 1/4 tsp cream of tartar (since the McVitie's use tartaric acid).
I also used 4 half-n-half singles this time.

After the first biscuit I added another TBS each of butter and sugar to make up for the extra bran.
I also turned the heat back down to 350F since I was getting the extra browning around the edges again.

That batch that I thought was a goner - the last biscuit that I got from it was actually REALLY CLOSE!!!
It just needed a bit more sugar and butter! WhooHoo!
So I went back to that dough, added 1 TBS of each and baked another biscuit.
I think baking these a little longer than 15 mins at 350F might also make them crispier - so I tried that too.

Actually, on second thought, I should have only added the butter - but c'est la vie! That's why I wrote down each step of this process.

In the end, I came 90% close to a perfect match with the third batch with all the extra changes. But the second batch with the final changes was pretty good too.

I have now been baking for over 6 hours, but not bad for cracking a mystery code of ingredients for such a sought after delicacy!

Once I had the biscuits I wanted, I baked the rest of them and coated the backs of them with melted semi-sweet chocolate chips. YUMMY! I, my family, and the neighbor kids highly approved!

The finally winning recipe is as follows:

3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup wheat bran
4 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoons Crisco
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
4 half-n-half singles (little more than 3 TBS half-n-half)

Preheat oven to 350F.
In a large bowl, mix together the flours, bran, baking powder, baking soda, and cream of tartar with a pastry blender. Mix in sugar with the pastry blender. Mix in fats with the pastry blender. The mix at this point should be crumbly and uniform. Mix the vanilla in the half-n-half and add to the mix. Mix with pastry blender until it is uniform and resembles really soft playdoh.

You can at this point refrigerate for 20 minutes to make the dough easier to handle, but it is not necessary. Be sure to roll out dough between two pieces of waxed paper! Roll to approximately 1/8" thickness. Cut into rounds with cookie cutter about 2 1/2 inches in diameter (I used the ring off one of my canning jars).

Transfer to cookie sheets and prick with a fork. Bake 15 to 18 minutes (adjust the baking time up to dry them out more if the biscuits are too soft and fluffy), or until golden. Let cool on wire rack.

Optional: spread the backs of the cooled biscuits with melted semi-sweet chocolate (as in chips - almost everyone has these for chocolate chip cookies). Set the biscuits chocolate side up on the rack until chocolate hardens.

Store in an airtight tin -if storage is even necessary! They will go fast!


Lisa Blair said...

I love McVitie's and I love World Market! Thanks for posting this recipe. You worked so hard to get the biscuits just right, and I can't wait to try it out!

Shannon said...

Oh! I love Digestives but never buy them because of the price. I've never had the chocolate type- is the chocolate *in* or *on* cookie? time I'm looking to bake something, I think I'll give these a whirl!

Oh, and I love Cost Plus/World Market (we call it that here) also! Unfortunately, they're closing the one by my house. :(

Sylvana said...

Lisa, there were lots of digestive recipes on the internet, but I could tell that they weren't quite right. I am planning on tweaking this recipe a bit more to see if I can't close the gap to perfection; but I must tell you, these were very popular with even the picky junk-food eaters at my work!

Shannon, the chocolate is on the cookie. I posted pictures now - which I originally forgot to do, oops!
World Market Rocks! I'm dangerous in that store.
Sorry to hear about yours. Too bad that they don't have online shopping. :(

Anonymous said...

Hi! I've also been scouring the net for the perfect Digestives recipe, comparing the recipe ingredients to the ingredients on the package and sort of going through a similar research process. I must say I wasn't as brave as you and did not attempt to test out different recipes (no one else to feed the leftovers to!!!) Yours looks like the closest to the original, but I think I would add one little thing (I haven't tested out your recipe yet so this is just a guess). What I find quite distinctive in Digestives is the little salty edge you feel at the end of a bite. I checked the ingredient list and it does contain salt. I think your recipe would really benefit from a little added salt (especially the ground up Kosher salt type). Will try it out and let you know! But thanks for sharing your experiments!


Sylvana said...

Aisha, thanks for commenting on this recipe. I think that the thing that they are really missing is palm oil. There is a slight bitterness in the real McVitties that I can quite capture and I think it from the palm oil.

Yes, add salt if you like! I use salted butter, and my taste buds are very sensitive to salt (as in I don't like a lot of salt - hence most of my recipes will be short on salt), but you can almost always add extra salt to a recipe (except when dealing with yeast). I personally LOVE sea salt! It is a gentle yet complex flavor.

Anonymous said...

Hello again!

I've come to report back on these cookies after making them. I had to make a few adjustments due to unavailability of some of the ingredients. So:
- left out the cream of tartar
- used oat bran instead of wheat bran because I already had it on hand and was too lazy to go out and get the other
- left out the Crisco (no shortening where I live) and forgot to replace it with an extra Tb of butter
- used milk instead of half n half
- used unsalted butter so added a bit of ground up coarse sea salt

They turned out great!!!! Without comparing them to the original McVs, they have a great taste on their own. On the comparison front:
- I found that their taste evolves with age, so the longer you leave them in the cookie tin, the closer their taste gets to the original
- I don't know if it came from using oat bran instead of wheat but I did get a little bitter taste like in the original
- what i found skewed the taste a bit was actually the taste of the butter, which is rich and complex right after baking but fades away gradually and brings it closer to the original taste
- using ground up coarse sea salt brought in little flecks of intense saltiness as the salt flakes land on your tongue, an experience I love when eating cookies.

All in all: Will repeat! Thank you so much for having done the research and the testing for all of us McV fans out there!


Sylvana said...

Aisha, thank you so much for your update! I have done some batches with oat bran as well. I find that they have a milder flavor (a little sweeter) than when using just wheat. Both are good (and I actually like oats better than wheat anyway :)

Glad that you got so much out of this recipe. It has been a continual hit with my family and friends ever since I created it. And those McVitties are just way too expensive to buy all the time!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the recipe.I admire how you did all the "tweaks" and trials.I made them yesterday and they turned out GREAT!My husband and I love them.I keep eating them and asking myself ,did I really make these?It hasn't fully registered yet.It probably will after I gain 5 pounds! HaHa.They taste just like "digestives".The texture is amazing,crispy,light and fresh.The color is just right. I'm not going to miss digestives anymore.
I had to make a few changes .I didn't have cream of tatar so I used 1/4 tsp lemon juice.I also used oat bran instead of wheat.I put half the oat brans in a food processor for a few seconds to get a finer texture and left out the shortening. Instead of the milk I used 2 tbs of dried milk and 5 tbs of cold water following another recipe.
Again thank you so much.I wish you all the sweatness in life like the sweatness you added to mine!

Sylvana said...

Jackie, I get so happy hearing how all my obsessive work ends up making other people happy too! I will have to try your tweaks, they sounds good too!

Unknown said...

I made these last night - only substitution was milk for half and half, as I didn't want to buy a carton that might go to waste. At first the dough was too moist, so I refrigerated and then added flour to roll between the wax paper.Final product was wonderful. My British husband now wants to learn to make them! This is the second recipe that I have tried, and while a tiny bit more complicated (more ingredients) the end result is well worth it. Thanks so much!

Sylvana said...

Connie, what a compliment having someone who mostly likely grew up on digestives liking them. Tell your husband I am flattered.

Unknown said...

Hi Sylvana,

Ian did grow up on digestives, and indeed says he would rather I make them than buy them when we go back to the UK!

Update - I was on a business trip this week, and the hotel had some half & half singles that didn't require refrigeration. So I picked up 4 to take home, and last night made the second batch. They were so good we had to force ourselves to stop eating. I took note of the liquid amount and my 'guess' with the amount with milk substitution on the first try was more than the amount from the singles (which I realized based on the dough). The half and half does make a better biscuit. YUM!
Thanks again for all your *obsessive* work perfecting this recipe!

Unknown said...

Hi again - one thing I just noticed (minor, nothing to do with the recipe, but here we go). McVitie's is not an Irish company. The original McVitie's was in Edinburgh. Other commercial "McVitie's" bakeries are now in various parts of the UK, including Manchester, and have been for several years since McVitie's became part of United Biscuits.There may be a location in Ireland, but if so, it is part of United Biscuits, not the original company.

Sylvana said...

Connie, I looked that up, and you are right. I can't remember where I got that information. I thought it was in conjunction with the packaging and a website for McVities. Eh, it's been a while since I posted that, so who knows. Maybe I was high on the yumminess of McVities!

Unknown said...

Hi again - well I for one am savoring my latest batch of digestives. Possibly a good thing that this recipe doesn't make 'mass quantities', because we would simply eat more and more!

My husband once again sends his complements to you for this wonderful recipe.

Ali said...

I'm a little late to the party but I wanted to let you know that I used your recipe - amazing! A printed copy of the recipe now has a permanent home in my binder and I gave you a little shout out on my blog today.

Thanks Obsessive Gardener :D

Sylvana said...

Thank your husband for me, Connie.

Hi Ali, glad you liked them! I was actually talking about these last week with a friend. She was upset that I hadn't made any of these for her in awhile. I actually hadn't made any for anyone in awhile! But I will be making these for a potluck next week.

Mmmm... biscuilicious!! Tastes like the UK.

BTW -- I see you like cooking. I have separated my cooking posts into another blog: The Obsessive Chef. Check it out for more obsessives recipe discovery.

Laurie said...

Growing up in England and Bermuda (owned by Britain) chocolate digestives have been my fav forever !! Like you, I scoured the internet seeing the recipe. To no avail. Your recipe is the closest I've come and I just wanted to thank you for sharing both your recipe and your story. Laurie ~

Sylvana said...

Laurie, thanks so much. I really enjoy sharing these with people. And of course it is especially nice to hear from people who grew up with these biscuits when they say that they enjoy my recipe :)

I have a few further tweaks in mind, but they may be a bit too exotic for most bakers (one consists of getting my hands on palm oil to see how that changes the flavor). I wouldn't continue using palm oil (due to the environmental impact palm oil has), but I think I could find/create a substitute.

Anonymous said...

Oh you've made my day, month, year! We love McVite's ( my fiance is Irish) and we live on an island that charges 6.99 for the pack and you thought 3.99 was bad!

So I've been obsessing about a recipe, searched, baked and nothing compared.

Can't wait to try! I'm going for the cadbury dipped!

Thank you from the bottom of my tummy!

Sylvana said...

anonymous, $6.99! I won't even pay that for Girl Scout Cookies! Yikes! Well, maybe the Thin Mints, they are addictive. Mmm, Thin Mints are next on my cookie code-cracking list.

Let me know what you think of the recipe. And I have been loving all the suggestions for variations, so add those if you have any.

Heather said...

Baking powder has a bitter taste and looking at the ingredient list on my box (plain, no chocolate) it looks like that's the equivalent to what they used. Mine lists sodium bicarbonate, tartaric acid and malic acid) which is what baking powder is. I think that may be the source of the slight bitterness you are looking for. I do want to thank you for posting this recipe though because I would much rather make them than pay the high price for them.

kiwibeeper said...

I love digestives, and I have been looking for a recipe online, but haven't found one I liked. But what is a half & half single? I know half & half is equal amounts milk & cream, but I don't get what you mean by singles? How much does that come to?

kiwibeeper said...

and then I read it again and the measurement is right there! I shouldn't ask questions when I'm sick! LOL. I can't wait to feel better and make these biscuits!

Sylvana said...

Heather, baking powder can consist of several different acids along with the baking soda, mine happened to not have tartaric acid, which is why I also added cream of tartar.

Kiwibeeper, yep, half & half is half cream, half milk. The singles are sealed 3/8oz packages of half & half that coffee shops have for their customers when they take coffee to go. Really great thing about them is that no refrigeration is needed :)

Sylvana said...

UPDATE: Crisco started using palm oil for their shortening and I will be making a batch of biscuits this week with it. I will let you all know if that made any difference.

Anonymous said...

I've tried number of recipes that claim to replicate the exact taste of the original Digestives, but nothing came as close as yours did! Yours is the closest that I've tried so far!! I really appreciate you experimenting and sharing the result. The digestive cookies are my dad's favourite, so I've been searching real hard to find a good recipe, but I need to search no more.

Sylvana said...

Anonymous, I am always glad to hear that this recipe lets people experience the Digestives that they remember. I still have not tried my new Crisco with this recipe, but am hoping to get a batch done this week.

Hope your dad enjoys his digestives!

Sylvana said...

UPDATE: I finally tried the Crisco made with palm oil. BINGO! It gave them the perfect tinge of bitterness that I was looking for. So it was the palm oil.

I like them just fine with or without the palm oil; I just wanted to see if I could get them closer to being perfect McVities.

Try it and see what you think.

Mareena Jerrish said...

Hi Sylvana,

I tried this recipe and followed Aisha's suggestion. They turned out absolutely great..Shared it with some unexpected guests at home and they too loved it..Thanks for sharing...

Sylvana said...

Mareena, yay! Glad to hear that they turned out well for you. I haven't made them in a while since I really like the chocolate coated ones and chocolate has been really expensive! But I think that I will be making them for an up-coming pot luck.

Now to crack the Thin Mint recipe...