Along with the Pavlova, the Anzac Biscuit has a contested heritage. There is some dispute about the date of the earliest recipe. There’s also the claim that the Kiwis actually invented them. (As if claiming the pavlova and the Iced Vo Vo and even billy tea isn’t enough!) The earliest New Zealand reference is in St Andrew’s Cookery Book, published in Dunedin in 1921, where they were called Anzac Crispies. However, the Melbourne newspaper The Argus published a recipe for Anzac Biscuits or Crispies in September 1920.
An earlier hand-written recipe for Anzac biscuits has been discovered. It was written down in a notebook by Carolyn Warner between 1912 and 1920. Research by Sian Supski of the Australia Research Institute at the Curtin University of Technology has shown that recipes began to appear in Australian cook books in the early 1920s, originally under the name of Anzac Crisps. The biscuits are now known as Anzac Biscuits in Australia and New Zealand.
It’s probably the first recipe to be published on an Australian Government website. Or, rather, the first two recipes. The Australian War Memorial website has two versions, one with and one without coconut. Essentially, Anzac biscuits contain oats, sugar, butter, golden syrup and bicarbonate of soda. And coconut. Or not.
You change this at your peril, as the fast food chain Subway discovered in 2008. It seems they were selling ‘Anzac Biscuits’ that did not conform to either of the recipes officially approved by the government. Facing a legal challenge, Subway abandoned the product.
The first government Act to ensure the word Anzac was used in a suitably reverential way was passed in 1921. Since 1994, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs has controlled the use of the term. The word may be applied to Anzac Biscuits, but only if they’re made to the traditional recipe. And don’t ever, ever call them Anzac Cookies.
In the early days, however, before the Vets’ Affairs people got involved, recipes varied wildly. In the 1920s there was a widely circulated recipe for a completely different Anzac Biscuit containing eggs, cinnamon and no oats at all. Even the more familiar form of the biscuit showed variations from cook to cook.
The earliest published recipe did not contain coconut (or cocoanut as it was spelled well into the ’30s). It wasn’t until 1927 that a version appeared with coconut. There were other variations: in 1931 the Brisbane Sunday Mail included four different recipes in one feature. One recommended that ‘A few chopped nuts added to this mixture is a great improvement’.
During the depression years of the 1930s, the austerity Anzac appeared, with dripping replacing the butter. Sometimes, too, the mixture was cooked more like a slice – pressed into a tray for baking and cut into squares when cold.
There are a few often-repeated myths about Anzac biscuits, like the story that they were made by teams of patriotic women, packed into billy cans and sent to the troops overseas. This is probably not true. It’s more likely that oat-based biscuits like these (based on a Scottish recipe) were baked and sold to raise funds for the war effort.
Making Anzac biscuits is extremely simple. Here’s the recipe (with coconut) as ‘approved’ by the Australian Government, the Australian War Memorial and the Country Women’s Association.
1 cup each of rolled oats, sugar and coconut
1 tablespoon syrup
3/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water)
Add syrup to dissolved soda and water. Combine with melted butter.
Mix dry ingredients and stir in liquid.
Place small balls on hot buttered tray and bake in moderate oven.
Lift out carefully with a knife as they are soft until cold.