" the name brandy snap has no reference to brandy, the spirit. The name "brandy" is related to "branded" (as in burnt)." Wikipedia
When I was 'researching' this post I found Nigel Slater ruminating on the things he cooked at Christmas time, and saying how odd it was that he spent time cooking all these 'special' Christmassy things, when really time is so short. Particularly so in England probably because the days are so short. But he is right. At Christmas you are short of time - so much to do - and yet you spend time making Christmas treats such as brandy snaps.
But I also realise that I have never made them with my children and I feel very bad about that, because I used to absolutely love making them - such a fun process - besides tasting wonderful. So I am really thinking that I might make a batch and take them to our Christmas Eve family dinner. I've been asked to bring mince pies - and I shall, but why not brandy snaps too?
Somehow or other I link brandy snaps in my mind with my grandmother. But again I don't know why because I remember making them in the tiny kitchen in our own home. But then she did often come and spend Christmas with us, so maybe she helped out by making brandy snaps with her grandchildren. Grandmothers back then cooked with their grandchildren too. And now I feel bad because I could have made some with the grandchildren yesterday.
The fun thing about brandy snaps of course, is not just the making of the mixture and seeing it transform in the oven from a small blob of brown stuff to a lacy circle of golden sugary delight - no it's the fun of rolling them around the handles of wooden spoons to make those tubes. You have to get the moment just right of course. Not straight out of the oven - you would burn yourself and besides they are too runny and soft then, and not too long out of the oven because then they won't bend.
Nigel Slater tells you how to do it:
"The success of a brandy snap is all in the timing. The first is usually a failure and ends up as the cook's perk. Once out of the oven, leave them on the hot baking tray for five minutes or so before attempting to lift them off. Sliding a palette knife under them is the best way to remove them, then carefully lay the bendy biscuit over a rolling pin to make it curl. " Nigel Slater
Somebody added that if they went hard you can pop them back into the oven to soften up again.
Mind you you can keep them as flat lacy things and then stack them with cream and fruit or break them into shards when they have cooled and use them as decoration.
Not that we ever did that. Today is different because I saw one food writer who had not known that they were traditionally served on their own, and who only knew them as fancy decorations for fancy desserts.
You can also make them into baskets and fill them with fruit and things. Also lovely but not what we did.
No we just rolled them around the rolling pins, and then when it was time to eat them we pushed some brandy butter into the ends. You mustn't fill them earlier than just before you are going to eat them though or they will go all soggy. I did this once, so I know. In fact don't you think the ones in the picture at the top of the page look ever so slightly soggy?
Although we filled ours with brandy butter, I have read that the traditional filling is whipped cream. These days of course you can fill them with whatever you like - mascarpone and ricotta I have seen mentioned more than once. Indeed I think Nigel Slater has a mascarpone filling.
Interestingly neither Nigella nor Delia Smith, nor Jamie Oliver appear to have recipes for brandy snaps. Have they really gone out of fashion I wonder? Nothing from Heston, and even Felicity Cloake has not had a go at making the perfect brandy snaps. The only English recipes I found were from Mary Berry and the Hairy Bikers and they put chocolate in their filling. But wonderful Robert Carrier has a recipe in his Robert Carrier Cookbook - without ginger. Elizabeth David does the brandy butter but not the brandy snaps in her Spices, salt and aromatics in the English kitchen book. Maybe she thought they shouldn't have ginger in them and so they didn't qualify.
I confess I had always assumed that because they were filled with brandy butter - in my household anyway - and because I therefore assumed it was a Christmas tradition, they were called brandy snaps because of this. But no. As the quote at the top of the page says the name comes from an old word that means burnt. Not that they are burnt really. Well they shouldn't be.
I also learnt another new word - 'fairing'. The first source I consulted was Jane Grigson who says:
"they were popular as 'fairings' - along with eel pies, and gingerbread. Indeed at some fairs, like the Marlborough Mop, you can still buy them in flat, irregular, lacy rounds, much better than candy floss to sustain you on the Big Wheel or at the boxing booth."
Now she wrote that back in 1974 and it does have a very quaint ring to it - boxing booth! - so I have no idea whether you can still buy them at the Marlboraough Mop - though that does still exist. Intrigued by the word 'fairing' however, I consulted Wikipedia who said:
"Fairings" was originally the common name for edible souvenirs sold at fairs around England."
General opinion seems to be that it's a nineteenth century thing, though to me it has a rather more ancient feel to it. Although then again it is supposedly the Victorians who are really responsible for Christmas as we Anglos know it today. One suggestion is that it is derived from the French 'gaufres' which are a kind of waffle, that date back to the 14th century. But now having looked them up I don't think they are the same thing at all. They are made from a more ordinary batter - flour, eggs, milk ... Quite different from sugar and butter. They're not even the same shape. So where that idea came from I have no idea. Ditto for Italian cannoli - right shape, wrong ingredients - pastry not a kind of caramel - gaufres, on the left, cannoli on the right:
So there you go. But to me it's a Christmas thing, along with the Christmas pudding, the mince pies and the Christmas cake - not to mention the turkey of course.
Golden syrup is really the crucial ingredient, and since this was only invented in the late 19th century maybe this confirms the 19th century theory. However, I also saw that before golden syrup they had been made with treacle, which would make them darker in colour but probably the same consistency.
The last thing that I did not realise about brandy snaps is that they are a ginger flavoured thing. Maybe that's what gives them that warm sort of taste. And now having been told that my two grandsons love gingerbread I am doubly tempted to give them a go. It's never too late to introduce a new Christmas tradition - particularly now that the big Christmas Eve dinner has been taken over by my daughter-in-law. I should start a new one. Mine won't be filled from a fancy piping thing, but they should be OK with a spoon. I think that's what we did when we were young. Maybe fingers too.
Now how do you make brandy butter? Maggie Beer has the answer to that one. Whip the butter and icing sugar together - add brandy - hey presto. Although I should see what Elizabeth David says about that.