For my kitchen ruler I use my grandmother's knitting gauge. It's skinny, long, and made of metal, and fits snugly in the drawer under the counter where I do most of my baking. Because of it, I can tell you that these atta biscuits are precisely 1-by-1 1/2-inch rectangles, and its sharp edge was used to keep all the corners straight.
I can also tell you that atta biscuits take no more than 30 minutes from start to cookies, with no need to set out ingredients in advance, or cream any butter, and that they are immensely dunkable, making them the optimal sidebar to teatime.
Atta biscuits, if you've not heard of them, as I'd not heard of them until my mother enlightened me about two months ago, are dryish whole wheat cookies that are sold roadside in India. They are flat and crunchy through and through, and mum says they're a favourite with truck drivers.
I'm without any point of reference or sentimentality for atta biscuits beyond what she told me, but I think I understand them. They're good travelling food, and whenever we visited India when I was a kid, we'd travel a lot. We'd pack sandwiches made with tinned pâté for journeys by train, which I'd eat sitting up on the top bunk of the sleeper car. The soft, whipped texture of the spread would meld into the squidge of the bread, and both stuck to the back of my front teeth. I liked those sleeper cars, with their royal blue cushions and pale turquoise walls, and the way the train rocked as you slept. I even liked the clicking whirr of the ceiling fan. When we'd pull into stations Dad would buy dosas wrapped in banana leaves through the car's window.
At the hotel high in the Nilgiri Hills where we stayed on my last trip, the stone floors were always cold in morning, even though it was June or maybe even July by that point. My mother taught me to wrap a wool shawl around both my shoulders, tucking the inside edge behind my back before draping the other edge over top and around, thus keeping me tightly swaddled against the chill. For breakfast we'd order sweet milky tea and buttered toast, and I'd dip the latter into the former.
Atta biscuits fit in with all of that. A simple snack made by stirring together basic pantry staples, in lean quantity. The biscuits aren't really rich, nor too sweet. They're not so austere as to feel a punishment, but not so decadent as to seem an extravagance, either. I've eaten two while writing this.
They are crumbly, quietly everyday cookies. A batch makes a modest amount – a single tray that feeds four nicely with a handful left over for later. They don't require any special equipment, even the knitting gauge isn't necessary, and you can get them together while the kettle boils.
I'm certain that these cookies are not entirely authentic, since they are not as snappily crisp as they should be, but they've got an appeal that deserves its own attention. They taste in between shredded wheat cereal and a digestive biscuit, like a scone on a diet, maybe. They remind me of Stephanie's oatcakes that Molly wrote about, and they could be used in pretty much the same ways. (That said, these are puffier at their middles and might not sandwich as so well, and it's best to flip them upside-down for topping.)
I've not had the chance to get my mother over here to try this incarnation of the recipe we've been working on, but I'll be sure to relay her thoughts. There's also word that there's a shop not far from here that sells packaged atta biscuits, so there's some taste testing ahead. Maybe the dough should be rolled thinner, so they don't swell so much. Such a change will either mean more cookies or revised measurements.
For now, I'll leave you with these, as they are. Safe travels.
OUR ATTA BISCUITS
A collaboration between my mum and me. A coarse cane sugar is nice here; it flecks the baked cookies with sparkles and adds crunch.
Makes 24 small cookies.
- 1 cup atta, see note
- 2 tablespoons natural cane sugar, be a little generous
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
- 1/4 cup milk, or thereabouts
Preheat an oven to 425°F (220°C) with a rack in the upper third. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
In a medium bowl, stir together the atta, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using a pastry cutter, two blunt knives or your fingertips, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it's a fairly even meal — you don't want any large flakes of butter remaining. With a fork, stir in just enough milk for the dough start to come away from the sides of the bowl. Gently press the dough into a cohesive ball, then turn it out onto a clean work surface. Roll the dough out to a 6-by-8-inch rectangle, then cut it into 24 1-by-1 1/2-inch pieces. Use the tines of a fork to press marks into each. Transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet, with at least 1/4-inch in between. Bake in the preheated oven until the biscuits are puffed and golden, around 15 minutes.
Remove the cookies from pan to a baking rack for at least 5 minutes before eating. The biscuits will crisp as they sit. Fully-cooled biscuits can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for a few days.
- Atta is a semi-hard whole wheat flour, that's finely ground. If you don't have access to atta, regular whole wheat flour can be sifted and used instead, keeping any bits of bran behind.
P.S. Many thanks to the kind folks at Babble for including me on their 2013 list of the top food blogs written by mothers, generously including me in the top 10 overall and as first in the category of photography. It is an honour to be in such company.