Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Savory biscuits from a 17th-century recipe

Savory Cogs Biscuits. All photography by Brittany Diliberto.
Savory Cogs Biscuits. All photography by Brittany Diliberto.
Savory Cogs Biscuits. All photography by Brittany Diliberto.

Savory Cogs Biscuits

Jump to the recipe below for “Cogs Biscuits.” Interested in making other early modern foods? Explore our previous Thanksgiving recipes for pumpkin pie and sweet potato pudding.

The meaning of “biscuit” is divisive. For most Americans, a biscuit is a flaky, buttery bread that forms an essential part of Thanksgiving dinner; for the British, the same word refers to a hard, sweet cookie best enjoyed with tea. Back in the day, for mariners, a biscuit was a rock-solid block of bread that kept them alive; for Shakespeare, it was a biting insult (Jacques in As You Like It: “And in his brain, which is as dry as the remainder biscuit.”). Biscuits come in many flavors: sweet, spiced, cheesy, salty, bland.

This year for Thanksgiving, we’ve found something else; something that’s fluffy and sweet and savory and firm and spiced all at the same time, a kind of ur-biscuit. Around 1672, Constance Hall recorded in her recipe book a dish called Cogs Biskett, a dish she presumably cooked for her family. Her book is now part of the Folger collection’s strong holding of handwritten recipe books, and this biscuit recipe deserves a revival as the best bread to accompany your turkey this year.


The title of this recipe sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary, where I discovered that “cog” once meant ship. This suggests to me that these are ship’s biscuits, which at the time of this manuscript were generally formed as free-form round rolls and then, after baking, split in half horizontally and returned to a very slow oven until crisp and dry throughout, so as to be long keeping. The “ale” called for in the recipe is actually ale yeast, a byproduct of the brewing process that was the usual 17th century English leaven in bread and cake. This explains why the recipe instructs to let the dough rise.

Stephen Schmidt — November 28, 2018

[…] By now, you may have read about—or participated in—several activities linked to the project Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures. They have included food-related pop-up exhibitions at Folger public programs (the next one is for A Christmas Messe); Frances Dolan’s “Digging the Past: Writing and Agriculture in the Seventeenth Century” weekend seminar, which included a field trip to Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Virginia; a Material Witness seminar on readings about coffee and tea; sessions with distinguished scholars like Ken Albala, known for his food recreation research, and Craig Muldrew, whose numbers-based research assesses early modern food costs, caloric intakes, and more; and even a Thanksgiving-themed adapted recipe for early modern biscuits. […]

The Journey is Underway for Before 'Farm to Table' - The Collation — December 11, 2018

Excellent receipt. I just baked these at a 17th Century Museum in PA. Baked perfectly in brick bake oven. I actually did them with a gluten free 1 to 1 flour. No problems with texture. Freeze after cooled, then toast or microwave for a few seconds on a defrost.

M. Brosz — September 20, 2021