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More on biscuits and cookies

27 August 2011

At one point in a discussion of the different understanding of “biscuit” and “cookie” between Americans and other speakers of English an American asked me what I’d call an Oreo.

I’d never seen an Oreo, but vaguely recalled seeing a picture of one on a packet in a supermarket. We we decided to check, and bought a packet of Oreos (they are labelled cookies). And, for purposes of comparison, we bought a box of Bakers assorted biscuits. The Oreos cost R14.49 for 175g, and the Bakers biscuits cost R15.99 for 200g.

Oreo cookes and Bakers biscuits

Among the biscuits in the assorted packet were chocolate creams.

Here they are together:

Oreo on the left, Bakers chocolate cream on the right

And to me, both of them are biscuits, not cookies.

We tried the taste test.

The taste was pretty much identical, though the texture was slightly different. The Oreo was a little harder and more brittle. Most members of the family prefered the Bakers chocolate cream, which is why we  probably won’t buy Oreos in future.

Chocolate cookies

Since both the examples so far have been of chocolate biscuits, here is a picture of some chocolate cookies.

Unlike “biscuit”, which is used in the sense just described in just about all English-speaking countries, “cookie” might be peculiarly South African, and it probably came into South African English from Afrikaans “koekie”, meaning “little cake”. And that in turn probably came from the Dutch “koekje”.

An American once told me that what we called “cookies” they would call “cupcakes”, but I wonder what they are called in other English-speaking countries.

There are many varieties of cookies and biscuits, not just chocolate ones, though some shops have taken to calling cookies “muffins”.

And yes, what Americans call biscuits we call scones, but I don’t have a picture of any right now.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 August 2011 8:54 pm

    The Americans have muffins, too, and they’re basically like cupcakes (your cookies) but without frosting and usually not quite as sweet. A muffin could be a snack or a meal, while cupcakes are definitely sweets for dessert.

  2. 27 August 2011 9:10 pm

    There are also bakery items called “scones” in the United States, which bear some resemblance to American biscuits. But scones in American bakeries tend to be sugary and sweet- sometimes frosted, sometimes with fruits baked into them- and rather flaky. They’re like a pastry to go with tea or coffee.

    American biscuits are never sweet. They are typically sliced in half, buttered, and eaten as a bread to go with meals. The advantage of biscuits over dinner rolls or proper bread is that they are made with baking powder instead of yeast, so they can be prepared very quickly and served piping hot & fresh to go with the meal.

    A favorite breakfast in the Southern United States is called “biscuits & gravy”- it is a thick, spicy sausage gravy ladled over fresh sliced biscuits and eaten with a fork or a spoon.

    Is this how scones are used in South Africa? My sense is that scones are distinct from American biscuits, although they have a passing resemblance.

    • 27 August 2011 9:21 pm

      American biscuits are always round. Scones in American bakeries are often wedge-shaped, and quite a bit larger than biscuits.

    • 28 August 2011 5:11 am

      Scones here may be sweet or savoury (I believe that is not a word often used in American English, but I don’t know wht the equivalent is). Sweet ones may have a little sugar, not much, and are eaten with jam (jelly) and/or cream; the sweetness comes mainly from what you put on them. Savoury ones may have cheese or herbs in them, and are usually just eaten buttered. They are made with baking powder, and handled as litle as possble.

  3. 27 August 2011 9:18 pm

    Here is a photo of American biscuits & gravy:

    And here is what would be called a scone in the United States:

  4. brambonius permalink
    29 August 2011 5:33 pm

    Interesting… Especially to someone who’s Flemish dutch-speaking…

    The word ‘cake’ is used in dutch, but it’s a pretty recent borrowed word from english, and so are the things we cal ‘cake’ (I think a ‘pound cake’ in english) and ‘cakeje’ (your cookie or cupcake). what you call ‘cake’ we call ‘taart’ more general, though we would use the same word for pies.

    The word ‘koek’ and it’s small form ‘koekje’ are used for your ‘biscuits’ and things like that. Wikipedia in dutch says the english comes from the dutch without pointing out the version in Afrikaans as a transitional form, but I think that would be the proper evolutionary line…

    The word biscuit (pronounced the french way, not the english way) is only used in flemish dutch for a certain type of ‘taart’, but I think the ‘dutch dutch’ does use it for cookies sometimes.

    I only know scones from Ireland, and muffins are imported too herefrom God-knows what English-speaking culture…

    (I also can recommend you swedish ‘kanellbullar’, they are really great!!)


  1. What is a muffin? | Notes from underground

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