This week I chose a classic French biscuit hailing from Lille.
They go by the name of langues de chat – literally, cat’s tongues. Presumably this name came about from their elongated oval shape. But, as Emily reflected, a word for word translation of recipe or dish names is not always appropriate - it can often be misleading or not have the desired effect.
In this case, these biscuits appear to be reasonably well known in English baking circles under their French name. Given this, I chose to use the French name, simply adding ‘biscuits’ on the end for clarity.
Done properly, these biscuits should be delicate and buttery yet crispy, and lightly golden on the edges… Just look at the pictures in my source recipe!
Mine were neither delicate nor crispy.
In fact, this was an outright baking fail.
I could have chosen to brush this failure under the carpet, or the gingham tablecloth. I could have not mentioned it. I could have cooked something else for this week’s challenge.
Yet, as many before me have pointed out, today often only the most polished, most positive content is published and shared online. I didn't want to present an edited view of myself, my cooking prowess - or lack thereof.
Moreover, in cooking, as in life, there is (almost) always a lesson to be gleaned from our mistakes.
So I chose to embrace and share this failure – enjoy!
I was interested to note that I was asked for egg whites in terms of grams, rather than number or size of eggs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in an English recipe – is it common in French recipes?
Crusty biscuits? Difference in collocational range or semantic fields between French and English
In French, the word croustillant, which appears in my recipe, is used to describe both biscuits and bread. According to the larousse, croustillant originates from the verb croustiller, which is defined as ‘Croquer agréablement sous la dent, en parlant d'un gâteau, d'une croute.’ Here, the pleasant crunching sensation is being referred to, and it can be used for a cake or a crust (i.e. of bread).
In English the terms ‘crispy’ or ‘crusty’ or indeed ‘crunchy’ are potential options for croustillant. My first thought was that ‘crusty’ is used to describe bread, and sounded odd to describe biscuits. But I couldn’t tell you why, and as a translator, I’ve learnt to double check my presumptions. So, my interest piqued, I decided to delve a little deeper.
What’s the difference?
Collins describes 'crispy' as ‘food which is pleasantly hard, or which has a pleasantly hard surface.’ The examples given show that it can be used for meat, potatoes, and some baked goods.
'Crusty' meanwhile is something which is ‘having or characterized by a crust, esp[ecially] having a thick crust.’ Meanwhile, a ‘crust’ is ‘a hard layer of something, especially on top of a softer or wetter substance’ – and can be used for bread, or the shell of a pie or tart.
'Crunchy' appears to be the most similar to croustillant, in that it is a more general term, describing the sensation when eating it: ‘Food that is crunchy is pleasantly hard or crisp so that it makes a noise when you eat it.’ It appears to be used most often for vegetables.
While the exterior of all three is hard, it seems for something to qualify as being ‘crusty’ or having a ‘crust,’ there needs to be a greater difference between its exterior and the interior, than for 'crispy'. Whereas, for 'crunchy' this doesn’t seem to be a requirement, and when I think of 'crunchy' I think of foods that are crunchy all the way through, rather than just on the surface. It does seem that English differentiates between these different textures, or levels of crunchiness, where French does not. That is, the semantic fields differ between the two languages (Baker, 2018).
Another possibility is that this is an example of collocational meaning in action. In other words, perhaps (British) English speakers are so used to hearing ‘crusty bread’ and ‘crispy biscuits’ as opposed to ‘crispy bread’ and ‘crusty biscuits,’ that the alternatives sound strange, and may give the impression the text was written by a non-native speaker.
What’s more, the use of ‘crusty’ in less typical contexts, may bring to mind one of its other, less appealing, meanings. (In fact, given the outcome of my biscuits, perhaps ‘crusty’ would be the most appropriate description after all. This way, both the sense of crunchiness and messiness would be evoked.)
Taking all of this into account, I think either ‘crispy’ or ‘crunchy’ would be suitable to use in the context of this recipe, and I decided to use ‘crispy.’
All was going swimmingly with the baking, until it came to piping.
Perhaps I should explain. I’m more of a rustic home baker and cook. I prioritise taste over appearance.
I’m not one to spend hours making elaborate cakes or decorating cupcakes. I believe I’ve only piped once before, on gingerbread men, and that was quite a different thing.
Given this, I should definitely have researched more into proper piping technique. Yet, I forged ahead and made a complete hash of it. Mixture went everywhere - on me, on the floor, on the kitchen cupboards.
Some of my langues were minuscule, others were oversized, none were as they should be.
As it turned out, none of this mattered…
In the oven, all my painstaking piping flattened and spread into two giant pools of batter (one on each tray). Also, I must have tipped one tray as I put it in the oven, as the mixture spread out very unevenly, leaving one thick and chewy edge and one crispy edge verging on burnt.
What to do? Naturally, I didn’t want to waste them. I chopped each into biscuit-ish size bars and gave them a try. The taste wasn’t bad, although the texture was well clear of the mark – chewy rather than crispy (or crunchy or crusty).
Research and practice unfamiliar techniques
Otherwise you may end in a mess.
In fact, this is something I do in my professional life all the time, but clearly don’t always apply to cooking.
I’ve since watched a few videos on piping technique, and I have a clearer idea of where I went wrong. I think I just need to practice a bit. If anyone reading this has advice, please comment below or get in touch!
Make the most of a bad situation
This is probably something I need to take from my cooking into my working life – although here’s hoping there are too many bad situations to deal with.
From the cooking perspective, with these biscuits, I think they would have made a nice addition to ice cream.
I haven’t yet made up my mind on what I'll make next, but probably something savoury, making use of the lovely tomatoes in the garden. Fingers crossed for a more successful result.
Baker, M. (2018). In Other Words: A Coursebook in Translation, 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.