Desdemonas and Othellos

Ready for some political incorrectness, 1950s cookery style?

Welcome into your knowledge base the fact that these biscuits exist. Or did exist. Well, ok, now some exist in my pantry so I have essentially resurrected some ill-advised nomenclature of a biscuit.

These biscuits are called Desdemonas and Othellos. For those of you with no love for, or no interest in, the works of Shakespeare, these are two characters from his play Othello. Although I am yet to read or see the play, I gather that Desdemona is the beautiful wife of Othello, the beautiful male protagonist and hero. What these biscuits refer to, though, is their skin colour. Desdemona is a fair-skinned Venetian whilst Othello is a dark-skinned Christian Moor. Ergo vanilla and chocolate icing.

Desdemona and Othello from a 2007 London performance;

I found this recipe in Miss Drake’s Home Cookery (13th edition), published by Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne in the year 1950. 13th edition! It was slotted between some thinner cookbooks collected by my Nana Jean. The book conspicuously lacks photos. As do most of the published cookbooks in Nana’s stash. Compared to the incredibly visual design of modern cookbooks, these are bland and dour. Mechanical, almost. But the recipes are so diverse, as this recipe surely testifies. So many dishes I have never heard of. Apparently 60 years is a long time in food.

The biscuits themselves are quirky characters. They completely lack butter. The moisture comes from the ample quantity of eggs. 5 eggs!

Have you heard of such a recipe? Was it created out of necessity, for some cook who lacked butter but had far too many eggs? Is it a biscuit that originated during the Depression, when rations meant butter was scarce? Oh, so little I know about these biscuits.

What I do know about these biscuits is that they are fiddly. They need to be piped onto a baking tray. Baked in batches. Left to cool before filling with jam. Sandwiched together before icing. All in all, this recipe took me about three hours to recreate. Perhaps I am less patient than my fore-bearers.

I also know that these biscuits look beautiful. Look at them, lying there, all elegant in their lush glossy icing jackets. Oh so impressive. They have a peculiar texture, not to my taste. Spongy and light, not at all crisp or crumbly. They are quite eggy in taste, almost reminiscent of the pastry from cream puffs. Although they are sweet, and tangy with blackberry jam, and very moreish. Quite perfect with milk, or a cup of tea. Indeed, my dismissive opinion was not echoed by other people who tried a Desdemona or Othello. Everybody else adored them.

I will let you be the judge. As should always be the case!

Happy cooking!


~ ~ ~

Desdemonas & Othellos

a la Miss Drake (1950)

5 oz. flour

3 oz. sugar

5 eggs

jam, to fill (I used blackberry, which I sieved to remove seeds)

1 quantity soft vanilla icing – recipe below

1 quantity soft chocolate icing – recipe below

Beat the whites very stiffly, add the sugar gradually, beating all the time. Fold in the beaten yolks, and lastly sifted flour.

Pipe into rounds through a piping bag, on kitchen paper, on oven tray.

Bake in fairly hot oven 7-10 minutes until a golden brown.

When cold, put together with jam, and ice with soft icing. “Make some brown with chocolate icing and leave some white.”

Soft icing

4 oz. icing sugar

1 tbsp liquid (water, fruit juice, coffee, rose water, etc.). Sift icing sugar. Blend to a soft consistency with the liquid. If using water, heat icing very slightly before spreading on the biscuits. Do not allow it to reach boiling point or the sugar will grain.


Mix in 1 tsp vanilla extract with water to make 1 tbsp liquid.


Sift 1 tsp cocoa powder with the icing sugar before stirring in liquid.

Note: I heated the icing in the microwave at 25% for 10 seconds to soften. Repeated microwaving will leave the icing grainy and difficult to spread.


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