Introduction: Bleeding Burial Biscuits

This ghoulish take on a real burial tradition will enliven even the stiffest corpses at your Halloween gatherings. Resurrected from our Victorian ancestors—who were obsessed with death and the afterlife—these shortbread biscuit sandwiches (cookies to we Yankees) are stamped with an elegant but macabre skull and crossbones and stuffed with a sweet vanilla filling and bloody jam surprise center.

The burial biscuits of the past came from a long tradition of funerary foods, which included corpse breads and other mourning meals. In their latest Victorian incarnation, they were usually made from shortbread and sometimes stamped with a design consistent with funerary symbolism—crosses, fleurs-de-lis, and hearts, for example. While they took many shapes, whether round or long like ladyfingers, they were typically flavored with molasses, ginger, or caraway. Their purpose was often twofold; while they were used to provide refreshment for the mourners, they were sometimes also employed as an invitation to the funeral service. Usually wrapped in paper and sealed with black wax, the obituaries of the deceased, and sometimes comforting poetry or biblical passages, were printed on the wrappers. These would have been passed out among the neighbors or to family and friends to bid them come to the burial. As the twentieth century dawned, however, and as the West was dragged through two World Wars, these traditions quickly faded in many areas due to both a cultural shift regarding death and mourning and for the simple fact that the luxury of ingredients for specialty foods was simply no longer something people had during wartime.

To revive these long dead biscuits for the twenty-first century, and to update them to our spooky Halloween customs, I’ve made some amendments to the tradition while still honoring their long history. While any stiff shortbread will do for this (it must be stiff enough to hold the design during baking if you choose to use a stamp), I’ve included the recipe I used herewith. Enjoy, and happy baking!

Step 1: Ingredients & Special Supplies

The biscuit (cookie):

  • 2 2/3 cup flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

The filling:

  • 1 cup shortening
  • 5 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 packet unflavored gelatin
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 jar red jam (any flavor)

Special supplies:

  • cookie stamp
  • black food coloring
  • edible gold luster dust
  • vodka
  • paintbrush
  • butcher’s/parchment paper
  • black sealing wax
  • wax stamp

Step 2: Preparing the Dough

  • Using a beater attachment, blend dry ingredients in a mixer (the dough will become too stiff for a whisk; believe me I tried, as you can see in my image).
  • Then, mix in butter until ingredients are crumbly.
  • Add egg yolk and vanilla.
  • When stiff dough forms, gradually add black food coloring.Once fully blended, divide dough in half, wrapping both halves in plastic wrap, and chill for at least one hour.

Tip: If you would prefer not to use an artificial food coloring due to allergies or preference, you can achieve a similar darkness with cocoa noir, which will add a delicious chocolaty taste. Simply add your preferred amount to the dough while it’s still in the mixer. If the dough becomes too dry in doing so, add milk half a teaspoon at a time until cocoa is evenly blended but dough is still stiff.

Step 3: Making the Top Biscuit

  • On a floured surface, roll out one of your two balls of chilled dough to no thicker than 1/4 inch. The thinner the better; I rolled mine to as close as 1/8 inch as I dared.
  • At this point, I used my cookie stamp to impress my skull and crossbones design all over the dough.
  • To actually cut the dough, I used the lightly floured rim of a jam jar.
  • Transfer cut biscuits to a cookie sheet lined in parchment, and bake in a 350 degree (F) preheated oven for 8–10 minutes.
  • Let cool for two minutes on cookie sheet and then transfer to cooling rack or parchment to cool completely.

Tip: Try keeping as clean a surface as possible on the dough while rolling. White flour will sometimes still show up on the black cookie even after baking.

Step 4: Making the Bottom Biscuit

  • Repeat the previous step with the second chilled ball of dough, though this time, you don’t need to use the stamp, as these will be the bottoms of the sandwiches. Simply roll the dough and cut the circles with the same jam jar as before.
  • Transfer cut biscuits to a cookie sheet lined in parchment, and bake in a 350 degree (F) preheated oven for 8–10 minutes.
  • Let cool for two minutes on cookie sheet and then transfer to cooling rack or parchment to cool completely.

Step 5: Gilding the Design

This step can be skipped if you decide to not stamp the biscuits or if you don’t want to add the gold color to the stamped relief.

  • After the biscuits have cooled completely, prepare the gold luster dust for painting onto the stamped design by adding a very small amount (I used the end of a butter knife to dip out perhaps 1/8 teaspoon from its vial) into a separate dish.
  • Gently add vodka one drop at a time to make a paint (to control the addition of the vodka, I poured some into a shot glass, then dipped a paintbrush into the shot glass to retrieve a drop of liquid at a time to add to the luster dust).
  • Once you have made a paint with the gold luster dust and vodka, you can use the paintbrush to gild the design on the biscuits. You may need to add a few drops of vodka to the luster dust while you work, as the vodka will evaporate quickly.
  • Once you have finished gilding all the biscuits, allow them to dry completely while you complete the following step.

Tip: You can use any clear grain alcohol for this step, but it must be alcohol—not water. The alcohol acts as a carrying medium for the luster dust and will evaporate quickly once you’ve painted the biscuit, ensuring that the biscuits do not become soggy.

Important: The gold you’ve painted onto the biscuits will be somewhat delicate, so in the following steps, handle the painted biscuits carefully so as not to dull or rub the gold off completely.

Step 6: ​Preparing the Filling

  • Dissolve unflavored gelatin in cold water.
  • Heat in a cup until clear (or as clear as you can get it), then let cool.
  • Using a beater attachment (the filling will be too stiff for a whisk), cream together shortening, confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla extract.
  • Add the gelatin, and beat until smooth. (This may take up to ten minutes.)
  • Once filling is smooth, spoon it into a pastry bag (I used a resealable plastic bag that I cut the corner from).
  • Add jam to a separate pastry bag (or resealable plastic bag).

Step 7: Building the Sandwich

  • You will be building the sandwich from the bottom up. With a bottom biscuit (the undecorated ones) in one hand and the pastry bag of filling in your other, apply the filling in a generous ring to the biscuit, leaving the center free of filling.
  • Then, exchange the filling for the jam and fill the center of the ring with the jam. This will be the “bloody” surprise.
  • For each biscuit bottom you do this to, gently press on one of the decorated top biscuits. Set aside and allow to set 30—60 minutes before wrapping.

Step 8: Wrapping the Biscuit Sandwiches

The Victorians often printed obituaries, comforting poems, and biblical verses onto the wrappers of their burial biscuits in order to comfort those taking refreshment in them. While I did not do this to mine, the sky really is the limit on the possibilities this custom affords. Perhaps you could include spooky fortunes or the fictional death dates of your guests brave enough to try these elegant sandwiches. In any case, wrapping the biscuit is relatively straightforward.

  • I created a simple envelope from paper (I recommend butcher’s paper or parchment because regular paper will likely show oil stains after some time from contact with the butter in the biscuits).
  • Secure the lip of your envelope by melting the black sealing wax onto its edge.
  • Then gently impress the wax stamp for approximately five seconds or until the wax is cool.
  • Gently remove the stamp and put the wrapped sandwich aside. Repeat with all the sandwiches.

Tip: The paper envelope needn’t be any fancier than you want it to be. You could even tear the edges to give the presentation a rougher look. In order to make my envelope, I used my cookie stamp in place of a real sandwich to create a template envelope, which I then used as a template to trace and cut the rest of the paper envelopes. This way I didn’t ruin a sandwich in the process.

Step 9: Display and Enjoy!

These burial biscuits are perfect for setting out at gatherings, as they needn’t be refrigerated to stay together. However, if you make these ahead of time, I suggest keeping them in an airtight container in the fridge until you need to set up for the gathering. If you have any leftover, they will keep for 2–3 days this way in the fridge.

Because these burial biscuits were at one time solely provided at funerals, don’t be afraid to give them prominence amid your other snacks. I staged mine with a photograph of the deceased to honor his memory, a memorial cabinet card, and other somber, spooky décor.

Best of luck!


Halloween Food Contest 2016

Participated in the
Halloween Food Contest 2016