Afghans – an old fashioned favourite

No self respecting Afghan biscuit would be seen without its walnut hat secured into  buttery chocolate icing. I just couldn’t leave the topic of walnuts topic without mentioning one of my favourite biscuits the Afghan. 

Why it was called an Afghan I haven’t really questioned, until now. The exotic title and walnut top made them a memorable treat for us. As children how we loved opening Mum’s baking tin to discover Afghans. 

Imagine my delight when my sister-in-law Penny offered me an Afghan from the very tin that Mum used to house her Afghans.   Within the day the family had swooped in on the tin and Penny’s Afghans seemed to disappear overnight.  It was also a coincidence because I had in the previous week made my own batch of Afghans. 
For me a good Afghan must have crunch and when you look at the ingredients and the proportions of butter to flour with no eggs it’s easy to recognise that an Afghan is really a chocolate shortbread. And Penny’s Afghans certainly passed my crunch and general deliciousness test.   

I like to make my afghans the size that we had as children and
this means that each bite contains a taste of walnut.

Afghan Biscuits

200g (7oz) butter
75g (3 oz) sugar
175g (6oz) flour
25g (1oz) cocoa
50g (2oz) cornflakes
The trick to a perfect cream is to soften but not melt the butter.  If you have patience put the
mixing bowl into another bowl that has hot water or place in a warm place. Otherwise microwave for no
more tha20-30 seconds (depending on the strength of your microwave).
Just like making shortbread it’s important to really cream the butter and sugar to help create lightness in the biscuit. If you want to achieve the cream faster you could use caster sugar instead of standard white sugar – it dissolves faster.

Instead of regular cocoa I used the rich dark Dutch cocoa.
This makes the Afghans a little darker and richer.  I should have reduced the butter
a little to take into account the cocoa fats present in the Dutch cocoa.

Sift together the flour, cocoa and a pinch of salt and mix into the creamed mixture. A little salt helps to heighten flavour in baking but it’s optional.  

Add the cornflakes. 

Make spoonful lots and fashion into a ball shape onto a tray covered with baking paper.

Now do you flatten or not flatten your Afghan?  If you don’t flatten your Afghan it’s less likely to be crispy and have a flat platform for the icing and walnut.  As we don’t like a soft textured Afghan Penny and I opt to flatten out our Afghans.

You can gently flatten with the back of a spoon.


In the Edmonds Cookbook the recipe says to  bake at 180 C (350 F) for 15 minutes.  As my oven is very hot I cooked mine more like shortbread at 150 C for a little longer – you can smell them once they are cooked and they took around 20 minutes.

You can see the cooked biscuits only flatten a little more than
what what was  placed on the tray before cooking.

After carefully cracking walnuts to extract walnut halves (Rex variety from Canterbury) it was time for making the icing.

The addition of butter to icing sugar adds richness and a softness to
the finished icing.

Melt 1-2 Tbsp of butter  and sieve together 1 Tbsp of cocoa and 1 cup of icing sugar to get rid of lumps in the icing sugar and cocoa. It depends on how much butter you add as to how much milk or water you add to the icing sugar.

Icing is best mixed together with a kitchen knife.

You want the icing to be soft enough to easily spread.  Dipping the spreading knife in hot water also assists in getting the icing spread easily.  

No worries if you don’t manage to shell perfect halves,
you can always place pieces of walnut together like a puzzle.


Once iced, place a walnut half in the centre. and treat yourself to the biscuit first created in New Zealand. 

I now want to know why this biscuit was named Afghan.  After some research I find there are a few theories as to the origin of the name. I think I support the theory that the Afghan biscuit was created in New Zealand after 1920 after the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919.  New Zealand troops were not involved in this short war that resulted in Afghanistan cutting ties with England. The news of this war would have caused a stir in New Zealand after our heavy involvement and losses in World War One.  The walnut on top of the swirl of icing could represent the Afghanistan male traditional head dress of a scarf wrapped into a turban.   

The Afghan did not appear in the Edmonds Sure to Rise Recipe book until after the 1920’s and neither were cornflakes introduced to New Zealand before 1920. 

In searching out when Cornflakes were first introduced to New Zealand I unearthed an intriguing story of how Cornflakes came about.  
This is a box dating back to the 1960’s when
the cereal companies gave away toys in each packet.
Back in 1893 Dr John Kellog of Michigan, USA,  who promoted a vegetarian diet introduced grains to replace meat at breakfast. His brother Will who was the accountant in their partnership left the wheat grain soaking too long so they decided to put the grain through rollers and then baked the flakes to create crunchy flakes. Will believed the product wouldn’t take off with the public without the enticement of sugar. They couldn’t agree so Will Kellog left and started the company now known as Kellogs, decided to use corn instead of wheat and producing the sweetened Cornflakes we have today.    
The quality of the finished Afghan depends on the quality of the walnut. Penny used the large walnuts gathered from the home farm in Southland. 
This was me at around 10 years of age giving my brother Jamie a piggyback ride, with Kerry and Don lining up.
And this would be when the Walnut tree was first planted at our place.
I remember the walnut tree being planted in the middle of the lawn in the mid 1960s. It was thrashed for years by my brother’s playing sport and being rough with the lawn mower so Mum moved it.  There were no walnuts during the years I lived at home and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the large walnuts were harvested.

The same walnut tree taken a few days ago – you can
guage the size by the cabbage tree beside it.

If you are growing a walnut tree in your home garden or commercially like Valda and Otto Muller from Bannockburn in Central Otago, you have to be patient. When I talked with Valda a couple of years ago I asked her how long it took to produce the walnuts she was selling and she said 20 plus years. I guess it depends on the variety and location as to the harvest timeframe. If you are interested in planting a walnut then the Treecrops Assn Walnut Growing Guide is a good first step. 

Visit the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin around autumn and you may meet Valda selling walnuts and her other walnut products. I would advise grabbing some of her Vina or Franquette walnuts.  

I particularly liked the creamy flavour of the Vina walnuts, and I think they’re the nicest walnuts I have tasted.  Added bonus is that their shells have a tight seal so are good keepers.

The other variety they and other Central Otago growers grow is the Franquette walnut. This is a very old variety grown in France since the 18th Century. They can endure colder growing conditions and are reputed to have an element of butterscotch and sweetness that is unique. 

Otto and Valda Muller with their walnut products; Photograph Sarah Marquet
from Otago Daily Times article 
Otto just nuts about inventing

Otto and Valda chose to grow walnuts because in the shell they can keep for longer than other nuts, and once established can take the cold of Central Otago.  They were also their first choice because of walnut’s wonderful health properties. Otto at 90 is still farming walnuts as well as inventing labour saving harvesting machines. Otto is the perfect advertisement for the health properties of the walnut.

The 50g of Cornflakes used in the Afghan recipe contains about 1 1/2 teaspoon of
hidden sugar.  In comparison 50g Weetbix would only have 2/3rd tsp of sugar but 50g of Coco Pops
would have 5 tsp sugar.
The good thing about home baking is that you know exactly how much fat and sugar you using to create a sweet treat like Afghans.   They are a truly kiwi biscuit with a puzzling name that takes time to make and as both Penny and I discovered no time at all to disappear from the baking tin.

The Good Oil on Southern Walnuts

 As I step off the plane and take in that first deep breath of chilled, clear, Southern air, I rejoice to be back in Dunedin.  Just down the road, beyond the airport, an enterprising pair have set up a roadside stall selling walnuts. Walnuts, like people from the South, are hardy and thrive in a cooler climate.

Walnuts are close to my heart because they connect me to the South and are a reminder of when my Mum lived in Central Otago with a massive walnut tree on her property.   

Looking rather strange and wrinkly, walnuts are the second most popular nut in the world.  Nuts in general are good for us, but walnuts excel in the health stakes.  They are great for your brain (they look a bit like a human brain).  They help ensure a good night’s sleep and keep your heart healthy.  

Back home in Auckland with my roadside walnuts and a bag of sweet pears from my sister’s orchard, my first thought is to make one of my favourite salads.   

Pear and Walnut Salad

First, roast shelled walnuts  (as many as you like but at least 1/2 a cup) in the oven with a little oil and 1/2 to 1 tsp of ground cumin.  This should take as little as 8 minutes in a moderate oven.

Keep a watchful eye on the walnuts as they easily burn.  Roasting improves their flavour and adds crunchiness to the salad.  

While the nuts are roasting, slice up the pears.  It depends on the pear whether or not you decide to keep the skin on.  Not peeling is the healthiest option.  

This is just one large pear I sliced and if you have a pear that is perhaps a little hard and not soft and juicy like this one, then a good trick is to also roast the pear slices.  Cooking them softens and makes them sweeter.

To avoid the pear browning with exposure to air, I slice them into a bowl and squeeze half a lemon over the fruit.  If roasting your pears, also add a little oil.

The third important ingredient is cheese.  I use blue cheese but I had half a block of feta that needed using and I discovered the sharpness of the feta goes particularly well with the sweet pear and the earthy walnuts.

The pears, walnut and cheese are laid out on a bed of green salad.  I am lucky enough to still have lettuce and some rocket growing but this salad would also work with a base of young spinach.   

Final touch is a drizzle of my favourite oil which is usually avocado oil infused with lime, but any good oil would do.  Walnut oil would be the ideal.   

Since discovering the power of walnuts, I decided to buy a small bottle of walnut oil. The only walnut oil I could readily find came from France.  In Canterbury where walnuts grow very well a company called A Cracker of a Nut has set up a factory making walnut products including walnut oil from nuts they purchase close to home and from all over New Zealand. I will let Professor Geoffrey Savage from Lincoln University convince you on the Health Benefits of Walnuts

The colour of butter – Walnut oil from A Cracker of a Nut

I am keen to track down a local source of The Golden Oil so named because of its wonderful colour. It’s an expensive oil so I would only ever use it for salads, as a dipping oil or to brush over food as a finishing oil.

In our house we have also begun to use the oil for its other external uses.  Walnut oil helps relieve psoriasis, gets rid of wrinkles, massaged into the scalp will relieve flaky scalp and can get rid of fungal infections like athlete’s foot.

The walnut tree in Clyde; Mum on the bike shows the scale.

At my mother’s property in Clyde, Central Otago,  there was a massive walnut tree. It was a constant job collecting and drying walnuts when they turned brown in March or April and dropped from the tree.  For those of you lucky enough to have walnuts growing in your garden there is some good advice on Harvesting Walnuts.

So when the Stonehouse company approached her in the early 80’s to purchase half of the tree’s production while they were still green to produce pickled walnuts, she jumped at the opportunity.  I am sure that tree is still being harvested by Stonehouse pickled walnuts today.

I haven’t tried the Stonehouse walnuts that can be found in most deli food stores around New Zealand because I have been gifted pickled walnuts from two adventurous preserving friends at different times. I still had a large Agee jar of pickled walnuts in our Dunedin pantry when we made the shift north.

The process of preserving walnuts is long and complicated,  so I just couldn’t leave Ken’s jar of walnuts behind. The pickled walnuts migrated north with us.  I opened the jar the other day to try what the English (who first began pickling walnuts) state as a winning combination – Stilton  cheese and pickled walnuts.   

And they are right.  You need the sharp cheese to counter the pickle – together they are a delicious mouthful.  You don’t necessarily need to use Stilton – any strong flavoured blue cheese would do.
Having run out of capers, I suggested to Peter to replace capers for pickled walnuts for his oven baked lamb chops with garlic, thyme and rosemary.   The pickled walnuts worked really well with the flavour of meat so that forgotten jar of pickled walnuts is now having its time out in the sun in our kitchen

It’s not just in savory that walnuts enhance.   I used some of my freshly cracked walnuts for an Oat Pancake breakfast.  First I roasted the nuts in a small skillet on the stove top, and while still hot added a tablespoon of honey.  The honey sizzled and coated the walnuts in a devine sweetness.

The oat pancake recipe you can find on my posting “The Secret to Light and Fluffy Oat Pancakes” October 2013.  I complemented the pancakes with Augustines of Central preserved Vulcan apricots, bacon, yoghurt and the honeyed walnuts.

A perfect start to a lazy Sunday.

It does take time to crack your own walnuts but walnuts keep for longer in their shells.  Once shelled I always keep the jar in the fridge to prolong their lives.  A rancid nut is not good for you and tastes terrible.

My Mum would spend winter nights in front of the fire and television cracking walnuts with this well worn nut cracker.  She wrapped the handles in soft material and covered with parcel tape to make the cracking easier on her hands.  It’s 

now one of my most treasured kitchen gadgets. Every time I use it I think of her ‘good life’ years in Clyde when she tirelessly harvested and cracked walnuts to gift to family and friends. She was not only giving us something delicious but a gift of natural medicine. 

Granny Browne’s Pumpkin Scones

During this pumpkin time of year I like to make Granny Browne’s Pumpkin Scones.  Those lucky enough to be offered one of these scones will wonder at the unusual colour and light texture, and never guess that they contain a vegetable.

This recipe comes out of  “The Cooks Garden” – a kiwi book for cooks who garden and gardeners who cook.  It was written by three southern gardening and cooking sisters Helen Leach, Mary Browne and Nancy Tichborne “The Cook’s Garden” was a popular cookbook in the 1980’s, when I was a young mum … and along with the Moosewood cookbook, it was one of the most used books in the kitchen. All the women in my family had a copy, not only for the recipes but for the gardening and harvesting information.

Three talented sisters: left Helen, centre Nancy, and right Mary.
Their subsequent books “The Cook’s Herb Garden Revisited” and
“The Cook’s Salad Garden Revisited”  are available from Craig Potton Publishing

I have tried many recipes from the book, and all are good family food.  The layout of one vegetable or fruit per chapter gives a variety of  ideas for vegetables in season or in plenty.  They generously share family recipes, like the pumpkin scones from Granny Browne.  It’s out of print now but keep an eye out for it in second hand book shops or perhaps you’ll find it on the shelves at your local library.

Granny Browne’s Pumpkin Scones

2 Tbsp Butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup of cold pumpkin puree
3 cups flour (I use 2 cup of white flour and 1 cup wholemeal)
3 tsp cream of tartar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 – 1/2 cup milk

Start by preparing the pumpkin puree.  Cut up enough pumpkin that will make a cup of puree, cover with water and boil until soft.  Drain and cool and mash with a fork or potato masher.  (I usually make double and freeze the other half for a future batch of scones.

Soften the butter and cream the butter and sugar until pale and the sugar has dissolved either by hand or mixer.  Then add egg and beat again.

Add the pureed pumpkin and beat again.

Sift the dry ingredients and fold into the creamed mix.  Add enough milk to make a soft dough…
it will be softer than usual scone doughs.  Avoid over working your mix to ensure your scones will be light.

Tip out onto floured surface, sprinkle flour on top to avoid sticking to rolling pin and hands.  Gently shape and roll out to about 3-4 cm.

Cut into whatever size scones you want.  You could make the dough into a circle and cut them into wedges. I cut mine into 16 pieces and cooked them on baking paper sprinkled with flour at 180-200C  for 10-15 minutes (it all depends on your oven – 180 for fan bake).  If you can smell them they are probably ready.

I haven’t ever been that successful growing pumpkins in my garden in Dunedin.  I guess I haven’t given  them the space or ideal growing conditions they crave. There’s no shortage of space up here in Auckland at our Sanctuary Community Garden.  I’ve watched with delight as small pumpkin seedlings planted out in October grew quickly in the warm and rich organic, volcanic, Mt Albert soils.

3 Year old Beau indicates how big the pumpkin foliage has grown
in three months after planting out as seedlings the size of my palm.

 At the gardens we have harvested our pumpkins. How satisfying it is to use a pumpkin that you have watched grow from a seed.

Fellow gardener Liz treats her pumpkins very well.  They sleep on carpet.
The carpet avoids weed competition, keeps the soil moist underneath and the pumpkins dry.

Even better, we managed to produce the winner in the Auckland Community Gardens pumpkin growing competition. I loosely use “we” – the win was really down to the effort and diligence of one of our gardeners, Trevor.

Trevor Crosby proudly holding the winning pumpkin

 The pumpkin is an Italian heritage variety called Marina di Chioggia (sea pumpkin) and originates from the seaside village of Chioggia near Venice on the Adriatic coast of Italy.  How appropriate we grow them here in Auckland, the City of Sails.   

It’s not the most attractive pumpkin I’ve seen with its lumpy wart-like skin but Trevor assures me that this variety will be delicious eating.  The opportunity for me to preview this sea pumpkin came when Trevor found one that wouldn’t store for long – it began to soften at the top.  Usually these pumpkins if stored under the right cool and dry conditions can keep for six months.

Well, it’s not the best pumpkin for roasting (a little too dry) but it’s good for soup and as you can read on the blog Boldos Thoughts on Food  it’s excellent for pumpkin gnocchi. Likewise a dryer puree and its dense gold colour works well in the pumpkin scones.

If pumpkin is used in a sweet recipe it usually is laced with spices.  I had an idea – it’s time to experiment with Granny’s recipe.  The warming spices used in an American pumpkin pie or pumpkin bread could have been added to the scone mix but I wanted a greater hit of spice in each bite so I decided on spiced pinwheel scones.   For the spices I searched for a combination of spices used in pumpkin pie.

Use spices that are as fresh as possible… and it pays to grind as many as you can from the seed, to get the greatest punch.  I grated the nutmeg, whole cardamon and coriander.  Another deviation…I added a pinch of white pepper for a little heat and to remind me of my favourite Dutch biscuits Speculaas.

Pumpkin Pie Spice Mix

1 Tbsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice (my allspice was a little old so I replaced this with fresh mixed spice)
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4-1/2 tsp freshly ground cardamon (I started with whole cardamons in pods and ground the hard seeds with a mortar and pestle)
And a large pinch of ground white pepper.

Spiced Pumpkin Pinwheel Scones

Use the scone mix as above and try to achieve a firmer dough by reducing the amount of milk to enable you to more easily roll the scone mix.   My first attempt was too soft and it was really difficult to role and produce the pinwheels.  Their great taste encouraged me to try again with a slightly firmer mix.   The plain scones you should keep a softer mix as a wetter mix helps to keep them moist and light.

To 1/2 cup of brown sugar, some chopped walnuts (optional),  a pinch of salt and 1 Tbsp of the spice mix.

“Walnuts work particularly well with other ‘brown’ flavours such as cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, honey and pears”.   The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

Melt 50 gms of butter and brush generously over dough that has been rolled out to about 2 cm thick and follow up with the spice mix.  You can brush butter to the edge but leave at least a cm around the edge free of the spice mix.

Pat down gently to stick the spice to the dough and then gently roll the long side.

When you get to the end of the rolling, roll over and gently press down to seal the base.

I did separate out enough dough to make 3 plain scones for
3 year old Beau who wouldn’t like the spice hit.

Cut into 3 cm slices and place on a cold tray covered with baking paper. 

Cook 180 for 10-15 minutes.
I had just started writing my blog when I met Helen Leach of “The Cook’s Garden”.  Helen is an anthropologist focusing on the social history of food preparation and recipes.  I asked her about recipe copyright issues I might encounter writing a blog.  She said the wonderful thing about recipes is that no one truly owns them because they have been handed down from generation to generation and are constantly evolving.

Helen believes it’s important to have someone in the family to look after family recipes and it’s important to note who made modifications to recipes.

Find a relative who will take the best care of it. The moment the recipes leave the family, much of their value is lost. Unless you can provide the context, they remain a mystery from then on.” Helen Leach

It’s thanks to Helen and her sisters that I discovered Granny’s Browne’s Pumpkin Scones and I in turn have offered you another option with my experimental Spiced Pumpkin Pinwheel Scones.

One of the most exciting things about recipes is that they are constantly evolving.