I may have grown up in Kentucky, but that doesn't mean my childhood lacked for British biscuits—from Jaffa Cakes to Jammie Dodgers, these tasty imports always caught my eye whenever Mom or Dad veered down the international aisle of our supermarket. My absolute favorite was, and still is, McVities.
For the uninitiated, McVities are a type of digestive biscuit, a pseudo-healthy cookie/cracker hybrid made with a portion of whole grains, which makes them a close cousin to the American graham cracker. Though they're sold plain, the arguably more delicious type comes coated in chocolate. While I've long thought the milk chocolate variety tastes like Kit Kats in cookie form, dark chocolate McVities will always be my OTP.
Taking a look at the back of the box, I knew I'd need a mix of white and wheat flour, along with oil, sugar, salt, and some sort of milk, if not the actual skim milk powder that's in the original. In addition, I'd need some leavening agents to mimic the commercial blend of sodium bicarbonate, malic acid, and ammonium bicarbonate used in real McVities. Overall, that simple list makes a relatively straightforward recipe, since the proportions are implied by their order,* but I wanted to make some adjustments for the home kitchen, as well as a vegan version.
Turning a seemingly random list of ingredients into a successful dessert is what culinary students are tested on prior to graduating the CIA; if you can't manage that, you're not ready for the big leagues.
Now, making the dough with a solid, flavorless fat like coconut oil would be accurate to the back-of-the-box recipe, and that's what I've reached for in making comparatively lean/low-sugar cracker doughs, like what I use for homemade Wheat Thins. But coconut oil becomes a bit more troublesome in relatively high-fat/high-sugar doughs, where its sharp melting point, at 76°F (24°C), makes for sticky business. It's a challenge familiar to most vegan bakers, but, since real McVities are made with skim milk powder anyway, there's no shame in choosing butter instead.
Butter is actually fairly low in lactose, and coconut oil is free from it entirely, so I knew that in both recipes, I'd need to add a little something in the flavor department. For my vegan variation, that boost comes from Toasted Sugar, which helps evoke some of the toasted notes that lactose (a milk sugar) can develop through browning. For my non-vegan variation, I knew I could go straight to the source, via fresh or powdered milk.
Since few home cooks have access to malic acid, which reacts with baking soda to produce the carbon dioxide that leavens the original biscuits, my vegan recipe uses cream of tartar instead, with a splash of water to moisten the eggless dough. (This is what real McVities use as well, but it isn't listed on the box because it bakes out in the end.) For the non-vegan recipe, buttermilk provides both acidity and lactose in one fell swoop.
With the ingredients and proportions all hammered out, the dough for either recipe comes together without any fuss. Just put all the dry ingredients in a food processor, add cubed butter or cool coconut oil, and process into a mealy powder. Compared to the classic creaming method, this approach coats the flour in fat, putting a real damper on gluten development to give the biscuits a uniquely sandy texture.
Once the buttermilk or water is added, the dough is processed until it's wet and crumbly, at which point I knead it together by hand. Hypothetically, the whole process can be done by hand, but it will take much longer to work the fat into the flour, which will warm and soften it to a significant degree, resulting in a mess that'll necessitate at least 30 minutes of refrigeration before you mix in any liquids. All told, this recipe comes together much more smoothly in a food processor.
Using as much flour as needed, both above and below, roll the dough until it's just shy of a quarter inch—around 3/16ths of an inch, or 4.75 millimeters, to be precise. In baking, this type of precision is pretty important, so I recommend grabbing a ruler. If they're rolled thinner by mistake, the cookies will bake too fast. Even if you keep a close eye on them in the oven to prevent burning, that thinness will make them too crisp, more like a chip than a cookie. Conversely, rolling the dough thicker makes it difficult for the middles of the cookies to dry and crisp at the same rate as their edges, meaning that the middles will feel damp and smushy, or that the edges will be slightly burnt.
Since a few strategic pokes can help prevent air bubbles and excessive puffiness in many pizza, pastry, and cracker recipes, it's nice to have a docking tool (like this one) that can accomplish this faster and more evenly than a fork But in homemade McVities, it's a strictly cosmetic step. While those freakishly perfect polka dots look super professional, there's no need to hand-poke all the holes if you don't happen to have a docking tool.
After rolling, brush away the excess flour, and cut the dough in 2 3/4–inch rounds; upon shrinking slightly in the oven, the biscuits will reach the exact diameter of the real deal. If you don't have a set of nested cookie cutters, that's probably not a size you happen to have on hand, but you can come pretty close with a large wine glass.
Of course, any size cutter will do, but the greater the deviation, the more you'll have to rely on your own intuition when you're baking. Changing the size will also change the yield, requiring some adjustments to the amount of chocolate you'll need as well. Not a huge deal, but something to keep in mind.
Arrange the cutouts on a parchment-lined half sheet pan, and bake at 350°F (177°C) until they're firm and dry. The vegan version won't brown very much at all, while the buttery one will take on a golden hue. Thanks to the already brownish color of the dough, that subtle change may be difficult to gauge through an oven window, so be sure to open the door to get a better look. It may also help to rotate the pan about halfway through to ensure the biscuits bake evenly.
Let the cookies cool directly on the half sheet pan while you temper the chocolate, using whichever method you prefer from Kenji's helpful guide. Without tempering, the melted chocolate won't quite harden as it should, so the biscuits will have to be kept in the refrigerator. Tempering ensures the chocolate will set into a glossy, crisp layer, giving the biscuits a taste and texture that's just like the real deal.
Dollop a bit of chocolate over a few cookies, about a half tablespoon or quarter ounce each (or maybe a touch more, because chocolate), and spread it into an even layer. As the chocolate begins to harden, bounce the tines of a fork over it to create a wavy pattern.
Alternatively, you can create some simple zigzags with the back of a spoon. Either way, the pattern is less about looks than about roughing up the chocolate to re-create the intriguing surface texture of a real McVitie's biscuit, with lots of nooks and crannies for your tongue to explore.
Since tempering always requires a bit of extra chocolate for wiggle room—some of what you need will always be lost to the bag/bowl/spatula, not to mention in the form of drips and splashes—you'll have a bit left over in the end. Sure, it could be used to shamelessly smother the biscuits, but if you'd like to preserve the cookie-to-chocolate ratio of this classic treat, it's better to save that chocolate for reuse according to this guide.
Even if you have access to the real thing, the ability to coat freshly baked digestive biscuits in your own favorite brand of chocolate (whether traditional or vegan) is reason enough to try making these at home. With or without a cup of tea...