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Cakes go hard when they are stale. Biscuits go soft when they are stale.

So, what about a ship's biscuit?

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General reference: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship%27s_biscuit (Hard and go soft, so a biscuit; but so hard that they take ages to go soft, if at all). –  Andrew Leach May 17 '13 at 12:21
    
Hardtack/ Sea biscuit aka "dog biscuits", "tooth dullers", "sheet iron", "worm castles" or "molar breakers". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship%27s_biscuit –  Kris May 17 '13 at 12:38
    
@AndrewLeach Sorry, page was not refreshed and I didn't get to see your comment. –  Kris May 17 '13 at 12:39
    
I was under the impression that ship's biscuits were called bread. "There's a south wind in the bread-basket." –  Brian Hooper May 17 '13 at 13:18

3 Answers 3

From an American point of view, none of the terms biscuit, cake, or cookie is an appropriate descriptor for ships biscuit, which is also known as hardtack and by other terms. The image below is from wikipedia's article about hardtack.

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The article says

Hardtack (or hard tack) is a simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt

From that description and from the picture, cracker evidently is the most appropriate term.

Note, the previously-linked biscuit article begins by distinguishing American usage (where biscuits are like small breadrolls except often leavened with soda, not yeast) from British usage (where biscuits are like cookies or possibly like crackers).

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British biscuit is what Americans call cookie; US biscuit is close to what British speakers call scone. Ship's biscuit is about the only modern use of biscuit which preserves its original sense of "twice cooked" (Latin biscoctus French bis cuit—but the French spelling is a late-18th-century affectation; the word had been thoroughly naturalized as bisket, bisquet, bisky &c by the 14th century).

The extreme hardness celebrated in the name jwpat7 offers was a by-effect of a process designed to render the bread as dry as possible, to retard spoilage and reduce weight.

See OED 1.

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What makes an item of food is a biscuit or a cake is something that the UK government contested in court as part of the Jaffa Cake trial. The Tribunal came to the following conclusion:

  • The product’s name was a minor consideration.

  • Ingredients:Cake can be made of widely differing ingredients, but Jaffa cakes were made of an egg, flour, and sugar mixture which was aerated on cooking and was the same as a traditional sponge cake. It was a thin batter rather than the thicker dough expected for a biscuit texture.

  • Cake would be expected to be soft and friable; biscuit would be expected to be crisp and able to be snapped. Jaffa cakes had the texture of sponge cake.

  • Size: Jaffa cakes were in size more like biscuits than cakes.

  • Packaging: Jaffa cakes were sold in packages more similar to biscuits than cakes.

  • Marketing: Jaffa cakes were generally displayed for sale with biscuits rather than cakes. On going stale, a Jaffa cake goes hard like a cake rather than soft like a biscuit. Jaffa cakes are presented as a snack, eaten with the fingers, whereas a cake may be more often expected to be eaten with a fork. They also appeal to children, who could eat one in a few mouthfuls rather like a sweet.

  • The sponge part of a Jaffa cake is a substantial part of the product in terms of bulk and texture when eaten.

Consequently we can conclude that whether an item is a cake or a biscuit is much more complex than merely whether the name contains the word "biscuit" or that "cakes go hard when they are stale. Biscuits go soft when they are stale."

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I think you probably mean the British (UK) Courts - not the government. –  TrevorD May 17 '13 at 15:21
    
@TrevorD: You're right. It was decided by a court, although it was the crown that brought the case because they contested that Jaffa Cakes were a biscuit (and should be standard rated). I'ved edited my answer to make it more clear. –  Matt May 17 '13 at 18:42

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