Monday, March 6, 2017

When It's Biscuit Makin' Time Down South by Gail Roughton

Actually, it's always biscuit makin' time down South, where making biscuits has evolved over the years into an art form. It's one of the things we're famous for, one of the things every good cook prides herself on. Mind you, I doubt sincerely any resident of any other region of the United States ever turns down a homemade biscuit at any time, either, but down South, biscuits are taken very seriously. For our present purposes, let's clarify that the word biscuit herein refers to the term as used within the borders of the continental United States and, I believe, English-speaking Canada where it means a small, round quick bread with a crusty exterior and a soft, flaky interior, about the size of a roll (see illustration below) and not as the word is used in England and Australia, where it refers to a hard cookie. 

There's nothing better than a homemade biscuit slathered with butter. Different folks have their own preferences as to what else goes on their biscuits--jellies, jams, honey, gravy. Likewise, there's no rule as to what can go in a biscuit--cheese, ham, bacon, sausage, roast beef. There's no wrong way to eat a biscuit. There's no wrong time to eat a biscuit.  There are, however, several ways to make them. 

First, there’s the mix and pinch method.  My mother and several of my aunts employed this method, as did a few other great cooks I know, including the cook at the Courthouse Cafe, which real-life cafe served as the inspiration for The Scales of Justice Cafe in my novel Country Justice

Dump a pile of flour in a bowl. How much doesn’t matter.   Punch a hole in the middle of the pile of flour, a bowl within a bowl, as it were.  If it’s self-rising flour, that’s all you need, if it’s not, you need to add baking soda, salt, and if you like high-rising biscuits, some baking powder to the hole you’ve punched in the middle.  How much?  Heck, I don’t know.  A pinch, a dash, a splash.  Dip out, either by spoon, fork, or fingers, a dollop of shortening.  Like the flour, how much shortening doesn’t really matter, because if you’ve done it enough, you know how many biscuits any size dollop’s going to make.  And besides, you adjust the amount of shortening you’ve plopped in with the addition of buttermilk (buttermilk's preferable as a general rule though milk will do).  You pour in buttermilk, stick your hands in the bowl and start forming a goo by working your fingers in and out of the shortening and buttermilk.  Then you start working flour in from the sides.  This method is truly an art form, because you’re working by feel.  You keep adding buttermilk and working in flour until it “feels” right. 

What does that feel like?  Well, I can’t really tell you, though I can and have made biscuits by this method.  And I know it when I feel it.  You’re working for a proper consistency of dough that isn’t stiff, is still soft, and still feels – well – doughy.  When that consistency is reached, you knead the dough a few times, right there in the center of the bowl.  You know, grabbing each side of the dough ball, pulling it out, folding it back over, flipping the dough, and doing it again from the other side.  But you can’t work it too long or too hard or that’s what you get.  Hard biscuits.  The true connoisseur of this method (and I am not one), completes the process without ever turning the ball of dough out on a counter to knead and roll. 

They merely “pinch” off pieces of dough, shape them into little balls in their palms, slap them down on a greased baking sheet an even distance apart.  When the entire ball has been pinched and shaped and plopped down on the greased baking sheet (and here’s where the even distance apart comes into play), the cook employing this method of biscuit making slaps her hand down on the ball, flattening it into a round circle.  Some cooks prefer using the backs of their fingers.  Once you’ve survived all this, you pop the baking sheet into the middle rack of an oven pre-heated  to 500 degrees for ten minutes. Please note: ten minutes means ten minutes. Do not play around about it. This time and temperature is subject to adjustment as everyone's oven is slightly different.  And for Heaven’s sake, USE A SHINY BAKING SHEET!  A dark one burns the bottoms of the biscuits!

Now.  Here comes the fun part.  That ain’t the only method in town, ladies and gents.  This  second method is generally preferred by those cooks who prefer a “prettier” biscuit.  My mother-in-law used this method and nobody I've ever known or ever will know made better biscuits. It’s basically the first method up until you get to the kneading the dough in the bowl part.  Then it switches over to the “roll and cut” method.  The roll and cut method requires more equipment than the mix and pinch method since it necessitates the use of a rolling pin and biscuit cutters. (See author's personal biscuit making equipment on right. The wooden bowl, by way of further explanation, is handmade, complete with my initials carved into the bottom and was a Christmas gift purchased at a local craft fair many, many years ago. My daughter's already called dibs on same at the time of my demise.)

Cooks who prefer this method (I used to be one till I learned better but more about that later) have a mat of some type, either a wooden block, a plastic dough mat, even a floured kitchen cloth, waiting on the side.  They take the ball of dough as soon as it’s sufficiently formed and dump it onto the waiting – whatever it is they’re using.  Then they knead the dough a few times, sometimes adding a few judicial sprinkles of flour to maintain the proper consistency, and then roll it out on their mat of choice, about half an inch thick or maybe a tad thicker.  You don’t want it any thinner, you’ll have flat biscuits.  And you might as well have used the pinch method which in the hands of an amateur produce some pretty flat biscuits.  Then you cut with a biscuit cutter. I prefer a medium size cutter with a ruffled edge. 

You cut until you can’t cut anymore, mash the dough back into a ball, and start over, repeating the process until all the dough’s gone and you don’t know what the heck to do with the little bit that’s left so you either throw it away or shape it the best you can so it can be the ugly duckling on your baking tray.  The same actual baking methods still apply, 500 degrees for ten minutes on a shiny baking pan, mark and move!

All this sounds real messy, huh?  Well, it is.  And after you’ve done all that, you have to sift the flour that remains in the bowl before you put it back in your flour canister, elsewise, your flour canister will be full of hard little points of shortening that somehow escaped your notice at the time you thought the flour was okay to put back in the canister without sifting but wasn’t.

So why does anybody bother, you ask?  For a long time, I didn’t.  Pillsbury and Betty Crocker and five dozen other companies had come out with frozen biscuits (as opposed to canned biscuits) and you know what?  Those are dang good.  They’re not quite the same as a truly good homemade from scratch biscuit, there's a subtle difference in texture and the way the butter melts into their hot interiors, but for working mothers on the run chasing after teenagers throughout all their extracurricular activities, they're good enough.

Then one day four or five years back, I had a roast slow-roasting in the oven.  And no frozen biscuits in the freezer.  Well, heck.  It’d been years – literally – since I’d made biscuits from scratch, and though I surely wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of so doing, I pulled out the dang flour.  And actually read the recipe on the back.  Two cups of flour, it said.  Quarter cup of shortening.  Two-thirds to three-quarters cup buttermilk or milk.  Cut shortening into flour, add milk, mix and turn onto floured cloth, roll and cut.  Makes a dozen biscuits.

Like heck, I thought.  That ain’t no dozen biscuits.  So I doubled it and actually followed directions, which is something I'm not noted for doing, either in cooking or living life in general.  I’d never seen biscuits made that way, by actually measuring, and considered same to be total heresy because no southern cook ever, ever measured her biscuit making ingredients. But somebody must have done it for there to be a recipe on the flour bag, right?  And you know what?  Those proportions pulled in every bit of the flour from the sides of the bowl.  No excess to have to sift and return to the canister.  And measuring the shortening out with a spoon and cutting it into the flour with a fork kept my hands out of the mess.  Now, it did take just a tad more buttermilk to achieve the texture I remembered, but that wasn’t a problem, and the buttermilk mixed into everything just fine using nothing more than a fork.

I turned the ball of dough out onto my floured board and sprinkled more flour over it.  I kneaded it over a few times and it felt perfect, exactly the “feel” my fingers remembered.  I rolled and cut.  And there’s no way that original recipe would have made a dozen biscuits, not thick ones, anyway.  The doubled recipe only makes fourteen.  But it made fourteen perfect biscuits. 

And so I share with y'all the perfect recipe for the perfect homemade biscuit.  I'm pretty sure it's the recipe in use at the Scales of Justice Cafe in Country Justice and the folks in town really eat those biscuits up! Y'all drop in and see what you think, you hear?

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