Monday, September 27, 2010

Biscuit Heaven

Is there anything more Southern than buttermilk biscuits? Okay, well maybe grits, but that’s a hard call.

I grew up with biscuits, but Mama makes drop biscuits (think Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay biscuits without the cheese and garlic). They’re good, quick, and easy. But along the way I decided I wanted to learn how to make a more traditional Southern biscuit.

The family story is that Great-Grandma made her legendary biscuits with her hands in a well in the flour bowl without ever measuring a thing. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that, but I’ve been working on my biscuits for several years now, and I’ve learned that it’s as much about technique and feel as the right ingredients.

Uncle Clarence started me out. He used to make biscuits for one of the busiest Hardee’s locations in the country, in Panama City, Florida. From there I’ve accumulated hints and tricks through the years, including a new one over the weekend, and altogether they managed to produce the best biscuits I’ve ever made.

I’ve been promising my biscuit recipe to friends for months now, and I’m finally ready to deliver.

Southern Biscuits

2 cups southern/soft wheat all-purpose flour, plus about 1/3 cup
*I use White Lilly (Sunset Foods sells it in Chicago-land, as does Fresh Market), but Southern Biscuit is also good. Pastry flour should work, and cake flour would be a better option than non-southern all-purpose flours.
*Spoon the flour into the dry measuring cup and level by lightly tapping the back edge of a butter knife along the top once before scraping the excess flour off.
½ tsp salt
2 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
*Rumford is the most common brand. The aluminum in most baking powder adds an off taste.
½ tsp baking soda
*The soda is important as these are buttermilk biscuits.
1 scant tsp sugar
*“Scant” means just less – I level with the curved side of a butter knife for this.
½ cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter (you can go as low as ¼ cup if you must), plus about 1 tbsp
            *Flavor matters, so use good butter for this. Land ‘O Lakes is the best national brand.
¾ to 1 cup buttermilk

Wisk together the dry ingredients, reserving the extra flour.

Add the butter (except the reserve), cutting it in 1/8 inch slices. 

Mix it into the flour with your fingers. The idea is to end up with flattened bits of nickel-sized butter, so you will be tossing the flour and butter together and squishing the butter flat between your fingers.

Put your bowl of flour and butter in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Stir the buttermilk in until there’s no dry flour and the dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl (though messily).

Let the dough sit in a cool place for 30 minutes.

Preheat a large cast-iron skillet (my 10” skillet holds one batch of biscuits) in the oven at 450°. A cast-iron griddle pan would work as well. If you’re using a cookie sheet, preheating can be good, but don’t put it in until just before you start working with the dough.

Prepare your work space. A nice, flat countertop will work, but my countertops are tile, so I like to use my pastry mat. Spray the surface with nonstick spray and wipe it to a thin layer with a paper towel. A thin coating on your hands is helpful. Then sprinkle about 1/3 cup of flour on your surface and spread it out. The idea is to work with the dough without adding any more flour than necessary – drier dough makes a drier biscuit. By the time you cut the biscuits, the dough should just hold its shape. Keep the flour on hand to add just enough to keep the dough from completely sticking, if necessary.

(That said, if you have nothing else, the inside of a paper grocery bag cut in half down the sides and across the bottom and flattened out works well. But as you can’t spray it, your biscuits will usually end up drier.)

Melt the reserved butter in a small dish.

Turn the dough out onto the prepared surface. The dough should be sticky and somewhat wet. Sprinkle some of the flour on top and begin patting the dough and folding it. It’s important not to overwork the dough. Pat it into a rough rectangle a little larger than 8½ by 11. Fold one side over the center, and then the other – like a letter. Turn the dough over (your may need to redistribute the flour on the surface underneath, and repeat the pat out and fold at least two more times and no more than four.

Finally, turn the dough over and pat it to about 1½ inches thick. Cut the biscuits with a sharp biscuit cutter (I like one about 2½ inches in diameter – the larger the biscuit, the less high it will rise), dipping it in flour before each cut and being careful to never twist the cutter (which “seals” the sides of the biscuits, keeping them from rising well). Sit each biscuit to the side as you cut them. Fold your scraps together well and pat to 1½ inches thick and cut as many more biscuits as you can (I usually just get two more at this stage). Fold the final scraps together well and hand shape the final, “ugly” biscuit.

Carefully take your hot pan out of the oven and place your biscuits in/on the pan. In a skillet, the sides will touch, and you will hear a wonderful sizzle as each biscuit settles in the pan. It’s the sizzle of a wonderfully crisp crust beginning to form.

Brush the top of each biscuit with melted butter.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the tops are nicely golden brown.

Carefully lift each biscuit out with a fork and serve hot.

These biscuits don’t actually need butter (but did more butter ever hurt anyone), and they are marvelous straight up. The layers are soft and tender with a wonderful chew, and the crust is a marvel of crispness.

If you want to serve them southern style, you can bury them in sausage gravy, or tuck a nice piece of salty country ham inside (my favorite – especially with a touch of yellow mustard in with the ham) or a piece of good sausage (Jimmy Dean), or even drizzle them with a little honey or real maple syrup. Preserves and jams can be good, but you want those with more real fruit flavor than sugar, and good apple butter is a wonder on them. I enjoyed these with a bit of the Ginger Pear Butter that I call “Spring in a Jar.”

And if you want a distinctly non-Southern after-dinner treat, try a warm biscuit with a touch of Nutella spread inside or a bit of dulce de leche. Biscuits are actually the "shortcake" in strawberry shortcake, as well. I like the regular biscuit - the bit of savory adds depth. But if you like a sweeter shortcake, increase the sugar to 2 or 3 tablespoons, switch to regular (sweet) whole milk or half-and-half (the real thing), leave out the baking soda, and sprinkle sugar on top with the melted butter. (The last time I made strawberry shortcake for a party, I shaped the dough in a 10-inch circle and baked it in my skillet, flipping it when it was well set - about 8 minutes in. It won't rise as high, but I topped it with the slightly smooshed and sugared strawberries and whipped cream and served it on a cake stand, cut into wedges. It worked beautifully.)

It just doesn’t get much better than scratch Southern biscuits.

Monday, September 20, 2010

It’s important to remember…

Ever since the phrase “keeping Southern” occurred to me, I’ve been thinking about what it means. There are all sorts of things keeping Southern involves (many of them pertaining to food – and yes, posts on biscuits and cornbread and grits are coming), but if it’s just about doing stuff, what’s the point?

There’s an obvious analogy to “keeping kosher” here, not just in the parallel construction of the words, but in there being a purpose beyond the stuff you do that makes it meaningful to be doing it. For me, part of that purpose is remembering.

The beauty of Southern food isn’t really in its originality or nuevo-ness. The beauty of southern food is in its familiarity, its ability to invoke memory. After all, scent and taste are two of the most potent memory triggers we humans enjoy. Nuevo Southern cuisine only works when the creativity is undergirded by and infused with familiarity.

Remembering is a tricky thing, though. As both Jews and Southerners can attest, sometimes it means eating bitter herbs. There’s a song I love by Kate Campbell. It’s about the tensions and ambivalence in being Southern:

I was taught by elders wiser
Love your neighbor, love your God
Never saw a cross on fire
Never saw an angry mob
I saw sweet magnolia blossoms
I chased lightening bugs at night
Never dreaming others saw our way of life
In black and white

The chorus concludes: “It’s important to remember – to fly the flag half-mast – and look away.”

The “look away” is ambiguous. It’s what we do with things we don’t want to see or acknowledge. But Campbell is echoing “Dixie,” and in that it’s a looking toward with longing. For me, her song embodies looking to the hard, ugly things without letting go of the beautiful ones. Not letting either one blind us to the other.

I spent Labor Day weekend back in Chattanooga where I grew up, and I was reminded of why I so love that city (truly one of the great cities of the world). It’s a city that has renewed itself by listening to its people – who came up with the crazy idea of a world-class aquarium by remembering the river that started it all. More recently, the city has taken another step in developing the riverfront with The Passage, the largest public installation of Cherokee art in the country.  The Passage remembers the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, marking its beginning at Ross’s Landing in the heart of the city. It was designed by a team of Native American Artists from Oklahoma (where the Trail ended), and its dedication – called “Homecoming” – was attended by Western and Eastern band Cherokee Nation chiefs and representatives. It embraces a past of both beauty and pain, and in doing so, begins to redeem it for a different future.

That gets to the heart of what I mean by keeping Southern. Walking out remembering, not to relive or revive the past, but to redeem it.

A couple of days after I was in Chattanooga visiting The Passage, I was back in Chicago listening to a Native American talk about the immigration debate – “a lot of immigrants trying to decide what to do with more immigrants.” Mark Charles is Navajo who believes that if Native Americans voices and perspectives are not included in the American immigration reform discussion, whatever solutions may be put forward cannot be either “comprehensive” or “just.” It’s not a position about what should be done with immigrants, or reparations, or even being right. It’s a position about respect, and, perhaps most of all, remembering.

Mark has an analogy about how it feels to be a Native American living on a reservation:

[It] feels like I am an old grandmother who owns a very large house. It is a beautiful house with plenty of rooms and comfortable furniture. I am upstairs in my bedroom tired, weak and sick. Meanwhile there is a party going on in my house. It is a large party with plenty of food and drink, games and laughter. People are all throughout the house having a great time. Yet no one ever comes up to my room. No one comes in to say hello and no one stops to acknowledge that the house belongs to me. It is not even that I am sad that I cannot join in on the festivities, or that I would be unwelcome to come out of my room. It is that, no one comes to me. And at times I wonder if they even remember whose house they are in.

There is much to remember – and much that is not pretty. We must not turn away. But if we have the courage to remember, there is beauty to redeem, as well. The Cherokee Four Journey Directions. Magnolia blossoms. Lightening bugs at night.