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.

1 comment:

  1. looks delish - I miss your brunch parties :-)