Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bountiful Biscuits

Next to cornbread, biscuits are the manna of the South (and perhaps on the cowboy junket--NOTE: photo at left is not my own and from AllRecipes.com). At least in restaurants, they are quite often served with breakfast, lunch and dinner: biscuits and sausage gravy, chicken and biscuits, fried chicken and biscuits. Instead of eating them with butter and honey, as we prefer in our house, most people, in Kentucky at least, tend to slather their biscuits with butter and sorghum molasses.

I don't often make biscuits--and yes, I've baked many from the Pillsbury Dough Boy®--but yesterday decided that I should start. The other day I'd had a conversation with our neighbor, Margaret. She had invited my husband in for their noon dinner one day while I was in New Hampshire. Their noon meal is always the largest of the day and a break from their farm work, especially because of evening milking and other chores. My husband couldn't stop raving about her biscuits and she said she alway used buttermilk.

Then we struck up a conversation with a shopkeeper about biscuits. She makes them from scratch, like her mother did, and always uses shortening and buttermilk, which she also prefers to milk. Her grandmother ran a boarding house and her mother learned by the age of 10 to make biscuits alongside her. Sometimes she'd make up to a 100 a day to serve during the three meals. "Of course, my mama never measured and she always used lard." A former landlord of mine used to make her biscuits out of lard, too, and I found it difficult to work with when I tried her recipe. Although it is so bad for our bodies, there is no better taste in certain kinds of baking.

Whenever I've made biscuits from scratch they always come out a bit more leaden than I might like. I know the secret, as with pie dough, is not to mix or knead the dough too much. But still, there was always room for improvement.

I decided, because there are all of these different brands of flour, cornmeal and other baking ingredients down here (don't you love to travel and check out grocery stores just to see what is different about them from your own?), to pick up some Martha White® Self-Rising Flour with the leavening already in it. The biscuit recipe on the back of the bag is very straightforward and you could substitute any self-rising flour:

Martha White's "Hot Rize" Biscuits

• 2 cups self-rising flour
• 1/4 cup shortening (lard or butter might work well, too...I'll experiment)
• 3/4 cups milk (I used buttermilk)

With a pastry cutter, cut the shortening into the flour. Add milk and stir with fork until a soft dough comes away from the bowl easily, but do not over mix. Put dough on a lightly floured board and knead gently. Roll out to c. 1/2" and cut with a two-inch biscuit cutter and place close together on lightly greased cookie sheet.

Bake in 450 degree oven for about 12 minutes. Makes 13-14 biscuits.

Their website says that to make OLD-FASHIONED BUTTERMILK BISCUITS, just substitute 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk for milk; add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda to flour, if desired. I will try that next time and expect that, even though my biscuits tonight were light and delicious in flavor, they might rise even higher.

I also put a bit of melted butter on each before baking. You could also add a bit of sugar to the mix and make sweetened biscuits for shortcake or cobbler.

Martha White, unlike Betty Crocker, was a real person. Martha White Lindsey was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee in 1896. Her father, Richard Lindsey, Sr. founded Nashville's Royal Flour Mill in 1899 and named his finest flour brand for his then three-year-old daughter. When another family acquired the mill in 1941, they renamed the mill, Martha White®, after their best-selling flour.

Meanwhile, this excellent website, Pinch My Salt, written by a woman stationed at a U.S. Naval base in Sicily (so many great food blogs, so little time), swears by White Lily® Flour for the best biscuits. As they also sell that in our Kentucky markets, I'll try that next. [And her discussion of biscuits is like Biscuits 101, including several recipes and tips I plan on trying in the future, as mine made tonight had room for both more rise and improvement!]

I don't know if you remember a show in the mid-1990s called Ned and Stacey, but it starred Thomas Haden Church and Debra Messing, who later went on to star in Will&Grace. Anyway, Ned was an ad exec and while filming a commercial for Stacey's muffin shop, they staged a madcap dinner party where he started throwing biscuits at her, crying out, "You biscuit-buying b@#$%!!" I've never laughed so hard. That show was only on for two seasons and the "biscuit buying" episode was a particular and memorable favorite. [Sadly, only season 1 is on DVD and this episode aired during season 2.]

Well, at least now my husband can never accuse me of the same! [And as soon as I perfect the biscuit, it's on to cornbread...]


Meredith said...

I am a White Lily lover, myself.

You might enjoy watching Nashville's documentary, The Rise Of The Southern BiscuitThe Rise Of The Southern Biscuit, if you haven't seen it already.

Having eaten at many of the restaurants featured, even I was amazed at the variation even among old-fashioned Southern bakers.

Gen said...

Hello mrs. catherine! i love your blog! i thought i'd post on my blog, my recipe for biscuits. i'm not a measure-and-bake kinda gal, but you may like it!

my biscuits are good, but a bit dense, that's how my southern hubby like them!

greetings to you, from south mississippi!

Ladyfromthewoods said...

Hi, Catherine!
I've never been a bread-lover but Hubby appreciates a good biscuit, so I guess I should learn too! I am determined to make mine with whole-wheat and real butter though so I guess that will be a challenge. If you run across a recipe with those, do forward it to me!

Hope to see you at Cat's next week!


Cat said...

I had left a comment early. I am sure of it! Or...at least I think I did. In my sleep deprived state who knows which button I hit! Well! Let's try that again but a shorter version...

I make biscuits mainly with leftover bacon grease. It works great, does not change the flavor unless you have really salty bacon - that is best stored in a different jar which still can be used for flavoring soups or frying. My grandmother saved her bacon grease in a special tin. I'm not sure if she used it for making biscuits or not. She probably rendered her own lard.

I have a recipe that I found in a diary like cookbook (my favorite kind) but only after trying so many and producing one hockey puck after another. I found one that is simple and easy to remember. It is in my recipe list.

I have a belated housewarming gift for you along with some other things. See you on Thursday and I'm praying for no rain this time!!

xo Cat

gracemercyandpeace said...

I've been told that White Lily and Martha White are made from soft southern wheats, which bakes up lighter. Hard Northern wheats (King Arthur, Gold Medal, et al) are preferred for bread baking.

When I visit my southern family try to stock up on Martha White because it makes the kind of biscuits my mom did! As you know from living in New England, King Arthur is king around here, but not for biscuits.

Sugar season is upon us, and would that I had some Martha White to share a decent batch of biscuits when we boil sap : )

deb meyers