My heart is full of hope tonight – we have just had our first full day of pure sunshine in the last 2, maybe even 3 weeks. I suspect that my emotion during that time was what they call around here, Cabin Fever – whatever, it’s just absolute joy to watch the news and see that the forecast for the next week is 7 days of continued sun.
Yeah, I hear you all saying, “Well, what do you expect, you live in the Northwest!” OK, there may be a grain of truth in that, but believe me, even in the dead of winter, we don’t get 7 days of rain in a row – and the usual winter will even have one, two, maybe even three long periods of delightful weather. But not this year. This year was the worst that anyone can remember ever – and although I don’t qualify as a “native”, I’m ready to believe that! And I’m damn sure ready to get on with summer.
At our house, there are two measures by which the onset of summer is gauged – one being when the down quilt is pulled from the bed, and the second is when I stop wearing my long jogging pants in favor of shorts. Both of those have now happened, so we’re officially declaring it summer. BTW, although the quilt is retired, it’s a rare summer night when we don’t keep blankets on the bed – the night time lows around here are usually somewhere near 50 degrees – quite nice for sleeping, but not so good for tomatoes and peppers. That last fact is my only personal bitch about living in the Northwest in the summer. However, I still wouldn’t want to trade for any other part of the country this time of year.
OK, enough of that – nobody wants to hear how nice it is somewhere else – especially when it’s probably delightful almost everywhere right now. So let me shift gears, and share my latest bread with y’all – a true Southern biscuit.
Today was San’s birthday, and I wasn’t going to do a cake ’cause she’s doing so well on her sensible eating pattern – anyway, my birthday was just a few days ago, and she got me a cheesecake – so, if she’s up for birthday cake, I’ll share the remaining slice of cheesecake. But I did make her some biscuits – something she hasn’t had in awhile – and she loves them – the good Southern biscuits that is.
I want to talk about Southern biscuits a bit – like, what is it that makes a biscuit Southern? I think the answer to that is a series of principles, and if you follow those principles, than your biscuits can be called, Southern style – and they’ll be tender, but soft, but with a crisp crust – and most of all, they’ll be delicious. I’ve spent thirty years immersed in the Southern culture and have learned to love really good Southern biscuits.
Here are the principles that good Southern biscuits must follow:
* They must be made of soft white wheat flour – popular brands which tend to be available only in the South are Martha White, and White Lily – these flours have low protein, and therefore develop less gluten – this makes a softer biscuit. However, if you cannot find either of those flours, you can come real close to them if you mix together half cake flour and half all purpose flour.
* Martha White and White Lily are both self raising flours – again, if you can’t get them, you can just add 1 tsp baking powder, AND, 1/4 tsp baking soda to each cup regular flour you use.
* An acidic liquid is required – something like buttermilk is perfect. A good substitute is a Tbs of lemon juice or vinegar to each cup of warm milk that you use.
* You need either lard, butter, or shortening (my preferences in that order – I render my own lard, and sometimes I mix lard and butter, but shortening is low on my preference list). Whichever you use, put it into the freezer for at least an hour prior to using – this will allow you to incorporate it into the flour without beginning to melt – melted shortening makes for tough biscuits. Please do not use the stuff called lard that sits unrefrigerated on grocery shelves – if lard is good, it must be refrigerated; if it’s not, do not buy it.
* And finally, the less you handle the dough, the softer and fluffier your biscuits will be.
Here’s a little recipe that puts all of the above together – it’s not written in stone, and may need to be adjusted – see my notes at bottom.
- 2 cups White Lily or Martha White self raising flour – or an equivalent, like 1 cup AP and 1 cup cake flour
- 3 oz (6 Tbs.) lard, butter, or shortening – frozen solid
- 1 cup of room temp buttermilk – or reg milk with 1 Tbs. lemon juice added
- If you did not use a self raising flour above, add 2 tsp. baking powder and 1/2 tsp. baking soda to your equivalent flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbs. sugar (Yes, if it’s Southern, it’s sweet – the only exception I know is cornbread – if you doubt me, check with Paula Dean, she knows.)
- Turn oven on to 400 degrees an hour before your biscuits are ready to bake
- Place the flour in a large bowl – add baking powder and baking soda, if needed – add salt and sugar – mix well
- Take frozen lard, butter, or shortening from freezer – chop into 1/2 inch pieces – add to bowl with flour mixture
- Using both hands, massage the pieces of lard into the flour between your fingers and thumbs – the idea is to break up the lard into smaller pieces, but to incorporate it into the flour in the process – when the lard is well distributed into the flour, and no pieces are bigger than small peas, you’re done! This should only take a few minutes.
- Add the buttermilk all at once, and with a fork, mix with the flour until no dry area is evident – dough should be fairly wet – sprinkle some dry flour over the top of the dough in the bowl, and set aside
- Grease a large baking sheet/pan – with a tablespoon or a fork, pull pieces of the dough from the bowl and with floured hands and fingers, gently form the dough into ping-pong ball sized balls – handle as little as possible – place on baking sheet at least 1 inch apart
- Place baking sheet into hot oven in the upper half of the oven – allow to bake for 6 minutes, rotate baking sheet and continue baking for another 6 minutes – check for browning – if not well browned, allow to bake another 3-4 minutes
- Cool on rack for 15 minutes before serving
The above principles and process are key to making good biscuits – but not surprisingly perhaps, your biscuits will get better with practice. Much of that is due to the fact that it’s impossible to give exact measurements in the recipe because the moisture content of a given flour will always be different, and affected by climate and weather as well – so, it’s a matter of “feel”, which can only come with experience. This is why Grandma didn’t bother with a recipe – and there never was a higher compliment than “It’s as good as Grandma’s!”
Learn to cook by principles and process, and recipes become elements for inspiration and creativity, not a crutch.