Friday, October 7, 2011

Praise the Lord and Pass the Biscuits!

A few blogs back, I introduced y’all to the Courthouse Café, the real inspiration for the Scales of Justice Café, a little country jewel of a dining experience that plays a major role in my crime thriller Down Home, coming September 2012. That blog called forth some discussion among the Muse authors as to the exact definition of biscuits. And how you make ‘em. I loved that, because it highlighted the global nature of this wonderous family we call Musers.

In Europe and Australia, biscuits are hard sweet cookies (they are hard, aren’t they, guys?) frequently served with tea. In the United States, biscuits are a quick-to-make bread eaten with meals. And with apologies, I never did catch what biscuits are in Canada, which logically could go either way. And with apologies, I never did make good on my promise to explain how they were made, either. Probably because I got scared just thinking about it.

Lin Holmes’ comment posted for that blog answered the question of what exactly are these non-cookie biscuits and how do you make them posed by our family members of non-American persuasion better than I could have done. If I may be so bold as to quote my dear friend: “They are little bready things slathered in butter or dipped in gravy to accompany meals. The Pillsbury Doughboy advertises the ready to make kind you can buy in tins from your grocery store, but Gail is talking about the kind that's made from scratch. Ingredients measured sometimes by actual measuring devices, but more often than not by geniuses who know how many pinches and dashes are needed.”

Now that description is – genius. There are as many ways to make biscuits as there are great cooks who make them. Particularly in Flowers on the Fence Country. And that last line of Lin’s comment, “Ingredients measured sometimes by actual measuring devices, but more often than not by geniuses who know how many pinches and dashes are needed” – well, as we say down here, descriptions just don’t get any better than that. That’s it. Exactly.

First, there’s the mix and pinch method. My mother employed this method, I have aunts who employed this method, and Judy, our wondrous cook at the Courthouse Café, employed this method. 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 (we prefer buttermilk as a general rule down in Flowers on the Fence country but 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. I was going to say that some cooks use the palms of their hands, but on reflection, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody who made biscuits using this method use anything but the backs of their hands to flatten the dough. In any event, once you’ve survived all this, you pop the baking sheet into an oven pre-heated to 450 degrees for nine minutes (depending on the oven), turn on the broiler and move the pan to the top rack for an additional one and one-half minutes (depending on the oven) and remove at the exact moment your timer dings. (These directions apply to my oven, can you tell? And I’m serious, here. Nine minutes at 450 degrees, one and one-half minutes under the broiler, and then get them the heck out of there!) 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 recipe in town, ladies and gents. This second method is generally preferred by those cooks who prefer a “prettier” biscuit. 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. 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 produced some pretty damn flat biscuits. Then you cut with a biscuit cutter – and biscuit cutters are real fancy now, usually in sets of three different sizes with a smooth cutting edge on one end and a ruffled cutting edge on the other. I prefer the medium size cutter, cutting with the 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. 450 for nine minutes, broiler for a minute and a half, shiny baking pan, mark and move!

Now, 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. Dang good. But they’re just not – quite – the same as a truly good homemade from scratch biscuit. There’s a subtle difference in texture, a difference in the way the butter melts into their hot interiors. And one day, 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 I surely wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of so doing. But it was a roast! Without biscuits!

So I pulled out the dang flour. And noticed 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 followed directions. I’d never seen biscuits made that way, by actually measuring, but somebody must have done it, right? And you know what? That 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 makes fourteen perfect biscuits. That remembered texture, the texture that just absorbs the melting butter – heaven on one’s tongue.

I had to experiment a few times but finally I hit on the exact baking technique – that nine minutes at 450 degrees (any less, they’re not done enough, any more they’re hard) and the minute and a half under the broiler (any less, the tops aren’t brown enough, any more, the tops are too brown), and a shiny baking sheet (dark ones burn the bottoms). And there was no flour to sift, no flour wasted, no goo to clean off my fingers and out of my rings (since I never remember to take them off prior to starting such a project). I was pretty dang proud of myself.

And so I share with y’all the perfect recipe for the perfect homemade biscuit. Feelin’ adventuresome? Go try it and report results. Y’all come back now, hear?


  1. Hi Gail, that sounds like the dough balls I enjoyed in England earlier this year. One question - what's a broiler?

  2. Now you made my mouth water. I never put them in the broiler though. What's the reason for that? Great post, Gail

  3. Loved these biscuits honey!! Now I'm going to have to make them.:) I also like the Pillsbury ones, but when I made my own they were so much better.:) I like the ones that look a little bumpy. So I'm going to skip the rolling next time.:) Too bad we live so far away or I'd bring you a batch.