Biscuits: Take 3

When I got married, there was no question about who would make my wedding cake: Johnnie Gabriel. That’s her in the picture, setting up my wedding cake.

She’s the cake lady. Really. She uses old-school recipes that she bought from the original Marietta Cake Lady and she makes everything from scratch (except for the raspberry filling that I had her use in my cake… it’s imported from France). She also requires an in-person, 1 1/2 hour conversation with you before she’ll agree to create your cake. It was probably my favorite hour and a half I spent talking about my wedding during the entire planning process, because we actually spent more time talking about food in general than my wedding. She had this huge binder of pictures of beautiful wedding cakes she’d done over the years, and I understand that the goal of this meeting was for me to communicate very clearly what I expected my “big day” cake would look like. Our conversation about my cake went something like this:

JG: And what are your colors for the big day?

LBD: um… pretty ones?

JG: **blank stare**

LBD: I told you I was weird and this will be a strange wedding. I have one bridesmaid and she’s picking out her dress. She can go with whatever color she wants, so whatever color she goes with, I guess that’ll be my color. Probably something blue. It’s a good color for her.

JG: I see. Flowers?

LBD: Eh. Guess I’ll pick some up at some point. I’m not that worried about it.

JG: So, you’re not going to decorate with flowers at your wedding?

LBD: Yeah, probably not. It’s at a brewery. So, there’ll be a lot of beer. I’m sure the flowers would just get overlooked.

JG: And what about your linens?

LBD: Um, I guess we’ll just use whatever the barbecue place gives us. Paper plates & napkins. So, white, I guess?

JG: Oh.

LBD: But you have made some beautiful wedding cakes. These are gorgeous pictures.

JG: Thank you. So what would you like in terms of decorations on your cake?

LBD: Well, you can put pink flamingos on the thing for all I care. I came to you because I want the best cake I’ve ever eaten. As long as it tastes amazing, I don’t care what it looks like.

JG: Okay then. So in terms of icing…

LBD: Buttercream. Lots of buttercream. I know fondant looks beautiful, but I’m not ordering this cake to look at. I plan to eat a lot of it.

JG: (finally smiles and nods) Good girl.

(the finished result. perfection. incase you’re wondering: lemon pound cake with raspberry filling and vanilla buttercream frosting. I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. Mmmmm.)

The rest of our pre-wedding-cake-baking conversation kept going back to her new cookbook, the proper way to make cooked caramel and chocolate fillings for cakes (her words: “don’t even bother trying it until you’ve got your stand mixer. You did register for one of those, I hope?”) and biscuits. I will always remember her saying that she was worried that “one of these days, there won’t be anyone left who knows how to make biscuits. Everyone buys the freezer versions now. And it’s just not the same.”

Incase you’re wondering why I’ve been obsessed with learning how to make the perfect biscuit… that conversation was why. In that moment, I made up my mind that I would learn how to make a biscuit from scratch and teach others to do so also.

I’m so happy to say that I think I’ve finally figured out biscuits. Rather, I’ve found a recipe that’s worked for me the past 4 times I’ve made them, even when I made them at Lindsey’s house in a different oven and under different circumstances.

After testing and re-testing and thinking and evaluating a number of different biscuit recipes over the past year (with more on the list to try sometime soon), I’ve decided that biscuit making is an art. A technique. Something to be valued. Something that can’t really be explained in a written down recipe. It’s a skill that should be passed down from one generation to the next from people who know what they’re doing. The women in my family have been making biscuits longer than I have been alive, and this recipe I’ve made up really isn’t anything to brag about. But, they are decent biscuits. And I like them, and Dave likes them. When I find the recipe that stands up to 15, 20, or 30 years of baking & keeping my family happy, then maybe I’ll have something truly amazing to share with y’all. For now, though, you can try these & see what you think.

Biscuits

(makes 4-5 biscuits)

1 cup all-purpose flour (I use White Lily) plus 1/2 cup extra for kneading

3/4 Tablespoon baking powder

about 1/2 teaspoon table salt (kosher doesn’t work so well for me)

2 Tablespoons Crisco shortening, kept refrigerated, and once measured, placed in the freezer for 5 minutes before using

3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, diced, cold, placed in freezer for 5 minutes before using

scant 1/2 cup 2% milk

Preheat your oven to 450 (non-convection) or 425 (convection). Prepare a baking dish: I use a silpat, but you can use a pan, or baking sheet that’s been covered with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium sized bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder with a fork. Remove shortening and butter from freezer immediately before using, and dump into the flour mixture. Using your hands, mix together until the fat is incorporated. Don’t overwork the flour. Don’t overwork the dough. The dough will not be homogenous. The fat will not be perfectly, evenly spread throughout the flour. That’s okay. Make a well in the center, add in the milk slowly, and stir with the fork.

Dump the batter onto a lightly floured work surface, and start to knead. Take in more flour if the dough is too sticky. You should see little flecks of butter that didn’t quite get mixed in well enough. That’s what you want. Buttery goodness.

Pat the dough out to about 1/2″ thickness. Using some sort of biscuit cutter (or wine glass dipped in flour), cut your biscuits and place on baking sheet. This will sound odd, but place them as close together as you can. Don’t spread them out. Make sure their edges are touching as much as possible. Bake for about 10-12 minutes, until tops are golden brown.

Break ’em open, butter ’em up and enjoy.

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Biscuits: Take 2

Continuing with my plan to learn to bake delicious biscuits this summer, last night I decided to try Alton Brown’s recipe. (If you’re not following him on Twitter yet, you should… @altonbrown is pretty entertaining). Alton would never lead us astray with a recipe, although he might take us down some convoluted roads that involve jumping through flaming hoops and battling fire-breathing dragons to get to our destination. Surprisingly, though, his biscuit technique wasn’t difficult.

The more I thought about his recipe, the more I realized that it’s basically the same as the White Lily recipe, with minor adjustments. The main differences are the amount and type of leavening agents (he includes baking soda as well as baking powder), and an increased amount of liquid (I also went for the buttermilk as he recommended, which means I have to find a way to use up the remaining half gallon in my fridge, which means next week I will be attempting fried chicken). He also uses a half butter/half shortening fat mix, while the White Lily recipe just wants you to use shortening.

The verdict? Well, they look the same as the last batch. They rose just as well as the White Lily version. And they tasted just as good, especially warm, right out of the oven, slathered with more butter than I will admit here in public.

Despite the similarities, I was somewhat disappointed. I’m getting the same results with different recipes, which isn’t a good thing in the kitchen. I know I’m rolling out my dough too thick, because the biscuits are a bit too tall for my taste – I want a biscuit that’s about half the height. Not that I don’t want my biscuit to rise, mind you, but I want them a more manageable portion size. I also want more flavor, which tells me I should start adjusting the other ingredients (especially salt and butter).

As I pondered this last night, I just so happened to flip through my latest summer book purchase: Artisan Breads Every Day. I bought it so I could figure out how to make a decent set of yeast breads, and I’ve realized after reading the introduction that this is going to be an essential cookbook in the LBDelicious kitchen. It has a recipe for all kinds of breads, with special instructions and rationale about each technique. One of the recipes in the book is for “The Best Biscuits Ever.” I’m guessing if Peter Reinhart says they’re the best biscuits ever, they probably are. So, that will be my next attempt. The formula is vastly different than the White Lily and Alton Brown ones. Heavy cream is involved (like B’s mom’s recipe, which is also on my list) as is sugar (a new one, but most good Southern recipes involve some amount of sugar – except cornbread – so I’m not knocking it until I try it). More to come.

By the way, feel free to tell me your mama’s and grandmama’s recipes either in the comments or via email. I’m on the search for the best, after all, and need your help.

Biscuits, Version 1

Confession: until Saturday, I had no idea how to make biscuits. Every time I tried to make them in the past, they turned out hard as rocks, gross, disgusting, and/or inedible.

My mother, aunt Leia, cousin Megan, and two grandmothers are hanging their heads in shame right now, embarrassed at my admission. They are all expert biscuit makers. I can hear them all the way over there in Limestone County, saying one of the following statements: (while rolling eyes and laughing) “oh, Beth, they’re not that hard;” or (being the natural educators/sharers that they are) “well hon, all you havta ┬ádo is git you a lil’ flour, a lil’ bit uh milk, and some Crisco and butter, mix it all together, roll it out, cut ’em up, and put ’em in the oven;” or (in a scolding, accusatory tone) “how many times did I make you biscuits for breakfast and you stood there and watched me?” and (in exasperation, and with a tinge of disappointment) “Ain’t that sumthin. You can go off and get yourself a PhD but still not know how to biscuits. Lord help us.”

My summer plans include learning how to create the perfect biscuit. I got a jump start on those plans on Saturday, when I found myself with a weekend night – gasp – at home – double gasp – with no plans! I baked cookies and biscuits, and read about half of Bossypants. It was a great night, made greater by the fact that I made biscuits that did not suck. I think Dave was also quite happy with my kitchen productivity, especially when I walked back to his office where he was enjoying a Saturday night of playing video games, with a warm, fresh-from-the-oven, heavily buttered biscuit on a little plate for him to “taste test.”

Sometimes I wonder why the man married me and voluntarily agreed to put up with my nonsense for the rest of his life, and then other times I randomly bring him a warm, buttery biscuit snack, and it sort of makes sense.

I started with the most basic of recipes: that found on the back of the White Lily all-purpose flour bag. They turned out just fine. See?

(nom nom tasty)

Biscuits (a la White Lily)

2 cups White Lily all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 cup cold Crisco shortening

3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 500. Either spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, or set out your cookie sheet & silpat. (I heart my silpat.) In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt & baking powder. Cut in the shortening. Recommended methods: two knives or a pastry cutter (according to the bag); I found that mashing it all together with a fork worked better. You’re looking for a pea-ish consistency. Makes no sense to me either. Just go with it until it looks combined. Stir in, with a fork, up to 3/4 cup milk, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface, and knead it 2-3 times. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, either, so I just kind of manhandled the dough until it looked “about right.” By that, I mean the dough was of appropriate consistency to be able to roll it out with my rolling pin. And that’s the next step: roll out with a rolling pin to about 1/2″ thickness. Cut into 2″ rounds (I used a wine glass. figures.), then place on the prepared baking sheet. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until golden brown.

My assessment: a not so bad first attempt. They were ginormously huge – almost too big, if you ask me. I think next time I’ll try for about half the thickness. I was super impressed with the amount of rise/lift these little babies got in the oven, though.

My next attempt will be Libba Woodruff’s easy-peasy biscuits involving only two ingredients. Then some involving shortening and butter. Then maybe I’ll expand into yeasty biscuits. Then, eventually, I’ll have it down pat. And y’all can all come over for breakfast or fried chicken night. But first, I have to also figure out how to make fried chicken… another thing I’ve never attempted at home. Let’s hope I don’t burn down the kitchen with that one.