Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Baking Biscuits

When my grandfather moved out of his home in Delaware after my grandmother passed away, my family was able to take whatever items they wanted before everything was donated to charity or sold.  I met my father at the train station in Wilmington in a rental van we would use to bring all my loot back to Washington D.C. 
My father and I had the run of the house for the day and we went through pretty much everything.  I was on the lower end of the priority list for taking things, so there wasn’t much left.  But when you are a college student who has just moved into an apartment the 60’s and 70’s d├ęcor, housewares, and furniture your grandfather owns is very exciting.  I chose with awe some of the golden colored wine glasses used only for special occasions – two sizes.  Which I later found out my grandmother had collected at gas stations as part of some kind of promotion in the early 60’s.  I nabbed the two twin beds for the new apartment, a turquoise Chinese tea set and some cookbooks.
I had just gotten into cooking, and so I did not understand the treasure trove of cooking references that my grandmother had collected over the years.  I figured I would grab some that looked interesting and then leave the rest.  I am sure I probably left behind a first edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  What I now have in my possession is an early copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, the one with the red checks and in 3 ring binder format as well as a first edition of the Physiology of Taste as translated by M.F.K. Fischer (this may actually be worth a little money).  But it is the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook that I remembered fondly, and one that I use still for basic recipes. 
My grandmother studied home economics at Cornell.  She may have taught for a few years before having children and practicing home economy.  However, unlike where you think this story is going, my grandmother was not the “make it from scratch” home ec. teacher in June Cleaver attire.  She loved convenience foods.  A classic meal during the holidays or any family gathering was canned ham, canned pineapple, macaroni and cheese (this was just cooked elbow macaroni tossed with shredded cheese – no sauce, no gooey stringy cheese – I hated macaroni and cheese for a very long time) and canned crescent rolls.  Perhaps a salad or some frozen vegetables. 
So as you can see, I did not necessarily expect to find gastronomic treasures in my grandmother’s library of cookbooks – although I still wonder what I would have found had I known what to look for at the time.  However that Better Homes and Gardens cookbook did get a lot of play as a reference for cookies, roasting temperatures of meats and so on.  I prefer that cookbook with all its jewel-toned pictures and recipes for far more Jell-o molds than anyone could possibly need than any more recent edition.  And it is to this cookbook that I turn when I need recipes for biscuits or boiled frosting or everyday cake. 
Today I am going to tell you about the biscuits.  So many people are so ardent about biscuits that I was rather hesitant to try and make them.  What if they are not fluffy, what if they turn into hockey pucks, what if they just taste bad – all of these were very real fears that inhibited my biscuit making endeavors.  The trickiest part of it is those six words in each biscuit recipe – do not over work the dough.  How are you supposed to know!!  Where is that elusive fine line between not well mixed and over worked?  Will the dough change colors?  Will they become inedible?  Will the oven explode with terribly formed lumps of dough!  The horror!!
Biscuits are in fact not that scary.  The problem I realized is that most people don’t get tactile with the biscuits early on the in the process, and herein lies the secret to not overworked biscuits; use your hands!  After cutting in the butter, toss those two knives or pastry blender aside and rub the pieces of butter into the flour with your fingers.  This is (1) a lot less time consuming (2) a better way to determine the proper point at which to add the milk and (3) is the only sure-fire way to add love into your biscuits. 

Once you have the whole thing down, you will be able to whip up biscuits at the drop of a hat. 
Biscuits Supreme
As adapted from Better Homes and Gardens 1968

I have begun adding other ingredients and flavors to my biscuits.  Try adding any kind of fresh herb, or pesto to the biscuits.  Scallions and chives are wonderful for biscuits on top of chicken pot pie or other casseroles*. The green biscuits pictured above have a parsley pesto in them.

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ c. butter, cut into ¼” cubes
1 Tb and 1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. cream of tartar
½ tsp. salt
2/3 c. milk (anything but whole milk works fine), plus extra for brushing
2 Tb. Chopped herbs or pesto, optional

Preheat the oven to 450°.

Combine flour, baking powder, cream of tartar and salt in a large bowl.  Add butter and begin to cut in, when the butter pieces are reduced in size by half, begin using your hands.  Rub the pieces of butter quickly between your fingers to break them up, and toss the flour over the pieces.  Continue until the butter is mostly worked in, and the flour seems a bit heavier looking – there will still be a few larger clumps of butter, but that is ok. 

Next, make a well in the center of the flour, add in the milk and the herbs or pesto at this point if using.  To stir, use a fork and moving around the inside of the well, begin pulling in flour from all sides of the bowl.  Continue to stir with the fork until the dough is all wet and very difficult to stir. 

Move the dough out onto a floured board and knead a few times to combine the dough into a cohesive ball.  3-6 times should be all you need.  Roll the dough out to about 1” thick and cut into rounds.  Reshape the dough into a ball and roll out again, cutting new biscuits until there is only enough dough for one last biscuit – this one can be hand shaped. 

Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet and brush with a little milk or melted butter.  Bake for 12-15 minutes, rotating mid-way through if necessary.  Serve warm from the oven!

*You can add these biscuits to anything you plan to place in the oven to bake.  For an easy chicken and biscuit recipe use the above biscuit dough and place onto precooked chicken, veggies and a lightly thickened gravy.  Bake uncovered for about 20 minutes or until the biscuits are brown on top and the chicken mixture is thick and bubbling.

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