The Very Best Biscuits
Biscuits were the original traveler's food. Easy to pack, soldiers and sailors lived on "hardtack" when other foods weren't available. Food historians report the French army called it "stone bread" and the Romans carried their biscuits around the world, bragging it would last for centuries. Over the years, however, chefs have invented thousands of breads, crackers, cookies and biscuits. As a result, we have changed what we define as a "biscuit". We do acknowledge our English friends as biscuit experts, however, the Brits believe Americans are a bit mixed up about the whole biscuit issue. One displaced Englishman notes on a delightful UK-based website "Here in the USA a biscuit is a scone and a cookie is a biscuit, it's all very confusing."
The American Biscuit
Here in the U.S., a biscuit is a soft-baked pastry, using baking powder or soda for leavening, instead of yeast. This "quick bread" is often made by the hand-beaten, "drop" method. An early staple in the South, a hot biscuit smothered with country gravy is a breakfast favorite. Biscuits are sliced, spread with mustard or butter and served with ham as must-have party fare. Adopting the Southern fondness for biscuits, Americans serve biscuits with sweet and savory spreads, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The secret to baking the best biscuits is not over-handling the dough. Mix together your dry ingredients first, cut in the shortening, and finally add the liquid, mixing only enough to combine the components.
The technique: do not knead biscuit dough, because you'll develop more gluten and end up with very tough biscuits! If you are using butter, keep it cold until you use it. Find a stainless steel pastry utensil that cuts through cold butter and lard (Try my newest gadget, the Chef Jamie Pastry Pro, available at www.kitcheninnovationsinc.com). Baking is precise; measure your ingredients carefully. Also, a nonstick baking sheet, baking parchment, or a Silpat mat is a necessary tool.
Some cooks (like me!) like to brush a little melted butter on top of their biscuits before baking. For the ideal tender and flaky inside and golden brown outside, bake biscuits for a shorter period of time in a quick oven, rather than longer in a slow oven.
The classic Southern biscuit recipe proportions are two cups self-rising flour, one teaspoon baking powder, one teaspoon sugar, a half teaspoon salt, a third cup shortening or cold butter, and one cup buttermilk. Once you have mastered your biscuit technique, it's time to change it up! Try adding three-fourths cup grated parmesan or cheddar and chopped fresh chives or parsley,
for savory cheese biscuits.
If you have leftover mashed potatoes, try this hearty biscuit. Combine two cups flour, four teaspoons baking powder, one cup mashed potatoes, one teaspoon salt, three tablespoons vegetable shortening and about a cup of milk. Roll out to a half-inch thickness on a floured board and bake. This biscuit's potato flavor is delicious with soups and stews.
For a dessert biscuit, try my Chocolate Berry Shortcake. Combine two cups flour, a third cup sugar, a tablespoon baking powder, a half teaspoon salt, a half cup cold butter, a quarter cup shortening, two-thirds cup cream and two handfuls of chocolate chip morsels. Bake for about 12 minutes in a 400° oven. Allow the biscuits to cool, slice them in half, then layer on sliced strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Top with a generous helping of freshly whipped cream.
Biscuits have come a long way but they still deserve a little attention. Celebrate the long-lived, well-traveled and completely tasty biscuit this month. Happy baking, from my kitchen to yours!
This article was written for my monthly column, "Food For Thought," in Orange Coast Magazine. All Rights Reserved ®Chef Jamie Gwen
TOUCH OF GRACE BISCUITS
Shirley Corriher, a brilliant food scientist, shared this recipe with me years ago, and I have never made another biscuit recipe since! Low-protein flour like White Lily helps create tender, moist biscuits. Very wet dough makes more steam in a hot oven and creates lighter biscuits. I add chopped rosemary for savory biscuits, topped with BBQ shrimp, or an extra 1/4 cup of sugar for sweet biscuits.
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 2 cups self-rising flour (I like the low protein southern flour by White Lily the best!)
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons vegetable shortening
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 425°F and arrange a shelf slightly below the center of the oven. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray
In a large mixing bowl, stir together the self-rising flour, sugar and salt. Work the shortening in with your fingers until there are no large lumps. Gently stir in the cream, then the buttermilk. Stir in buttermilk until the dough resembles cottage cheese. It should be a wet mess - not soup, but cottage cheese texture. Spread the plain (not self-rising) flour out on a plate or pie pan.
With a medium (about 2-inches in diameter) ice cream scoop or spoon, place a scoop of dough in the flour. Sprinkle flour over the biscuit, flour your hands and coat the dough completely with the flour. Gently shape the biscuit into a round flat circle, shaking off the excess flour. Place the biscuit in the prepared pan. Coat each dough ball and place the shaped biscuit smooshed up against its neighbor (each pan should hold about 7 biscuits). Continue scooping and shaping until the dough is used up.
Bake until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Brush with melted butter as soon as you remove the biscuits from the oven. Invert the pan onto a plate, then back onto another plate. Cut between the biscuits and serve immediately.
Makes 12 to 14 Biscuits