It was a family ritual during my childhood: Exactly 20 minutes before dinner was due to be served, my mother would finish cooking. Then, she would prepare and bake biscuits. While the biscuits baked, she would clean the kitchen. Then, the biscuits would come out of the oven just a few moments before everyone was expected to sit down to the table.
When the biscuits came out, the table would already be set for dinner. My father would be called – urgently — to butter the biscuits. Everything had to be done exactly punctually. If the biscuits came out of the oven too soon, they would get cold. If they came out too late, the rest of the food would be cold. If they weren’t buttered when they were so hot that they would burn fingers, they would be too cold. Success in dinner preparation was determined largely by whether the biscuits were served to perfection.
My role in the biscuit ritual was to “help,” namely to turn the oven on to preheat, to transfer the biscuits from the cutting board to the cookie sheet for baking, to set the table, and then to assist in carrying the piping hot biscuits to the table. Of course, this also involved watching my mother measure, sift, mix, knead and roll the biscuit dough. I guess I was supposed to learn through osmosis, though it never worked.
My mom always told me it was important not to work the dough too much, because it would make the biscuits tough. She contrasted this need for sparcity in working biscuit dough as against working yeast bread dough, because the latter gets more pliable and soft with kneading. She said you should keep kneading of biscuit dough to a bare minimum. Her routine for making the dough and rolling out the biscuits took about five minutes, then the baking took about twelve minutes, and leaving three a three minute window to get them onto the table and buttered before everyone sat down to eat.
I really took this admonition to heart, not to work the dough too much. My home economics teacher taught our class how to make biscuits, but her instructions included that we should knead the dough. My mother was very critical of this advice. Based on the teacher’s accent, we already knew the teacher was a Yankee. This hereditary condition would explain a whole host of mental imbalances and defects, including why she didn’t know how to make biscuits properly. My mom assured me that my home economics teacher was wrong; and she took great pains to demonstrate for me proper biscuit making technique without kneading the dough. I could never get it right.
Strive as I might, my dough was always either too sticky or too dry, never that perfect balance. One time, many years later but while I was still young and single, I cooked an elaborate “Southern” dinner for a friend visiting from another country. When she saw the table I had set, filled with Confederate fried steak, rice, gravy, green beans, butter peas, carrots, and assorted other delights, she exclaimed with delight, “Oh! You made cookies!” No, I had made biscuits, which were on the table in their own little basket, butter close by; but my biscuits were not soft and light and fluffy. They were crispy and brown, like crackers. Such was the miserable result of my best efforts. Perhaps this was the reason my grandmother Mary Emma gave me the recipe for the mayonnaise drop biscuits (an earlier Blog entry). She perhaps hoped that my possession of this one recipe would save me from calamity in the Art of Being a Southern Belle.
After my “cookie” adventure, I didn’t try to make biscuits for several more years. Law school intervened, and my law-school girlfriends and I seemed to have equally calamitous ventures in the kitchen. At least my misadventures never reached the same level as those of my good friend Mary, whose neighbors called the fire department when they saw smoke billowing out of the kitchen window. Apparently, this misadventure also resulted in a very unhappy landlord when an expensive oriental carpet had to be replaced. At least we could all laugh about it. Since we were young lawyers our livelihoods didn’t depend on our biscuit making expertise. But still, something was missing. I had a deep sense of my own inadequacy in the Southern Belle department.
It wasn’t until I began to venture on my own, standing on my own two culinary feet and therefore beginning to be a bit more daring in the “alteration of recipe” department, that I actually learned how to make good biscuits. I’ve decided to share my biscuit recipes in the hope that some other young Belles will benefit from my years of mistakes.
For starters, I learned that a tiny bit of judicious modification of my basic biscuit recipe was in order. My mother had always taught me to use two cups of flour and one cup of “other stuff.” The “other stuff” consisted of ¾ cup milk and ¼ cup “grease”. Grease is another word for rendered pork fat. It really does make the best biscuits, but we all know it’s so unhealthy that we don’t ever use it anymore. Instead, we use some other kind of fat, like Crisco or margarine or oil (depending on the recipe). Anyway, my mother showed me how to measure 3/4 cup flour, and then add hunks of shortening by the spoonful until the measuring cup was exactly at the top. But, I learned a little trick over the years. Biscuits, in fact, do better if one uses ¾ cup milk plus about 1/3 cup shortening. Then, after the batter is mixed, if the biscuits are too wet still a bit more flour can be added.
My mother once told me that Mama Good’s cook told her a little secret shared by all good cooks: they close their eyes when they add the fat and the sugar. In other words, you don’t wanna know how much there is, but it turns out to be a bit more than we want to admit on the record! So, that little "cook’s secret" was part of the reason my biscuits were never quite right! The real amount of shortening is just a bit more than the official 1/4 cup!
But there was another “eureka” moment for me, as well. For that moment of inspiration, I must thank my friend Linda. As a young newlywed, I often shared enjoyed dinners with other young newlyweds in my circle of friends. One of David’s college buddies, Dale, married Linda. They lived a couple of hours away, so our visits usually involved one or two meals together over the course of a day’s or weekend’s visit. One day, Linda arrived to find me making biscuits. The signs were already clear that my biscuits were headed for disaster. Linda walked into the kitchen and I poured my heart out to her. One look at my dough, and she immediately assessed the problem: "You aren’t kneading the dough enough!" She kindly took charge, literally “fixing” my biscuits and salvaging them from sure disaster. I had been so concerned with not “working” the dough, she told me, that the batter wasn’t getting mixed properly. Linda assured me that kneading would not damage my biscuits. And, gauging from Linda’s background and drawl from the heartland of South Carolina, her credentials in the Southern Belle department were very secure. She proceeded to make her point by kneading the dough for longer and more times than I thought humanly possible. Based on my mother’s exhortations, I was sure these biscuits would be stiff and hard as rocks, but Linda was right! They were great! There I had it. Official permission from a true Southern Belle to knead the dough, and demonstration of how to do it. She kneaded, rolled, and patted the dough, cut the biscuits, and the result was near perfection. Here is the recipe:
Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits