What could make a better breakfast on a chilly winter morning than a few steaming hot biscuits slathered with fresh butter? Not much, say I. And come to think of it, a hot buttered biscuit is a pretty good way to break your fast at any time of year.
As I generally do when the focus of this weekly sermon turns to baking, pastries and such, I consulted my bride and resident baking expert, who’s been making great biscuits for a long time but nevertheless keeps on searching for ways to bring the next batch even closer to perfection than the last.
This morning’s results may have been her best yet: Tall and light, delicate in flavor and feather-light in texture, they almost floated up from our plates to bounce around on the ceiling.
A combination of concepts from an old family recipe, some tips from Alton Brown on Food Network’s Good Eats and sheer intuition, this procedure may strike biscuit traditionalists as non-intuitive: It uses regular milk (and 2% at that), not buttermilk; a combination of baking powder and baking soda, and a half-and-half blend of both vegetable shortening and butter.
The result, however, spoke for itself, and I’d put these beauties up against the best Southern roadfood biscuits I’ve ever had, at country inn or truck stop.
Before we get down to the details, a few tips from the biscuit queen:
• Soft wheat flour makes the best biscuits, and most Southern cooks swear by the White Lily brand. Other quality brands are fine – I’m sure my usual favorite for breads, King Arthur, would work, but don’t use high-protein, hard-wheat bread flour, which would be like using a hammer for a job that calls for pliers.
• It is very important to measure baking powder, baking soda and salt accurately in this and all biscuit recipes. More is not better in biscuits, as even a small excess can impart weird chemical flavors.
• Shortening is key to biscuits quality. The butter-and-Crisco combination here has just a slightly higher fat-to-flour recipe than most, but even this small increment seems to help the biscuits fluff up to tender, crumbly delicacy. (Yes, we know that classic Crisco, like many shortenings that remain soft at room temperature, contains trans fat, a scare du jour. We’re trying to avoid them, too, but I’m hoping that a small amount in an occasional treat won’t kill us. If you’re still nervous, look for new zero-trans-fat shortenings … and please let me know how it works out for you.)
(Makes eight to 10 biscuits)
2 cups (480g) all-purpose soft wheat flour
3 teaspoons (15g) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teastpoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening
1/4 to 1/2 cup whole milk or 2% milk
1. Preheat oven to 450F (230C).
2. Measure the flour into a bowl. Add the baking powder, baking soda and salt, taking care to measure the amounts precisely. Stir to combine.
3. Cut the butter and shortening into pea-size pieces and sprinkle over the dry ingredients. Then, using your fingers, gently work the shortening into the flour mixture – much like making pie crust – until the combined result resembles a pile of soft grains of rice.
4. Then add the milk, a little at a time. Use only as much milk as needed to bring the flour and shortening together in a soft dough. Stir gently, using a large rubber spatula, to combine the wet and dry ingredients; take care not to over-work the dough.
5. As soon as the dough has reached such a consistency that you can form it, use the spatula to scrape it into a ball-like round and turn it onto a floured dish towel on your work surface. Pat it out to about 1/2 inch thickness, and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter (or a thoroughly cleaned soup can with both ends cut out). If you’re feeling lazy, simply cut the dough into squares; the result will taste just as good. After you’ve cut as many rounds as you can, gently form the leftover scraps of dough into a roughly circular “cook’s biscuit.”
6. Place the biscuits close together on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 to 14 minutes, until the tops are nicely browned.
Serve them as you like them, topped with butter or honey or molasses, a round of sausage or a few slices of bacon, a fried egg or even, if you must, milk gravy. If you’re looking for a wine match this week, you’re on your own!