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I stumbled across an unbleached cake flour, produced by King Arthur mills, and for the first time I am able to make something close to a southern style baking powder biscuit.  Most cake flour is super-refined (and bleached), which is what makes cakes (and biscuits) very tender and moist because of the lower gluten content.  Soft flour is more finely ground, the soft winter wheat is high-starch & low-protein, and also contains a percentage of cornstarch which decreases gluten even further.  Of course, whole grains are good for us – but who doesn’t need a dose of guilty pleasure every now & again?  Everything in moderation, including moderation as  Mr. Wilde said.  He also uttered the inimitable last words, Either this wall paper goes…or I do.

You can adapt virtually any standard baking powder-, or buttermilk  biscuit recipe by substituting cake flour for (AP) all-purpose flour.  In place of 1 cup of all purpose flour, use 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp of cake flour.  Also make sure to use low-fat buttermilk (as opposed to fat-free), or regular sweet milk.

I had one other special ingredient that I was excited to incorporate:  Home-rendered lard that my friend Gary & I made a few weeks back.  Here’s how I made my first batch of southern style biscuits.

2-1/4 c unbleached cake flour

scant tsp salt

1 tbsp baking powder

1 tsp sugar

a generous 1/3 cup cold shortening (I used 1/2 butter and 1/2 lard)

a cup of buttermilk, more or less (you want an alarmingly sticky dough, something that makes you scared that the recipe has somehow failed.  This is normal).

Measure your flour by spooning it into your measuring cup & leveling off, and whisk together with other dry ingredients.  Cut in the shortening so it is like roughly coarse meal – a few larger bits of fat here & there will actually make it flakier.  Add buttermilk & stir as little as possible – only till the dough comes loosely together.  Don’t even knead this if you don’t have to – this is a very soft dough.

I shaped the biscuits not by rolling them out, but between my floured hands.  Just take a big spoonful of dough and plop it back & forth deftly until it more or less resembles a biscuit & then deposit it on a baking sheet, as carelessly and carefully as possible, if possible.  Lay them somewhat close to each other and have a hot oven ready (425F- 450).  You can get 12 biscuits, more or less, according to these proportions.

Some cooks bake biscuits in an iron skillet, or brush them with butter before baking, or all of the above.  Bake them till golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

I sopped my biscuits (that is swirling equal amounts of sorghum syrup and soft butter together on a plate – and you push your hot biscuit around in the delicious mess until the butter melts.  Sorghum has a flavor that is sort of like the love child of molasses and corn syrup), and honestly I had eaten about four of those biscuits before I even knew what hit me.  Then I ate two more.

Have you ever heard of Maryland Beaten Biscuits?  I think I’m going to make them next, even though they use ordinary flour.  I will use home-rendered lard for that as well, because nothing else will do.  And I hope you have a Cuisinart– or a stump in your back yard, with a good beating stick, to prepare your Beat Biscuits.  Also, get you some good quality ham, because that’s what goes inside these little sandwiches.

Nota bene:  I don’t endorse specific products, but I do report on special finds.

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Usually I find a reason to make gingerbread once or twice a year.  There are a lot of good recipes out there, and I’ve tried quite a few over time – from James Beard, to Joy – but I think the version I’m going to use for a while is adapted from Dolores Cassella’s World of Baking, which I praised a year or so ago in one of my cookbook gazetteers.   Cassella followed up by producing another stunning baking book, A World of Breads.  I have relied on both of these fine volumes believe it or not for almost 35 years.

I’ve only made a couple small changes, which I’ll note.  This is very dense, satisfying and keeps extremely well.

1 c boiling coffee (you may use water or orange juice)

1 c butter

1 c dark brown sugar

1 cup dark (not blackstrap) molasses

3 large eggs

2-1/2 c flour – I have been substituting 2 Tbsp cocoa powder for an equal amount of the flour

scant tsp salt

1-1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

and I like to add the grated rind of one orange

I also like to add 1/3 c of chopped crystallized ginger, which gives a nice warmth, and some added texture

Combine the butter, brown sugar and molasses in your mixing bowl and pour the boiling liquid over all, stirring until everything is melted and amalgamated well.  I let it cool to room temperature before beating in the eggs.

Blend the dry ingredients together and add all at once to the wet mixture, beating simply until smooth.  This batter goes into a greased 9 X 2 X 13″ baking pan, and bakes at 325F for 1 hour.

You don’t need to dress this bread up with anything – not even butter, it’s so rich.  However, people do serve this with all sorts of accompaniments.  At the Riverside Cafe in Minneapolis, gingerbread was always a favorite when we served it- our customers often ordered it with a scoop of honey-sweetened, vanilla-scented whipped cream.   It’s also good with ice cream, cream cheese frosting, lemon sauce- you name it.  It is comforting in cold weather, and homey all year ’round.

Here is something tasty for a Sunday morning brunch, or weeknight dessert, or any possible excuse you can think of.  A fruit buckle can be made from any fruit, and belongs to an interesting branch of baking geneaology that also includes:  Cobbler, Crisps, Crumble, Brown Betty, Grunts, Slumps, Bird’s Nest Pudding, Sonker, and Pandowdy (according to http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/CobblerHistory.htm)

A Buckle- presumably- buckles as the rich topping of butter flour & sugar melts and bakes with the steam rising up from the baking fruit.  It is quintessentially American fare, going back to well before the Industrial Age, and it has always no doubt been welcome on the table of farm kitchens and Boston Brahmans alike.

Here is a recipe I adapted to use up some apples I had on hand, and some beautiful blackberries that a friend gave me yesterday.

1/2 c butter
1 c sugar
1 -1/3 c. flour
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
a couple gratings of nutmeg
1 egg
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 c diced apples
1 c blackberries
pinch of  salt
1/3 c milk
1 tsp vanilla
Combine 1/4 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/3 cup flour and cinnamon mix. Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in egg add dry ingredients add milk and vanilla. Spread in buttered and floured pan -I used a pyrex pan, a little smaller than 9 x 13  (no reason why you couldn’t use a good 9″ cast iron skillet)- add fruit over batter,
Now mix the remaining 1/4 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, pinch of salt, and 1 cup of flour with your fingers, or a pastry blender (or give it a whirl in the food processor) and scatter the crumb mixture over all.   This is very good served warm, with a little ice cream or whipped cream…or just cream!
375F degrees for 45 minutes.
Quick bread

Still life: Biscuits and Eskimo basket

The first cousin to raised breads is quick breads.  Buttermilk biscuits are belong quintessentially to the slow-food movement (but not because they are slow) and on the dinner table.  They have long been the measuring stick by which a cook’s ability is determined.  I still feel like I’m practicing every time I make them, since I have eaten real biscuits made by masters.  You and I know some of these masters, and they are probably your  grandmother.

They don’t measure, they eschew food science, and ignore most praise-except for clean plates.  That makes them happy.   That’s how my grandmother was anyway.  She could cook a meal, braid a rug, upholster a chair and sew a quilt all at the same time while she was watching As the World Turns without blinking.

To make a hot ‘un:

In a bowl:

2 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp salt

2-1/2 tsp baking powder

3/4 tsp baking soda

1/4 cup of shortening (vegetable shortening, butter, lard, or a combination)

some people add a teaspoon or so of sugar- it does help browning, but it’s really not necessary.

Work together vigorously with your fingers until it is like an uneven meal.  Add 3/4- to 1 cup of buttermilk and begin to bring it all together with your hands so it adheres together as a soft dough, but avoid over-handling.  Don’t be afraid of kneading it a bit- but keep in mind, the tenderest, flakiest, best biscuits start out as a fairly sticky undifferentiated mass that doesn’t present a great deal of promise.  Nevermind that.

Pat the mass with floured hands into  a big, fat pancake an inch or so thick.  You can roll it out on a pastry cloth if you are most comfortable doing that.  Sometimes I roll the dough into a big square or rectangle and cut it 3 X 4 if I’m in a real hurry.  Sometimes I use a biscuit cutter – my favorite size is a small 2 inch tin cutter.  Whether you place them close together or far apart on a baking sheet (I use parchment paper frequently) will determine how crusty and brown they become.  Closer together they will be much more tender, farther apart they will exhibit the biscuit’s ability to develop distinctive crustiness.

They can be baked at 400, but lately (during the past year) I have been using a hot oven (450F) and they stand up to a surprising 12-15 minutes of baking at that temperature.  There’s nothing quite like a hot biscuit sopped with butter and honey- or sorghum syrup- or blackberry jam.  I could probably eat them 3 times a day without pausing once to think twice about it.

You can substitute yogurt or kefir or cultured soymilk for buttermilk- you can also replace one egg as part of the total liquid for a richer bread.  Adjust your dry ingredients accordingly.  You can add grated cheese, herbs, pepper, substitute some cornmeal or whole grain flour.  You can make them vegan, or the opposite of vegan.  You can make them big or little, tall or short – and you can even make them with sweet milk (rather than sour).  In that case, please omit the baking soda and just use a total of 1 tablespoon of baking powder.

Oh, if you want to make them with sour milk/buttermilk and you don’t have it on hand:  Put a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar in a measuring cup and fill it the rest of the way with milk.

Want to use a food processor?  Do it — I do sometimes.  It’s fast, it makes a perfectly nice biscuit and frankly I think it still qualifies as slow food.  For extra good looks and flavor brush the biscuits with a little melted butter or a little egg-wash (whole egg whisked with some water or cream) before baking, and that will give it an even better color.

quick cinn rolls

quick cinn rolls

*2 c all purpose flour, 1/2 t salt, 2-1/2 t baking powder, 1/2 t baking soda, 2 T sugar- whisk these all together quickly and cut in finely  1/4 cup of shortening (butter, veg. shortening, etc)- you can use a food processor to reduce these steps to about 1 minute of work.

* 1 egg in a 1-cup measuring cup, yogurt to fill the cup; and a splash of milk or buttermilk to make a dough almost too soft to handle.

Lightly and quickly mix the wet and dry together in a bowl with a spoon, your hand or a spatula; press lightly down into a rectangle and spread with a couple Tbsp of soft butter- sprinkle with brown sugar (1/2 c- 2/3 cup I’d say) a tsp cinnamon, dried fruit if you like- and roll everything up.  I always use a heavy canvas pastry cloth to roll/pat dough out, and I often use the pastry cloth to help roll up the dough and filling together- kind of like how you roll up a traditional jelly roll.

If you made the dough with the minimum of mixing, it will be difficult to handle.  Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be that way.  Cut the roll in half, and then in half again- and then each quarter by three.  You’ll have a dozen soft, squishy, nearly formless swirls of cinnamon roll dough that I can almost guarantee will be difficult to get onto a baking sheet.   Figure out a way to plop them closely together, so they sort of prop each other up and bake them at 425F for about 15 minutes.  They will be tender enough to melt in the mouth- they will be frustrating to make the first few times, but when you crave a homemade cinnamon roll, this is as fast and tastes far far better than any convenience product you can get out of the refrigerator case at the grocery store.