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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.