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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.

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.