Thursday, March 27, 2008

Biscuit Love

Is there anyone who does not like biscuits? I suppose I can understand how someone might not have the nearly fiendish and certainly unholy weakness that I have for biscuits, but at the worst, I've only ever met those who don't have a strong opinion about them. I'm giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they've only interacted with biscuits at KFC or Red Lobster and only know them as greasy, smushable lumps.

Those of us who had the benefit of growing up with biscuits made at home know better.

I have to say that part of my fever for biscuits rests on the moment I first made a really good batch. I loved biscuits, but didn't like all the processed stuff in the boxed biscuit mixes (and I have that whole "I have to know how things work" problem with my brain). So I'd tried several batches over a period of a few months and finally, on one magical Saturday afternoon (when I should have been writing a syntax paper, no doubt) everything worked and I was filled with a kind of satisfaction that I'd never felt before.

All my other accomplishments (getting my driver's license, graduating from college, making my first quilt, writing a novel in 30 days, getting a PhD) seemed pale and frivolous compared to making a perfect batch of biscuits. The moment when I was able to transform a bowl of flour, fat, salt, liquid and baking powder into puffy circles of flaky heaven, I felt like I'd arrived. I could do anything.

If the grid went down, and the ragged war-torn remnants of humanity stood in front of a post-apocalyptic pantry gasping "There's nothing to eat! We're only left with flour, salt, baking powder, oil and water!", I could step forward and push their fears aside.

"Fear not, my friends. I can make biscuits."

Dramatic? Perhaps. But such is my love of making biscuits.

So here's the thing: it's not rocket science. It's just a little chemistry. A little chemistry never hurt any... Ok. Forget that. It's not that hard, though and I think everyone should try it.

I like to make 'rolled' biscuits as opposed to 'drop' biscuits. 'Rolled' just means that you flatten the dough and cut out shapes with a biscuit cutter. 'Drop' biscuits have a little more liquid and are dropped by big spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. Drop biscuits are faster and are lighter since you really don't handle the dough much at all. I like them for soupy things that you pour over biscuits (like my mom's creamed chicken etc.)

I like rolled biscuits because I like to split them open and put a little smear of margarine in the middle. They're a little sturdier so you can pull them apart without them crumbling. This is good if you make scones (essentially biscuits with sugar in the dough) and want to open them to spread on some jam etc.

No offense to the biscuit droppers out there. We can peacefully co-exist and all still live in biscuit heaven.

An aside:
So let's talk about scones for a moment. I'm talking about English scones, not those things they sell at Starbuck's that are a half-pound of butter and sugar. I'm talking about calm, tame, non-gluttonous-sized, round, open them up and nicely spread on some butter and jam kind of scones. They're the same as what we Yanks call biscuits except that you can add 1/4 cup of sugar and some dried fruit (or fresh berries). My favorites to make are date scones with brown sugar...mmm. That will have to wait for another post.

The biscuits in the photo above (oh my gosh aren't they so freaking pretty?) are 75% white, unbleached flour, 25% whole wheat pastry flour, soy creamer, vegan margarine, salt and baking powder. That might be a bit fussy for most people, so I'm going to give two versions of the recipe. One is the fussy version I made for dinner last night (which isn't fussy by preparation, only by the specific versions of the ingredients) and the other is the generic template.

Generic Biscuit Template Recipe

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
4 tbsp. fat (shortening, oil, butter, margarine, etc.)
2/3 cup liquid (typically some kind of milk, be it cow or soy, though any liquid will work depending on how you want it to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 400F
2. In a large mixing bowl, mix flour, salt and baking powder.
3. 'Cut in' the fat. That means use a pastry cutter or two butter knives held together to chop the fat into little bits that are coated in the flour mix. You can do this with your fingers, but you don't want the fat to melt (if it's a solid fat). So I'd recommend using a utensil for solid fats, but you can just rub oil into the flour with your fingers, if you prefer oil. You want the fat bits to be about half the size of a pea.
4. Pour the liquid in all at once.
5. With a large spoon, slightly mix the mixture until it just comes together. That means once it starts to clump together in a big mass, stop mixing.
Note: unlike bread dough, biscuit dough should NEVER stretch. You want to handle it as little as possible. You never knead biscuit dough because you do not want to develop the gluten (the stretchy protein in the wheat that gives bread it's nice texture). If the dough gets stretchy, it will become hard and tough in the oven and be very unpleasant. If you find that your dough feels stretchy or springy and it bounces back when you poke it, you might as well huck it in the trash and start over.
So as in the photo on the right, once you can smush it into a big lump and it mostly holds together, stop mixing. Even if there are lots of crumbs in the bottom of the bowl, it's ok. You do not want the dough to be smooth or even uniform. It will have flaky, chunky bits and that's good.
6. Dump everything out onto a clean surface and gently mash it into one mass that's roughly rectangular.
7. Gently press this rectangle so that it's 1/2 inch thick.
8. Fold it in half, as shown on the right. Turn the folded dough 90 degrees.
9. Again, gently press it down to 1/2 inch, then turn it another 90 degrees.
10 Press it down again, the let it sit for a few minutes while you find a baking sheet.
11. Cut out shapes with a cutter (I use round, but I sometimes use a heart when the mood strikes). You can just cut into triangles or squares, but make sure your implement is sharp. Some people might want to use a glass (like you would cutting pierogi dough) if that's the only round thing you have, but you really need a sharp edge on the biscuits to make sure they get tall and flaky.
12. Put them on your baking sheet. I included the photo of them on the pan to show how they began rising from the minute it took me to get the pan and take them off the cutting board! (I'm sorry, I'm just so happy with them.)
13. Stick them in the oven for about 12 minutes. You should probably start peeking at them after 10 minutes. You want the tops and bottoms to be lightly browned. They should almost double in height and start to split apart at the sides.
14. If you want them extra-tasty, brush some melted margarine on the tops right after they come out of the oven.

Garlic-Butter Biscuits

1 1/2 c. white flour
1/2 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp garlic powder
4 tbsp vegan margarine (Earth Balance Buttery Sticks)
2/3 c soy creamer (Silk Soy Creamer - original)
2 tbsps extra margarine
2 tsps garlic powder

1. Repeat as for the recipe above, adding the garlic powder to the flour mixture.
2. Melt the 2 tbsps extra margarine and add it with the other 2 tsps garlic powder. Brush this over the biscuits after you take them out of the oven.

Ah, there they are under the magical glow of the quartz element of my toaster oven.

I could really go on for hours talking about biscuits, but since the two other people that read this probably have better things to do, I'll save the rest of my insanity for another day.


Anonymous said...

You almost make me want to make biscuits. I never laughed so much at a recipe.

amy said...

Hey---I'm reading your blog...don't I count?

JC said...

Yes, Ames, you count. So that makes 3, 3 people reading my blog, bwa ha ha ha...

Anonymous said...

Those looked so great, I had to try..but alas, mine did not turn out! Oh well, onto another attempt at biscuit euphoria..

Jenn Cornish said...

Hey Anonymous, tell me what happened, and maybe I can help trouble-shoot it with you.