As I write this, we have about a month before Mardi Gras arrives. This year we have a rather long Carnival season, and I hate to admit it, but I’ve already had my fill of King Cakes! And this year, not only are there the regular King Cakes, now there is King Cake Ale, King Cake cupcakes, and even King Cake flavored coffee.
As much as I enjoy the Carnival season, I think I might just overdose on anything King Cake. I believe I might just brush up on my biscuit making.
There is nothing I like more than hot biscuits, served for breakfast with butter and pure cane syrup or fig preserves, or with pork dripping or red-eye gravy. Biscuits are part of what we know as quick breads so named because they are speedily prepared as compared to yeast breads. Interestingly, it was just before the Civil War that a commercial baking powder was introduced in America and made fresh, hot quick bread a popular item for the breakfast and dinner table.
Beaten biscuits, buttermilk biscuits, soda biscuits and yes, even fried biscuits, were and still are very much a part of the cuisine of the Southland of which we, in Louisiana, are a part. Biscuits, like cornbread, are especially liked in rural areas where hearty meals are a part of daily life.
My aunt Grace not only served them or cornbread for breakfast, but also included them for lunch and supper. She and her kitchen helper, Viola, wouldn’t think of beginning a day without whipping up a batch or two which were kept warm on the back of their old wood stove while they prepared the meals for the family and farm workers.
My father professed that those biscuits were light-as-a-cloud and made up excuses to visit the busy spacious kitchen throughout the day to snitch one or two to tuck in his pocket. My grandfather also had a penchant for biscuits and on Saturdays Grace made him large fist-sized ones in which crushed cracklings were added. I observed him many times as he carefully sliced open the crunchy biscuits with his bone-handled knife, then spoon a healthy amount of fig or pear preserves on both pieces, then eat them slowly with much enjoyment.
Another biscuit from my childhood that I remember was those served at ladies’ tea parties at which I never saw a cup of tea. The ladies daintily sipped on dry sherry served in delicate tiny glasses or coffee served in demi-tasse cups. The biscuits were no larger than my thumb nail and were flavored with grated lemon rind. When no one was looking, I often snatched several at a time and retreated to the kitchen where I could eat them without being admonished.
When I was old enough to join the local 4-H Club, the first thing I wanted to learn was how to make biscuits. My first attempts were disastrous but I was determined to learn to make blue-ribbon biscuits. Needless to say Aunt Grace and Viola were pestered to death until I finally learned the trick—don’t overwork the dough! To this day, I scrutinize every biscuit I taste to ascertain if the cook in the kitchen knows what he or she is doing.
Which brings me to my husband and his taste in biscuits. When we’re traveling he likes nothing better than to pull into truck stops and order biscuits drenched in white gravy, which he prefers to call sawmill gravy. I’m not much of a fan of white gravy so I take mine drizzled with honey.
Maybe it’s time for you to broaden your biscuit repertoire. You don’t need any exotic ingredients. Flour, baking powder, salt, shortening, milk, and some imagination is all you need. To help you along the biscuit highway, here are some recipes that hopefully will spark your interest and taste buds, and encourage you to make your very own homemade ones.
But first a few tips to making good biscuits. For flaky biscuits, cut the shortening in finely so that it resembles coarse meal. Liquid should be beaten into dry ingredients just until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and rounds up into a ball. Kneading the dough gently ensures a fine textured biscuit. Always serve them piping hot, snuggled into a napkin on a serving dish or basket.
You can make these any size that suits you—small or large, they are delicious.
Makes 12 to 14 biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into chips
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, two tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder and the salt. With a pastry blender, two knives or your hands, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, four tablespoons of the cream, the eggs and the lemon rind. Mix well.
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, pour in the liquid mixture, and stir with a few quick strokes, mixing just until the dry ingredients are moistened.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Using your hands, pat the dough to a thickness of about three-fourth inch. Then, with a rolling pin, roll gently to about three-eighths thickness. Handle the dough as little as possible.
Cut the dough into biscuits rounds with a one-inch cookie cutter. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and brush with the remaining two tablespoons cream. Sprinkle with the remaining two tablespoons sugar. Bake until the tops are lightly golden, 12 to 15 minutes.
These cheese biscuits can be served for breakfast or at any meal. They’re great snacks as well. You can use just about any kind of cheese you like. If you don’t like cheese, don’t add it. These are what I call my Betty Crocker biscuits.
SOUTHERN CHEESE BISCUITS
Makes about 20 biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons shortening
1/2 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2/3 cup milk
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl and mix well. cut in the shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Mix in the cheese. Stir in almost all the milk. If the dough does not seem pliable, add enough milk to make a soft, puffy dough that is easy to roll out. (Too much milk makes dough sticky, not enough makes the biscuits dry.)
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead lightly. Roll the dough or pat it out to about one-fourth inch thickness. Cut out the biscuits with a biscuit cutter. Place them close together in a ungreased cake pan if you like softer biscuits, or place them on an ungreased baking sheet about an inch apart for crusty biscuits.
Bake until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
These are fun to serve at dinner parties!
ROASTED RED PEPPER AND PARMESAN BISCUITS
Makes 6 biscuits
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch black pepper
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into chips
1/3 cup finely chopped roasted red bell peppers
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons milk
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, cayenne, black pepper and mix well. Cut in the butter until it resembles coarse meal. Add the roasted peppers, the cheese and the milk and stir the mixture until it just forms a dough. Drop the dough in six mounds, about two inches apart onto a buttered baking sheet. Bake until they are golden, 15 to 18 minutes.
These are drop biscuits which are made with a soft dough which is “dropped” onto a baking sheet rather than being rolled and cut.
HAM AND BLACK PEPPER BISCUITS
Makes about 12 biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening
2 tablespoons chilled butter
2 ounces boiled ham, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups milk
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet.
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper into a bowl. Cut in the shortening and the butter with a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the ham. Add the milk and stir with a wooden spoon until just mixed. Drop the dough by large spoonfuls (about 1/4 cup) onto the prepared baking sheet about one inch apart. Bake until lightly browned, 10 to 12 minutes.
You might want to experiment with other flavors. Add three or four tablespoons of cocoa powder to your basic biscuit dough. Or, add finely chopped fresh herbs, such as tarragon, parsley, basil or thyme to your dough. My great niece added M & Ms to hers. She loved them!