Sunday, December 19, 2010

Old School Biscuits

This week I got a little old school with a batch of biscuits.

Old school how?  For starters, I used an old recipe.  And by old I'm referring not to the age of the formula itself but rather the condition of the paper it's written on.  I transcribed it from my mother's version some twenty years ago when I was first teaching myself to cook and trying to learn some of her stand-by recipes.  This is one recipe that has been put to very good use.

The Recipe
But, age of the paper aside, I've actually gone more old school with this batch than I have in the past, and that's because just a few days ago I received my order from Columbia's Anson Mills and it included their Colonial Style Whole-Grain Wheat Flour.  This is flour the way it used to be made before the era of the iron-roller mills.  It's made from whole grains of Red May wheat, which you can tell right away from not just the coarser texture but also the little dark flecks scattered throughout it, which are the bran.

Anson Mills' Colonial-Style Red May Wheat Flour
I figured such old-school flour needed something a little better than plain old supermarket buttermilk, so I splurged for a bottle of buttermilk from Homestead Creamy.  Their milk comes from just two farms--their own in Wirtz, Virgnia, and a neighbor's.  It's bottled in real, old school glass bottles, and if you live in Roanoke, they'll deliver it to an insulated milk box on your doorstep via their old-fashioned milk delivery service.  (Being a bit outside their delivery area, I picked up my bottle at Earthfare.)

Good buttermilk
It's remarkable stuff: very, very thick and creamy.  In fact, it's much more like good yogurt in texture and flavor than the regular buttermilk you get at the supermarket.  (As a side note, it is still cultured buttermilk, meaning that it is regular milk with bacteria added to create the lactic acid that gives buttermilk it's distinctive sour edge--much the way yogurt is made.  True old-school buttermilk is the thin stuff left over after butter is churned.  I am hot on the heels of acquiring myself a bottle of that, but that's another story altogether.)

Here's the recipe.


2 cups flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 t baking soda
1/3 cup of cold butter
3/4 cup of buttermilk

First, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and mix together.  Next, cut in the butter.  There are several ways you can do this.  You could use a pastry blender (like this one), which is a handy little device with five or six parallel metal blades  that chop up the butter and mix it in with the flour.  By all accounts they work well, but I've never tried it: I just cut the butter in by hand.  To do so, I take the cold butter and chop it into small cubes, then toss them in the bowl with the flour.  I cover the butter lumps with flour and squeeze them between my fingers to break them down into smaller bits and rub the butter into them.  You just squeeze and rub, squeeze and rub until all the butter is blended in and your left with a bowl of what looks like bread crumbs.

Important: You want to make sure the butter is cold; otherwise, it will just mix in with the flour.   You want those little lumps: those are what make the biscuits flaky in the end.

Finally, stir in the buttermilk and mix up the dough until the liquid is all absorbed by the flour.  With your hands, knead and shape the dough until all the flour is worked in and the dough is of a single consistency.  It should be still be slightly sticky to the touch, but not so sticky that it clings tou your hands and the side of the bowl.  Now you're ready to roll out the biscuits.

Dough rolled out and ready for cutting

Sprinkle a little flour across a cutting board (or you could do this right on the kitchen counter), turn the dough out on it, and knead it up and down on the board, sprinkling on a little more flour if it seems too sticky.  Roll out the dough on the board with a rolling pin (I rub mine down with a little flour to keep the dough from sticking) until it's between a half-inch and an inch thick.  How thick you like your biscuits is a personal preference.  I tend to make my a little thinner--probably a half inch thick when rolled out.

To cut the biscuits, you could use a biscuit cutter if you have one.  Or, just do what I do and use a plastic cup of the desired diameter.   This again is a matter of personal preference.  Lately, I've been making them several inches in diameter, which is perfect for slathering with jelly and having for breakfast.  If you're going to use them for other purposes, though (like topping them with ham and pimento cheese for a tasty appetizers) you could make them even smaller.

Ready for the oven

Place the biscuits on a greased or non-stick baking pan and bake in a 450 degree oven till brown and crispy around the edges.  My old handwritten recipes says to start checking the biscuits at 8 minutes and every two minutes after that.  For this batch, it took me a full twelve minutes to get them fully done; smaller cut biscuits will likely take closer to eight minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack, though in practice you can eat one as soon as it's cool enough to hold, and half of this pan disappeared within five minutes of its being out of the oven.

This recipe would work just fine with regular old all purpose flour and cultured buttermilk,  But, the Anson Mills flour makes an remarkable difference.  The biscuits turned out a light brown color reminiscent of good whole wheat bread.  And, the flavor of the old-fashioned flour is stunning.  The biscuits are notably crispier than ones made with regular all-purpose flour, and there's a good, solid body to them.  Little flecks of bran remain in the biscuit, too, giving it a touch of a grittiness to some of the bits that is unusual but not at all unpleasant--a lot like stoneground grits, in fact.  The bottoms of the biscuit get a nice dark brown and crispy, too.

To serve, I simply sliced them in half and spread on a little butter and some good strawberry preserves.  A perfect breakfast.

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