Monday, August 10, 2009

Biscuit Time!

Biscuits are delicious morsels of fluffy, warm clouds sent from heaven, waiting to be bathed in gravy or topped with all sorts of tasty treats. They are a benchmark of one's cookitude. And as a daughter of the south, especially one who loves cooking, baking high, light, fluffy biscuits should be as easy as napping in a hammock under a magnolia tree. But, alas, I still struggle with something that most southern ladies consider nothing more than something on which to rest your butter and jam.

Perhaps I am genealogically impaired. After all, my mom's Italian and from the rust belt of Pennsylvania and my dad is English and from sort of the Nebraska/Oklahoma area. Neither of my parents nor their parents baked biscuits. So, even if I'm not truly naturally impaired, I'm at least nurture-ally impaired, since I never got to stand on a stool next to mom or granny and help make them.

In high school, back when they used to separate the boys out of home economics class, we had a class on making biscuits. We followed the directions on the back of the flour bag. What we created were flat, round, hard discs that no amount of soaking in anything would make them edible. My home ec teacher just shrugged her shoulders and said, "Sometimes the recipes just aren't very good." I was not put off - I was discouraged, but not deterred. After seeing biscuits at fast-food restaurants that are high, lighty and fluffy, albeit dripping in greasy butter and too salty to enjoy, I decided it just can't be that hard. I vowed to find a way to make consistently good biscuits in my own kitchen with my own two hands.

It took awhile for me to remember my vow, but years later, I bought a box of Bisquick thinking that a box could solve this problem for me. While the biscuits were edible, they had a funny aftertaste. Sort of metallic. And the biscuits still spread wide on the pan instead of reaching the lofty heights they should. I read the ingredients on the box and realized that it was pretty much the same thing as self-rising flour, so I switched to the cheaper bagged flour.

After more disappointing attempts, I started
looking for recipes in cookbooks because when I did exactly what the bag or box recipe said, the biscuits were still wide, flat and underwhelming. I came across a recipe that called for buttermilk instead of regular milk. What a revelation! Something about the acid in the buttermilk caused a wonderful bubbly chemical reaction with either the baking powder or baking soda. I couldn't tell which, I just knew I'd never make biscuits without buttermilk ever again. While I resolved the fluffiness issue, I still had problems with too much spread and not enough browning.

If I haven't said so yet, I should tell you I'm a Food Network junkie. I watch virtually every show they put on if it involves ingredients, knives, blenders, ovens, cooktops, and a host. Alton Brown did an episode on biscuits in which I finally learned the purpose of baking powder and baking soda. Power is for lift - soda for spread. I also learned there are two types of baking powder - regular and double-acting baking powder. After that show, I jumped up to try my biscuit recipe again.

Another oddity I discovered is that if I measure all the ingredients, my biscuits tend to be less good than if I just go by feel, which is another problem - being able to repeat the recipe. Armed with double-acting baking powder, buttermilk, all purpose flour, a pinch of salt, and sweet butter, I began mixing. Something told me (probably Alton) to stay my hand - don't over mix, lest the biscuits be tough. So, this time I left the mix very wet. I used the flour on my counter to tighten it just enough. The feel of the dough under my hands this time was completely different from any other time I've made biscuits. It was soft and silky and light! I cut them and put them in the pre-heated 425 degree oven and tapped my fingers together like an evil scientist. If I had a pencil-thin mustache, I would have twirled it! The timer went off and again, no browning and too much spread. It was not alive.

So, here's where I start, with my 129th (or there-abouts) attempt at making a consistently good biscuit. I have now modified the recipe to using 1/2 bread flour and 1/2 unbleached all-purpose flour. I've eliminated the baking soda entirely. I also use 1/2 butter and 1/2 shortening. If I could find lard, I'd try that but my market doesn't carry lard. I also turn the oven up to 500 degrees instead of the luke warm 425 degrees the recipies on the bag call for.

Some folks say to not use more than a couple teaspoons of baking powder because of the metallic taste. My response to that is - hogwash! Just use non-aluminum baking powder!

So, this past Saturday, excited to blog about
biscuits, I got up, put on my game face and pre-heated the oven to 500 degrees. I even measured the ingredients for the biscuits and made sausage gravy to put on top.
This gravy made from locally-produced Neese's sausage with extra sage. I love that stuff! I used to use Jimmy Dean's 50% less-fat sausage until I realized it was 50% less fat because there's 50% less sausage in the package! It used to take two packages of Jimmy Dean to get this volume of sausage gravy. Neese's has a bit more fat content, so I have to remember to skim some off before I start the roux. I throw in a pinch of cayenne pepper and use half and half. Might as go all the way!
Here's what the biscuits looked like out of the oven. Finally, brown biscuits without having to turn on the broiler! I also did not put any butter or milk on top. The little biscuit is for my kitty Pepper, who has "helped" me make biscuits since she was a kitten. She wasn't fooling me - I know she was really just after the milk.
And, the final result. Biscuits and sausage gravy! You might be wondering, why was I displeased with this result? Well, the biscuits were not quite high enough and the dough was a little too damp in the middle. I'll modify the recipe to cut back on the fat, use a little more baking powder and see how that goes. I'll keep you posted!