Saturday, November 03, 2007


Homemade biscuits should be better appreciated for the efficient happiness-delivery vehicles that they are. They make the house smell wonderful, they're decadent enough to be special, and with small variations, they can make breakfast, dinner or dessert feel like a celebration. And, most importantly, they're easy. It only takes about half an hour to make them with things you tend to have hanging around already (or, if you don't bake much, you only need to buy flour and baking powder once to have many, many potential batches of biscuits in the house).

They're also adaptable to the whims and ingredients of the moment. You can temper decadence with virtue (an approach that, I admit, usually makes my chin go up and my eyebrows go down) by adding chopped dried fruit, wheat germ, and/or whole wheat flour. You can make regular cut-out biscuits, or add a little more liquid, skip the kneading and cutting, and make drop biscuits. You can use all different kinds of fat, which will change the texture, but they will still be biscuits, and therefore still delicious. I, personally, have used butter, chicken fat, pork fat, and bacon drippings (and I once read a recipe which mentioned bear fat). When you buy happy meat and organic butter, it seems ridiculous to pour one cup of organic free-range animal fat into the garbage, just to pay three dollars for another cup of organic free-range animal fat.

The drawbacks to biscuits are two, minor, and now, solved. They are:

1) Biscuits are best eaten within hours of being baked, so trying to be all labor-saving and baking up a big batch doesn't work that well.
2) Which recipe among thousands of vastly varying recipes is the One to Use?

Problem one solved: after cutting out all your biscuits, bake what you think your family will eat over the next four hours, and freeze the rest. When you want biscuits again, stick the frozen, cut-out biscuits in the oven at 400° for 20 minutes. I know that this works well with biscuits that are an inch thick and two inches square when raw. Results may vary if you make thicker or wider biscuits, or if you make cute shapes with protruding bits.

Problem two solved:

While I'm an improvisational cook, I'm usually a by-the-book baker, because I never feel like I understand the physics involved well enough to improvise. But yesterday, googling around for a recipe for spicy, cheesy biscuits, I was getting unsatisfactory results, so I gave up, pooled the all of the internet's various opinions and my own experiences and prejudices, and came up with this recipe. It resulted in the best biscuits I can remember eating since the after-school "biskies" my mother would make when I was in elementary school and we lived on Dairy Road (our garage was built of stone and seemed ancient to me. I remember being pretty convinced it was an ancient relic of the dairy our street was named for. I realize it was maybe too conveniently car-sized for that to be true). Anyway, in honor of that house, my mother, and dairy products in general:

Dairy Road Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick cold butter
3/4 cup cold 1% milk

Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients in pats, and then attack it all with a pastry cutter (one of those many-wired tools that looks like a cross between a whisk and a horseshoe with a handle). Some people use two knives for this, some love the food processor, and you can please yourself. Just get it so that the biggest pieces of butter are the size of a bean, and most of them are smaller. Pour the milk into the bowl, and quickly and lightly mix it until it starts to cluster together, with a few stray crumbs. Turn it out, crumbs and all, onto a floured board and pat it into a rough rectangle that's about two inches thick. Fold it in half and press it down to two inches thick again, patting and poking here and there to help it keep a square or rectangular shape. Do this three more times, for a total of four fold-and-flattens. Now flatten it even further, until it's about an inch thick.

Now cut it into biscuits. I just use a sharp knife and cut it into 2" squares, but if you want to cut it into little shapes with cookie cutters, that would probably work too. Whatever method you use, don't saw or twist, just use a firm, definitive downward motion, so that they rise right. Using cookie cutters does have the benefit of leaving you with odd shaped scraps, which can be baked along with the cute shapes and will then need tidying up, which is a duty that traditionally falls to the cook. And sometimes it falls to the the cook along with a cup of tea and a catalog filled with more cute cookie cutter shapes, and the circle of life continues.

If you want to freeze some to bake later, do that now before the butter starts to warm up. Stick the to-be-postponed biscuits on a wax-papered plate or cookie sheet in the freezer. Once they're frozen solid, put them in a freezer bag.

To bake them now, put the biscuits on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes or so (another reason to love biscuits: they're self-greasing!). Once they're done, you can turn off the oven and hold them in there for 10 minutes or so, or until you're almost ready to eat. In the cooling oven, they'll stay hot and keep getting crispier. Out of the oven, they'll just begin their quick trip first to coldness, then to dullness, and then to staleness. Holding them in a basket and a napkin is a good option for during the meal, but the longer you do that, the more they'll steam themselves out of crispness.

Gosh. I sure went on and on, didn't I? Kind of makes it look complicated, doesn't it? Here's the short version:

Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter until the largest pieces are the size of beans. Gently stir in the milk. Turn it out onto a floured board and knead briefly. Roll out to 1" thick, and cut into biscuits. Bake 15 minutes.

That's more like it.

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