Plumstone: Building better biscuits

I’m making biscuits tonight—hoping that all those hours I spent with my nose poking above the pale blue Formica countertop at my grandparents’ house will pay off. I watched “Papa,” my grandfather, make a thousand biscuits and dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls on that counter as a child. As I mix up a batch of my own biscuits on my own tile countertop I recall his gentle chiding: “Now, don’t mix em too much, see…”

I don’t own the cookbook he uses in my memories— “The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook” with scotchtaped pages faded, tattered and flourdusted. I consult instead my own copy of “James Beard’s American Cookery”—a book from a similar era—and turn to the recipe for buttermilk biscuits. I find a very basic recipe, and, since I’m no longer trying to replicate my grandfather’s biscuits, begin to improvise. I remember a recipe from a different cookbook, “A Cowboy in the Kitchen” by Grady Spears, for sourdough biscuits and gamble that maybe it would work to use sourdough starter instead of buttermilk. (I have in my kitchen about six sourdough starters for “Amish Friendship Bread” and if you’ve ever made it, you know that it multiplies about as fast as a feral sow—leaving me little choice but to cram the stuff into whatever recipe gives me a funny look.) I don’t have buttermilk. And I don’t have vinegar.

I convince myself that it will work and begin to sift the dry ingredients together through an old tin sifter with flowers painted on it. I pour in the butter and then add the sourdough starter—which is just made from milk, flour and sugar anyhow, only fermented—and fold it together—gently as you would touch a newborn’s soft spot. I feel the sticky dough begin to clump around my fingers and remember hating the feeling when I was little. I used to wonder how Papa could ignore it so—grabbing bowls and utensils and opening the refrigerator with lobey biscuit-dough fingers and leaving floury handprints all over the kitchen.

The mixture comes up a little dry so I add milk, mix again and turn it out onto my floured countertop. The recipe gives explicit instruction to knead the dough for three minutes, but I ignore it. James Beard can’t have known better than Papa, how to make biscuits. I poke at James Beard as though he’s back from the dead, standing next to me in my kitchen: “You don’t want tough biscuits, do you?” I roll out the dough and dance each cut biscuit through a plate of melted butter before placing it on the baking sheet.

The biscuits turn out okay. And my friends and family gathered around the table offer some good criticism. They taste well enough, but are a little flat and dry. I’m sure this is due to the lower fat and moisture content in the sourdough mixture versus that of milk. I have plans for another batch later this week—with lots of changes to make. In that batch I’ll add more milk, I’ll be more careful with the measurements and I think I’ll use cold butter in the dough instead of melted butter. But if you think for a minute that I’m going to knead those biscuits for three whole minutes, you’ve got another thing coming.

Buttermilk Biscuits—from James Beard’s American Cookery

2 Cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/3 Cup butter
¾ Cup buttermilk or sour milk

Combine all the dry ingredients and sift into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and blend in well. Stir in the buttermilk and blend till the dough holds together. Turn out on a floured board and flour the top of the dough lightly. Knead about 3 minutes and pator roll out in a circle about ½ inch thick. Cut the biscuits any size you like, dip them into melted butter, and arrange on a baking sheet or in a 9×9-inch buttered pan. Bake at 450 degrees 12 to 15 minutes.

Note. To sour milk nowadays, combine 7/8 Cup milk with 1 ½ Tablespoons vinegar and let stand a half hour.

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