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The Times
  • Jim Hillibish: Baking a batch of biscuits

  • In the food business, a side dish that lasts since the Roman Empire probably is worth our notice. The first biscuits were soldier food, served with honey and black pepper. They were on to something. Try it sometime.

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  • We all have grandmothers who crafted incredible biscuits. I know that. I hear it all the time. “These are almost as good as your Nana’s.”
    Almost? Hey, I’m trying.
    I spent enough time in the South to realize Sunday dinner is a call to worship, and biscuits are the bible. There’s Kenny’s Restaurant in Dalton, Ga. He has a review pasted to the menu. Every word is about his “incredible biscuits.”
    And at Tupelo Honey Cafe in Asheville, N.C., “Love at first biscuits, flaky perfection!” Up North, something flaky is on the other side of weird.
    In the food business, a side dish that lasts since the Roman Empire probably is worth our notice. The first biscuits were soldier food, served with honey and black pepper. They were on to something. Try it sometime.
    Since then, we find biscuits everywhere, in every food culture, in all school lunch pails. Some eaters believe they are therapeutic. Biscuits in Northern Africa are honored for promoting digestion. The government of India describes biscuits as “a way of life, health, strength and happiness.”
    In America, even dogs celebrate biscuits and certainly teething babies.
    And then there's Bisquick
    Dining-car chefs on the Pennsylvania Railroad kept their own dry biscuit mixes handy. One recipe was appropriated by a traveling General Mills executive in 1931. It soon  became Bisquick, “90 seconds from package to oven,” a billion-dollar idea. And like those cardboard dough tubes that followed, convenience is the dearth of fantastic biscuits.
    If you must, make your own Bisquick and biscuits:
    1 cup flour
    1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 tablespoon shortening (oil, butter, etc.)
    Add water slowly until dough forms. Cut into rounds and bake 20 minutes at 375 degrees. Or roll out further for pizza dough. Add more water and you have pancake batter. And on and on.
    Of course, all you consummate biscuit bakers out there sneeze at Bisquick. I mean, how lazy is that? Like canned soup vs. homemade, Bisquick foisters fast over fantastic. I imagine kids growing up on nothing but Bisquick. Poor dears.
    Enough. I’ve spent a vast portion of my life trying different scratch biscuit concoctions, never reaching nirvana. Then one day, a reader asked me over to try hers. And she told me the secret: “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”
    I’ve distilled my biscuit making into five iron-clad rules, beginning with baking in an iron skillet. To keep you from searching aimlessly for grandma’s expert biscuitry, here are the rest:
    1. Leave the machines for cookies
    Biscuits are a living thing. You don’t mix them, you coax them, and if the creatures feel like it, they will perform. Kitchen hardware -- and especially mixers, and even more especially blenders and food processors -- are out. This includes rolling pins, the death of tender biscuits.
    Page 2 of 2 - 2. Get your paws wet
    God made fingers to work biscuit dough. There’s something about the warmth of our hands that converts gentle touch into the best biscuits. It starts with adding the shortening. Crumble it between your fingers, and the flour to create a granular meal. Do not roll out the dough, pat it out with your hands.
    3. Use half and half
    Water is for mud pies. Milk is getting there, but no award winner. Half and half has just enough butterfat to awaken the dough. For sourdough, add a teaspoon of cider vinegar.
    4. That powder stuff
    Some biscuits are called “powder” biscuits to honor their most important additive. But baking powder often is the downfall of many attempts. If you remember none of the rest of this stuff, place “use fresh baking powder” in your random access memory. You can go in any kitchen and find stale baking powder. We just don’t use enough of it. Baking powder more than a month old starts losing its rising power. Older baking powder even affects flavor.
    5. Less is more
    The less you handle the dough, the more tender your biscuits, period. Don’t mix the dough to that beautiful satin sheen of bread dough. “Just mixed” means bits of flour are fine, even preferred.
    And now, it’s time for the Big Reveal. I’ve got five years invested in this recipe. I finally have it where I want it.
    Jim's Scratch Cheese Biscuits
    2 cups flour
    1 tablespoon baking powder
    1⁄2 teaspoon salt
    1⁄2 stick butter
    1⁄4 cup sour cream
    1⁄2 cup half and half
    1⁄2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
    1 tablespoon chives or parsley, chopped
    Sift the flour, salt and baking power. Chop the butter into small pieces and add. Use your fingers to crumble the butter into the flour. It should look grainy.
    Add cheese and chives. Whisk sour cream into half and half. Pour into flour and work with fingers to compose dough. Pat out to 3⁄4-inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter to form into rounds and place them, touching, in a lightly greased cast iron skillet. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, checking after 12.
    Makes 8 to 10.
    Biscuitography
    • For a crunchier result, separate dough circles by a half inch on the baking pan. Circles that touch each other make for more tender biscuits.
    • Reheat day-old biscuits by covering with a damp paper towel and microwaving for 30 seconds on high.
    • During hard times, biscuits are eaten with gravy as a filling, meatless meal. These are called “sop biscuits” as they sop up the liquid.
    • When you work biscuit dough with a machine, you get beaten biscuits. They are hard crackers, similar to the hardtack once eaten by soldiers and sailors.
    • Southern ham biscuits often are kneaded 200 times (no more) to produce a harder texture. They’re also called “hog biscuits.”
    • For “drop biscuits,” use one cup of milk to produce a heavy batter. Drop onto greased baking sheets like cookies or onto the top of cooking stews.
    • If you order a “biscuit” in Russia, you’ll get a sponge cake.
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