Most southerners grew up, as I did, eating lard biscuits, light and flaky, yes, but seldom bigger than a fifty-cent piece or a silver dollar — and not too tall, either. When the fast-food joints got wind of the popularity of the humble quick bread some twenty years ago, they started serving a biscuit that barely resembled those of my youth. Filled with vegetable shortening and too much baking powder, the biscuit had more than doubled to nearly the size of a hamburger bun.
They’re made the same as most southern biscuits: chilled fat is worked into leavened soft southern flour, some milk or buttermilk is added, and the dough is lightly patted or rolled out to be cut into biscuits. The only difference between these biscuits and those of my youth is that these are made with butter — an extravagance when I was a child that now seems oddly conservative in place of the lard – and the fact that they are bigger.
Biscuits take practically no time to assemble or bake, but you’ll never get the right results without soft southern flour. White Lily is a reliable brand that my family, with its roots in Appalachia, has been using for over 100 years. If you can’t find it in your neck of the woods, you can visit them online at www.whitelily.com or call them at 800 595 1380. It’s made from the traditional soft winter wheat that grows down South, low in the gluten molecules that stretch, allowing yeast breads to trap air. Biscuits are chemically leavened with baking powder, so the dough doesn’t need to stretch, making it tough. Southern flour is literally soft to the touch. It is finely ground precisely for making traditional – and legendary – southern cakes and biscuits. Nevertheless, working a dough made with southern flour will work the gluten and toughen it, so you’ll want to avoid touching the dough. Measure the flour in dry-measuring cups, that is, those that are graded when filled to the brim.
You’ll also want to avoid self-rising flour, which contains too much leavening, and baking powder that contains aluminum sulfate, which leaves a metallic taste in the mouth. Look for an aluminum-free brand such as Rumford. If your grocer doesn’t carry it, try your local natural foods store.
These buttery biscuits are great for breakfast or late-night, drowned in melted butter and jam or syrup, but I also like them spread with creamy mustard and chock full of sliced ham.
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups buttermilk at room temperature
Measure 3 cups of the flour into a metal mixing bowl by spooning it into a measuring cup and leveling it off. Measure an additional ½ cup of flour into the bowl. Set the additional ½ cup of flour aside. Add the baking powder and salt and mix well with a whisk.
Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or two knives until it is uniformly mixed in and there are no large lumps. Add 1 ¼ cups of buttermilk, stirring with a rubber spatula until the mixture is just blended and it leaves the sides of the bowl. Do not overmix. Add more buttermilk or flour only if necessary.
Dump the contents out onto a lightly floured surface. Place the fingers of both hands down inside the flour bag to coat them. Using only your fingers, lightly pat the dough together. With a floured rolling pin, lightly roll it out about ¾ inch thick.
Using a floured metal 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter – not an overturned glass, which will seal the edges so they cannot rise – quickly punch out the biscuits. Do not press and turn the biscuit cutter in the dough (which also seals the edges). Avoid touching the dough with your hands.
Place the biscuits, close but not touching, on a baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes, until they are lightly browned on top. Serve at once.
Yield: 15 biscuits