What A Biscuit Tastes Like
A simple biscuit has changed my life. Or at least reaffirmed what I feel about the nature of modern food.
I walk through the aisles of certain grocery stores and I don’t see real food-the kind that will taste good but that will also nourish your body and soul, look lovely on your plate and showcase the beauty of our earth and what we are so graciously bestowed.
We need to get back to the basics again, to marvel at the roundness of an apple, the humbleness of a mushroom, the wispiness of a scallion just plucked from the earth.
I stumbled upon a book that echoes these thoughts, written by a man who claims his mother is the best southern cook in the world. She’s old now, slower at her old stove (she’s been through 25 of them in her lifetime), but her recipes live in her stories. Not in ingredients, not in measurements, but in the food that springs from her stories.
His mother lived though lean times when people went out and foraged for their food, when they had to know which weeds were edible, which animals tasted good in a stew, which things you could grow in your garden that would get you through scarcity.
And one of the staples they depended on and that comforted them and nourished them was biscuits. Not biscuits from a tin tube but real biscuits, the kind that come out of the oven and make you weep after your first buttery bite.
I had never made a biscuit from scratch, understanding there was a know-how to it that I had never been privy to.
I want you to make these biscuits because I want you to spread butter on them tonight at your dinner table and remember that food can be simple and intuitive and delicious. And that the best food comes from the true stories of people who labored for centuries in kitchens before us.
The mother who shares this recipe in the book “The Best Cook In The World” knows no measurements and does not read cookbooks. These are my words:
Pour three to four cups of self-rising flour into a big bowl, making a well. You are not going to use all the flour in this bowl, but rather incorporate some of the flour on the bottom and the sides as you go along. Don’t get too ambitious and use too much. Pretend the flour is a bowl itself, with two inches of flour at the bottom, and flour up along the sides.
Now, you’ll need four tablespoons of Crisco and what you do is break one tablespoon at a time into small bits with your hands and put them on top of the flour at the bottom of the bowl.
Now add 3/4 of a cup of buttermilk to the bottom of the flour bowl. Then 1/4 cup of water.
Now what to do with this odd concoction?
Start gently kneading the bottom of the bowl with your fingers. You’re trying to encourage some of the flour on the bottom and the sides to fall into the wet well, so that eventually you’ll start forming a dough.
But if too much flour falls in, they will be too dry.
If not enough flour is coaxed into the well, they will be sticky.
Now, I know people who have worked with flour will know what they’re doing here. You’ll understand what kind of consistency you’re going for, but for those less sturdy on the subject — use your intuition like the cooks of yore: you’re trying to form a soft dough, making a semi-firm ball. Not too dry! Not too sticky!
Why not just pour a specified measurement of ingredients into a bowl and mix it?
Because life is a mess and unpredictable. Maybe it’s hot outside, maybe the buttermilk is different today, maybe the flour is old. This way, you’re leaving your dough with all sorts of possibilities. You’re feeling your way through this and exact measurements will not leave room for life to incorporate itself.
You’re going to save or discard the flour you don’t use from that bowl.
You have your ball formed?
Grab a piece from that ball about the size of your palm. Roll it into a small ball and then flatten it slightly between your hands. It should be semi-firm. Forget about making the biscuits uniform. We aren’t aiming for perfect, we’re aiming for homemade.
Put the balls of dough on a tray rubbed with a tiny bit of Crisco into a preheated oven at 450 degrees. Space them well.
You’ll smell them when they’re ready. It will be the loveliest smell ever, and when you look in the oven, the tops of the biscuits will be a pretty light brown. Inside, those biscuits will be flaky and warm and you’ll have softened butter on hand.
They usually take ten minutes if you need a guide.
So few ingredients. But it’s the story here that makes them, the centuries of knowledge that you’ll taste.