Scratch Biscuits & Tea, Aunt Cassie’s antique teapot, Central Pennsylvania, November 2007, all photos © 2007-2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
Last November when I went home for Mom’s 70th birthday, she made Southern scratch biscuits. I’m heading home again next week, and I’ve been chatting with her on the phone, comparing notes on ancestral roots, drooling over all that good Southern cookin’ that lies in store. Hmmmmm. I hope the boiled peanuts at those little Georgia roadside stands are in season. And Liz wants to try the catfish stew.
As a precursor, I decided to post another family recipe, the nuts and bolts of Mom’s Southern scratch biscuits. Since I reconnected with my paternal aunts last summer (who had not seen me since I was about two), I’ve been trying to gather more tidbits from that side of the family. Mom told me she learned to bake scratch biscuits from my paternal grandmother, Estelle.
After I was born, Mom, then 16, and my father (17) lived with Estelle for a short time. Estelle taught her the secrets of buttermilk and lard, and the nuances of rolling out the dough, and flattening with the knuckles. Hand to hand to hand. It was all passed down.
Eventually, biscuit dough was manufactured and spit into a tube and many women stopped making scratch biscuits. Ever wonder when the canned refrigerator biscuit was invented? One source calls it – the path from accidental mess to Pillsbury Doughboy. Lively Willoughboy of Louisville, Kentucky invented refrigerator dough packed in cardboard tubes in 1930, with a patent issued in 1931. The product was acquired by Ballard & Ballard of Louisville which was acquired by Pillsbury Mills in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1951.
But let’s not think about that right now! This is our Southern scratch biscuit recipe, the way Amelia learned to make biscuits from my Grandmother Estelle. I left Mom’s notes in, just the way she wrote them. The secret’s in the simplicity. It is basic and as close to home as you can get.
Southern Scratch Biscuits
2 cups self-rising flour
1/4 cup lard or shortening (I use Crisco)
1 cup buttermilk (if you don’t have, use sour milk)
If you don’t have sour milk, put 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar and enough whole milk to make 1 cup, and let stand 5 minutes before using. Or 1 cup whole milk plus 1 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar (or 1 cup sour cream).
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Put the flour in a bowl. With your fingertips, work the shortening into the flour until well blended and evenly mixed. Pour in the buttermilk and mix until a dough is formed. Roll out the dough to about 1/2-inch thickness on a floured board: cut with a 2-inch biscuit cutter or pluck off balls, roll, and flatten them with your knuckles. (I have used a glass as a cutter.)
Bake on a greased baking sheet for 10 to 12 minutes, or until brown. Makes 10 to 12 biscuits.
When rolling out, do it on a floured board and use a floured rolling pin. If you don’t have a rolling pin, use a smooth glass. You can always find ways to make do. I have. When you make biscuits all the time, you can go by the way it feels. I kept a mixing bowl with flour in it and just took a little shortening with my fingers and mixed with the flour until it felt like the right consistency. But until then use the recipe!
Now I’m hungry for homemade biscuits so I guess I’ll have to go make some.
For a real treat, check out The Rise of the Southern Biscuit by Maryann Byrd. Liz and I watched the PBS documentary last winter and came away so hungry, we had to run out to Cracker Barrel (the closest thing we have to a Southern restaurant in the Far North) for a fix of biscuits and sweet tea. You’ll learn all about the roots of the Southern biscuit tradition, from Beaten Biscuits (the first Southern biscuit) to the biscuit brake.
And if your local station doesn’t have the show in its immediate lineup, you can e-mail the Documentary Channel and request that they air it. Oh, by the way, Mom mentioned using a smooth glass to roll out the dough; at the last link, there’s a photograph of Miss Daisy King’s Angel biscuits and her mother’s glass rolling pin that she inherited when she was six years old. This documentary will make your mouth water. Don’t forget the popcorn with lots of real butter!
-posted on red Ravine, Monday, July 7th, 2008
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