A few weeks ago our Mennonite friends in Kentucky invited us to watch them make sweet sorghum syrup. Sorghum is similar to molasses but has a much earthier taste with a touch of sourness. It can be used cup for cup in any recipe calling for molasses, honey, or corn syrup. Having said all that, in the South, if you give a friend some sorghum, they’re going to want a biscuit, a light, crunchy biscuit.
I anointed my husband, the Southerner, the biscuit maker, knowing he had watched his mother make biscuits for years. Unfortunately, they weren’t quite as easy to make as he remembered. The first batch was fraught with problems: they were dry and hard, much like hockey pucks. From the rolling hills and gorgeous lakes of KY, I went online and begged our Facebook friends to tell us what went wrong. Their suggestions poured in. Futzing around in the kitchen, with the goal of making a good biscuit, became our vacation vocation.
Making biscuits was the first food I learned to cook in Home Ec at Dartmouth Middle School in 1968. Our classroom consisted of four brand spankin’ new kitchens lined up in a row along the wall. Our gray-haired teacher, Ms. Harriman, rarely left her chair, but her desk was like a pulpit, and we girls did as instructed while she sat and taught. Ms. Harriman did not miss a thing, and you did not want to be the one to make her get-out-of-her-chair. Strict as she was, we had fun learning to measure ingredients properly and make uncomplicated meals. Home Ec, with cooking classes one semester and sewing lessons the next, quickly became my favorite class.
Thinking back, I’m almost positive you couldn’t buy the light, silky, self-rising flour required for our biscuit recipe in Massachusetts back in the 1960’s. To make “quick” breads like these biscuits, we used a sifter to combine the all-purpose flour, salt, and baking powder. White Lily Flour, a Southern kitchen staple, is an even lighter version of all-purpose, or “plain” flour, as it was known in the South. It is milled from soft winter wheat that has a lower protein and gluten content than the hard wheat milled for all-purpose flour. If you don’t have any self-rising flour, you could substitute 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ½ teaspoon of salt. Additionally, for the fat in biscuit recipes, you could use either shortening, butter, or lard. I haven’t tried cooking with lard yet, but I’ve been told it makes the best biscuits and pie crusts. In a pinch, if you are out of buttermilk you could mix 1 cup of milk with one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice and let it stand for about 5 minutes. The sour mixture that results is what gives buttermilk the tangy taste we love for baking. Did you know that traditional “butter” milk was the thin residual liquid left over after butter was churned from milk? The buttermilk we buy today is cultured and has been fermented and pasteurized.
2 cups self-rising flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1⁄3 cup all-vegetable shortening, lard, or butter, chilled
1 cup buttermilk
1) Preheat oven to 500º
2) Lightly flour a large baking sheet. You can use the self-rising flour for this.
3) Mix together flour, salt, and shortening with a pastry cutter, whisk, or two knives.
4) Add buttermilk and mix with a fork until dough leaves the sides of the bowl. Do not overwork the dough. The airiness in a biscuit is created by the holes left when shortening flecks melt and create pockets of steam. If you overmix the dough, you’ll lose those air pockets. The dough will be sticky.
5) Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface or a sheet of parchment paper, for easy cleanup.
6) Using floured hands, gently shape the dough into a disc. The way this delicately soft mound of dough feels in your hands is heavenly.
7) Flour the rolling pin and gently roll out the dough until it is ¾ inch thick. Alternatively, you could press the dough out with your fingertips.
8) Dust the edges of either a 2-inch or 3-inch biscuit cutter with flour and cut your biscuits. Place on a floured baking sheet. A 2-inch cutter will yield 16 biscuits, and a 3-inch cutter will yield 12.
9) If you want the biscuits to have soft sides, arrange them on a baking sheet, so their sides touch. If you want crunchy sides, arrange them about one inch apart. At this point, you could put the pan of uncooked biscuits in the freezer to freeze. Once frozen, put the biscuits in a freezer bag until ready to bake.
10) Bake at 500º for 5 minutes and then turn the oven off. Without opening the oven door (and letting out 20% of the oven’s heat) set your timer for 3 minutes. When done, the biscuits should be a light golden brown. If not, give them another minute or two more to bake.
A Southern Treat:
Mix together a pat of butter and a heaping tablespoon of sorghum syrup. Spread mixture over warm biscuits.
The Biscuit King:
P.S. Special thanks to those who offered baking tips: Lou Ann, Robin, Anne, Libba, Stephanie, Terry, Susan, Holly M, Holly W, Mary Sue, Barbara, and Ms. H.
Toppings that go well on biscuit
How to Make Grape Jelly (and grow the grapes)
How to Make Crab Apple Jelly (and grow the crab apples)
How to Make Oven-Roasted Strawberry and Rosemary Jam (and grow the strawberries)
Raising Sorghum Cane to Make Sorghum Syrup
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© 2014 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.