- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Mid-February and the livin’ is chilly. Just as we want to avoid turning on the oven during the hot summer months, in the cold, dark winter we actually love a good excuse to bake.

The traditional American biscuit was created in the early years of the West. There were no ovens as we now know them and yeast was rare and inconsistent in quality.

Before commercial baking powder was invented, bakers used a mixture of cream of tartar and baking soda, along with an acid ingredient such as buttermilk to create the leavening agent needed to make bread rise.

Biscuits were the most common form of bread for many homes because they would bake under difficult conditions and would keep well.

All that was necessary to refresh last week’s batch would be a quick reheat by the hearth.

Hence the name, which stems from the combination of “bi” (twice) and the Latin “coquere” (the root for cook, cuisine, concoct and kitchen), meaning “twice-cooked.”

You can even have freshly baked biscuits for breakfast if you get the ingredients ready the night before. Place cut, unbaked biscuits on a baking tray, wrap it in a large, sealed plastic bag and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, heat the oven, remove the plastic bag, bake biscuits.


• Use unbleached all-purpose flour, unless otherwise instructed.

• Make sure the baking powder is fresh. How to tell? If you can’t remember purchasing any in the past 5 years, that’s a clue. If you aren’t sure and want to test it, place a teaspoon of baking powder in some warm water. If fresh, it will fizz up pretty quickly on contact. There’s often also a suggested expiration date on the container.

• The butter and the liquid should be cold.

• Cutting in the shortening means cutting the shortening into small bits in the flour until it resembles coarse meal. This is done with a pastry cutter or two knives, but I like the convenience (and the result) of doing this in pulses in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. The mixture is then moistened with the liquid ingredients until they just cling together.

• Always add the liquid in steps, least amount first. Once the mixture is just moistened, stir the dough only until it comes together.

• Do not overwork the dough and never knead it. Use your hands minimally, since their heat will warm the shortening and activate the gluten in the flour. This can compromise the flaky texture. Ideal biscuit dough is rough looking. (A smooth, elastic dough is great for bread but will not produce good biscuits.)

• Use a cutter dipped in flour and make the cut in one clean motion. Do not twist as you remove the cutter since this tends to tamp down the flaky layers.

• You can cut biscuits with an inverted drinking glass, cookie or biscuit cutters, or with a knife into creative shapes. I like diamonds. There is no law requiring that biscuits be round.

• For fluffy layered biscuits, the dough should be rolled and cut at least -inch to 3/4-inch thick.

• Bake biscuits in a hot oven. Serve soon or reheat before serving.

Simplest buttermilk biscuits

Nonstick cooking spray for the baking tray

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon sugar, optional

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

2/3 cup cold buttermilk

Lightly spray a baking tray with nonstick spray. Place flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar (if using) in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Buzz briefly to combine them.

Cut butter into thin slices and distribute on top of the dry mixture. Using several long pulses, process until the butter is uniformly cut into the dry ingredients and the mixture resembles coarse meal.

With the food processor running, pour buttermilk directly through the feed tube and into the dough. As soon as the mixture holds together (about 3 or 4 seconds later), turn off the machine.

Roll and/or pat dough into an 8-inch circle, 3/4-inch thick.

Cut free-form biscuits with a knife or, to be more traditional, with a glass. I like to use a glass that has a 2-inch diameter rim.

Bake in the center of preheated 400-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until deep golden brown on the bottom and light golden brown on top.

Cool on a rack for 5 minutes before serving. Makes 8 to 10 medium-sized biscuits.


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