- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

Southern-style biscuits sport so many guises. From my childhood I remember light and flaky biscuits made with molasses and sweet potatoes, golden biscuits speckled with bits of ham and sausage or bacon, and tangy buttermilk biscuits flavored with such crushed herbs as sage or rosemary.

When I was growing up, tiny biscuits stirred with a few tablespoons of chopped watercress or parsley accompanied shrimp or chicken salad or slivers of ham at ladies’ luncheons, afternoon teas, missionary club meetings, or the plethora of showers and graduation dinners that will soon crowd the calendar.

Years ago, when the preacher came for Sunday dinner, Mama often added a little finely minced onion to the biscuit batter and then scattered the tops with a few pinches of grated, sharp cheddar cheese.

When I was finally allowed to make the biscuits all by myself for Sunday company, I knew that I had arrived as a cook in my mother’s kitchen. I learned many variations over the years. My Aunt Mary, who lived on the Gulf Coast, made delectable sugar-crusted biscuits that were redolent with cinnamon and orange peel.

During the summer, Mama and I often made shortbread-style cornmeal biscuits that were served with the Sunday roast chicken or loin of pork, or enjoyed as dessert when topped with sugared fruit.

What literally took the cake was a batch of angel biscuits. This Southern specialty, which supposedly owes its name to the fact that they are made with both baking powder and yeast — a double rising — are light and heavenly.

All of these biscuits of yesteryear are stellar. They are full of flavor, made with unbleached flour, ideal for company or family meals, sure to warm body and soul during these waning days of winter. They’re easy to make, too.

Here are several biscuit variations adapted from my cookbook, “Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections From African-American Churches.”

Buttermilk herb biscuits

2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon finely crushed dried sage or rosemary, or more if desired

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

2/3 cup buttermilk, about, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Stir in the sage or rosemary. Cut the butter into small chunks and stir into the bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

Add the buttermilk and stir the batter lightly with a fork. Turn the dough onto a floured board or pastry cloth and knead lightly 4 or 5 times.

Roll out or pat the dough into an 8-inch circle, about ½-inch thick. Using a 2½- or 3-inch cookie cutter, cut the dough into rounds. Gently roll scraps and cut again into rounds.

Place the biscuits on a lightly buttered baking sheet, allowing a little space between each. Set the pan on the lower shelf of the hot oven and bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack. Serve the biscuits while still hot. Makes 10 to 12 biscuits.

Cheese biscuits: Work 1/3 to ½ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese into the crumbled flour and butter, mixing well. Roll out the batter and cut into rounds. Sprinkle the tops with a couple tablespoons more of grated cheese, dividing evenly. Then bake the biscuits as directed above.

Sweet potato biscuits with sesame

2 to 3 tablespoons sesame seeds

2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 or 2 teaspoons sugar, or more if desired

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

1 cup cooked mashed sweet potato

1/4 to 1/3 cup milk or light cream or half-and-half, at room temperature

1 egg white

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Scatter the sesame seeds in the bottom of a small, heavy skillet. Set the pan over medium heat, and lightly toast the seeds for about 5 or so minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a medium bowl.

Cut the butter into small chunks and add to the bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until it resembles coarse cornmeal. Stir in the mashed sweet potatoes. Then, sprinkle over the milk or cream or half-and-half, mixing lightly with a fork.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured board or pastry cloth and knead quickly and lightly, 6 or 7 times.

Using a floured 2½- or 3-inch cookie cutter, cut the dough into biscuit shapes. Roll the scraps and cut again. Place the biscuits on an ungreased cookie sheet, not touching. Lightly brush the top of each biscuit with a little egg white and then spoon or sprinkle over the sesame seeds.

Set the pan of biscuits on the lower shelf of the hot oven. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the biscuits are lightly brown and puffed. Remove from the oven and serve hot. Makes about 12 biscuits.

Variation: Substitute 1/3 cup of whole wheat flour for an equal amount of unbleached flour and proceed as directed above, adding a little more milk or cream, if needed.

Cornmeal shortcake biscuits

Serve these biscuits topped with sugared fresh fruits for a delectable dessert treat, or omit the sugar and serve with an entree, such as roast chicken or pork or baked ham.

12/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup fine-grain cornmeal, such as Indian Head

2 to 4 tablespoons sugar, if desired

2½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled

1 large egg, at room temperature

½ cup buttermilk, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lightly butter a baking sheet and set aside.

Sift the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda into a large, shallow bowl. Cut the butter into small chunks and add to the bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

In a small bowl, stir together the egg and buttermilk and beat until well-blended. Sprinkle the milk-egg mixture over the dough. Using a fork, quickly stir the dampened dough together and then gather into a ball. If the batter is a little dry, add a little more buttermilk.

Turn the dough onto a floured board or pastry cloth and knead lightly four or five times. Roll out or pat the dough into an 8- or 9-inch circle, about 3/4-inch thick. Using a 2½- or 3-inch cookie cutter, cut the dough into rounds. Gently roll scraps and cut again into rounds.

Place the biscuits on the baking sheet, allowing a little space between each. Set the pan on the lower shelf of the hot oven and bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until just lightly golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve hot. Makes about 10 biscuits.

Angel biscuits

This recipe was sent to me by the late Velma Mosley of Tyler, Texas

1 package active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water (between 105 and 115 degrees)

1½ cups buttermilk, at room temperature

4 to 4½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2/3 cup unsalted butter, chilled

2 tablespoons melted butter

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside.

Place the buttermilk in a small saucepan and heat over low heat for 4 or 5 minutes just until lukewarm, no more than 110 degrees. Remove from the heat and mix with the dissolved yeast, stirring to combine well. Set aside.

Sift into a large bowl 4 cups of the flour, the baking soda, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut the butter into small chunks and add to the bowl. Using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut the mixture until it resembles coarse cornmeal.

Add the buttermilk-yeast mixture to the flour mixture, sprinkling over a little of the liquid at a time while stirring with a fork to moisten. Turn the dough out onto a floured cloth or board and form into a ball.

Sprinkle with a little more of the remaining ½ cup of flour if the dough is sticky.

Place the dough on a floured board or cloth and knead lightly for about 2 minutes, sprinkling with a little more with flour if necessary.

Roll out the dough into a 9-inch circle. Using a 2-inch cookie or biscuit cutter, cut into rounds. Roll the scraps and cut again, if needed.

Place the biscuits on two ungreased baking sheets, at least 1 inch apart. Brush the tops lightly with a little melted butter. Cover with a towel and allow the biscuits to rise in a warm place for 1½ hours, or until they have doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Set one of the pan of biscuits on the lowest shelf in the hot stove. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until tinged golden brown. Remove the biscuits immediately from the baking sheet and serve hot or keep warm. Bake the remaining pan of biscuits the same way.

Makes 24 to 28 biscuits.

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