Until recently, the only biscuits I ever made at home came from a Pop n’ Fresh can, so when friends from overseas asked me for a real American biscuit recipe, I scoured every book I could find, starting with the biscuit tome Southern Biscuits by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart, and ending with Alton Brown’s always insightful analysis in I’m Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking.
I already knew that biscuits were an American icon, and that food can bring people together or tear them apart. What I learned, is that arguments over biscuit recipes have caused family feuds and could have even contributed to rising tension in the war between the states.
The earliest biscuits were a simple combination of flour and water that resulted in little more than baked paste. Soon people learned that adding fat to the recipe made them tasty and flaky. In the Northern states butter is the favored lipid. In the South, lard or shortening is the standard. Biscuits became a source of pride as well as sustenance with Southerners even developing their own special flour, called White Lily, not readily available in the North.
I’m a Yankee by birth, but that’s not why I chose butter for the fat in my biscuit recipe. I wanted them to be vegetarian, so lard is out, and shortening contains trans-fats which are known to be bad for you. So butter it is. I learned that I also needed an acidic ingredient to react properly with the fat, so I stuck with the Southern classic buttermilk for my liquid and added a touch of healthy Greek yogurt for extra flavor (and even more acidity).
Part of the secret to making biscuits is in the technique. The butter/fat had to be incorporated into the flour with a snapping movement so that there are still tiny particles of butter left. These little chunks will expand in the oven and make air pockets.
The dough has to be rolled out very thin and then folded over itself in order to get the familiar flaky layers. The biscuits will be good no matter how many layers you have, but it’s fun to see how many layers you can make. Just remember that the more layers you make the less biscuits you make… unless you make more dough of course.
So, I bring you my Northern Style Southern Biscuits as a symbol of peace, goodwill and a country united. They’re perfect for Thanksgiving.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together. Use a food processor if you have one so that everything is mixed really well. Remove the butter from the freezer and cut it into very small pieces - about 1/4 inch. Toss the cubes into the flour mixture and using a snapping motion rub the butter into it. About half of the butter should still be visible as pea sized chunks. Put the butter and flour mixture in the freezer. In another bowl, whisk together the Greek yogurt, buttermilk and egg to combine. Remove the flour from the freezer, make a small well in the middle and pour in the liquids. Mix with a rubber spatula.
- On a well floured pastry or cutting board roll out the dough using a floured rolling pin. Roll out the dough as thin as you can -a bout 1/4 inch think. Carefully lift and fold the dough over itself to make layers. Cut the dough with a 2" round cookie or biscuit cutter. Place on an un-greased cookie sheet and cook until browned - about 15 minutes. Serve with lots of butter and jam.