Saturday, May 5, 2007

Southern Style Biscuits

I spent some time yesterday at the feet...or rather in the kitchen...of the master.

Betty is recognized on the mountain as the best scratch biscuit maker in these parts. Everyone says so, and having had these mouth-melting treats of the Southern table at her house, I must agree. I've had the best. These biscuits Betty makes rival and surpass Mrs. Wilkes famed biscuits from The Boarding House in Savannah, Ga.

Betty learned to make biscuits from her Granddaddy Hall sixty something years ago when she was 10 years old. Her mother was laying-in pregnant and Grandpa Hall was living with them after the death of her grandmother. He learned to make them from his wife who was also a famed biscuit maker.

When she learned how to make them, and up until the 1960's, she was making them in a wood-burning cook stove. Even after she switched to electric, she kept the big stove to cook on during the winter. It would warm the house up really nice.

"I was first making them real small like." She said, as I was stuffing my face with chicken-fried steak, gravy and biscuits, "But Lee, he got right upset and said, 'I feel right embarrassed having to keep reaching for biscuits...if you make them big, I don't need so many!'"

Betty said a typical family of eight would go through a 25 pound sack of flour per week. She would make her biscuits in the morning for breakfast and sometimes do another batch at night if the menu called for them. Left-over biscuits never were wasted. Sometimes, if the kids were home from school, she'd make ham or jelly biscuits to go with their lunch. The menfolk appreciated them after a heavy morning of ploughing, discing or tomato picking.

She also made something she called a "poor folks blackberry pie", that involved splitting the biscuits and putting the bottom halves in a pan. Then she'd layer blackberries, sugar and butter on top of those. Cover that up with the tops of the biscuits, dot with butter and bake until bubbly. This, she says, was very delicious.

If you have ever made scratch biscuits, you know they can be fickle things unless you have your way of making them just so. If you handle the dough too much, they can become hockey pucks. Too little and they are too cakey. If your fluids are not chilled, the biscuit can also be tough and inedible. I must say that I have, once in a while, suffered the embarrassment of making a bad biscuit.

So, I was really eager to watch Betty make hers. I picked up some tricks I'm happy to pass on to you, and intend to practice in my own kitchen.

This is going to be more of a technique lesson than anything. Like most southern recipes of this type, the ingredient amounts are mostly by "feel".

Betty-Jo's Biscuits

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. Start with a two quart bowl, three-quarters full of White Lilly self-rising flour. Make a well in the center of the flour. Put approximately 3 "eggs" (a unit of measurement approximating the size of a medium hen's egg) worth of white shortening. Using your hands, gently crumble the shortening into the flour. Add one coffee mug of fresh cold buttermilk. Combine gently using your hands. Add enough cold water to make the dough a good consistency. It should be well combined, but not overworked. Moist, but not runny. Pat biscuits into shape, or gently roll out and cut into circles with a jelly jar. Grease up your pan real good with shortening. Put your biscuits in the pan, just touching. Place in the oven and cut the heat to 350. Bake for about 10 minutes or until risen, then broil to brown the biscuits. Serve hot!

While Betty was making them, I asked some questions in between handing her the buttermilk and doing other small tasks to help. On the subject of flour, she is most definite about the quality of White Lilly.

"How about just using plain flour and adding the rising?" I asked.

"Lord, no! I never use plain flour since they came out with self-rising."

"How about adding and egg or two?" I asked.

"Noooooo," she clucked at me, making it clear that any deviation from this formula would result in certain biscuit disaster.

There was one variation that she did endorse slightly. Up until not too long ago, Betty and her family kept family milk cows. Churning butter, buttermilk and keeping fresh homemade dairy products around the house was also part of their routine on their farm. Betty was also considered an expert at turning out sweet fresh creamery butter. One auntie of hers used to love to make these biscuits with the fresh butter from Betty's churns. They were so delicious that they called them "butter pies" and would serve with fresh jam or hot berry compote.

I'd invited myself to this demonstration of biscuit mastery, but, of course, Betty didn't see the point in just making the biscuits without a meal to go along with it. So she whipped up a meal of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, corn and gravy to go along with the biscuits. The grand kids heard Mamaw was making them and showed up to scarf the leftovers.

I ate myself stupid, then kicked back and watched part of the Gaither Gospel Hour on RFD-TV with her.

I did do the dishes. I had to fight her on this, but she eventually did let me help.

Written by Rosie
Smokey Mountain Breakdown