When I got into cooking last year, my Mom gave me her Mother’s cookbook. It’s an old stitch bound notebook in which my Grandmother would write down her favorite recipes. There’s a wide assortment of dishes ranging from “Mincemeat Cookies” to “Cabbage Bundles”, but the majority of my Grandmother’s recipes revolve around baking. My Mother has told endless, dreamy tales of how my Grandmother was such a great baker. Unfortunately she didn’t pass on her knowledge, so all we have is this small notebook.
With Thanksgiving coming up my thoughts have been centered around cooking and one of the things that I’ve been wanting to try are Grandma’s biscuit recipe. So this weekend I thought I’d give it a shot. I have never made biscuits before and I’ve never seen them made either, so I didn’t have high hopes for the results of my labor. As long as the biscuits came out edible, I would be happy.
Everything was going smoothly until it was time to add the lard. That stuff is a gooey mess and my Grandmother’s recipe said was “Sift dry ingredients cut until mixture resembles coarse crumbs” The “cut” appeared to be an addition that was made at a later date. Using a fork, I tried to mix everything together, but it wasn’t going so well. I re-read the instructions and seeing “Sift” made me think that I had to use a sifter, which I didn’t think was a good idea. I couldn’t imagine lard going through a wire mesh very well.
The add-in of “Cut” didn’t help things either because I didn’t know what “cutting” was in relationship to cooking. The only image I could come up with is that of a knife fight in some back alley of a 70’s B movie where some punk threatens the hero by saying, “I’m gonna cut you sucka”. So I did the only thing I could think of, which is to use by old standby of diving in head first. I dove both hands into the bowl and began working the lard into the flour by hand. Yeah, not such a good idea. I think there was more lard on my hands than there was in the flour, but I finally saw a few crumbles and decided I was done.
Next was the buttermilk. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any buttermilk. All I had was 2% milk and some cream, so I added a little cream to the milk and used that instead. Everything seemed to go as planned from that part forward. I mixed in the milk, rolled out the dough and cut out the biscuits. I greased the baking pan and began baking about 18 biscuits. I checked their progress and in about 10 minutes they were done.
Well, “Done” is a relative term isn’t it? Allow me to clarify. The biscuits were as browned as I wanted them to be, however they didn’t look so much like biscuits as they did cookies, so I can’t say that explicitly that the biscuits were “done”. Anyone walking up and seeing me pull the tray out of the oven wouldn’t have said “Oh yum, biscuits”, but rather “What are you cooking?”, or “Oh yum, Andalusian flat bread skipping stones!”
Pouring them onto a plate, I picked up the phone and called my Mom to ask her expert advice on where I went wrong. My first question was “what the hell is cutting?” She explained it to me and that helped a lot. Knowing that I needed pastry blender, or could have stayed with the fork if I had known what the heck I was doing, gave me some clue as to where I went wrong. When I described the fact that my biscuits looked like they needed some Viagra, Mom instantly said, “You probably worked the dough too long.”
That’s the thing about cooking – it’s not all about the recipe. Part of the process in learning how to cook, is picking up the little nuances and techniques that come along with it. Of course that only comes from cooking itself and having others help you along the way. Having Mom explain to me a little bit about how you don’t work the dough too long was the real key to why my biscuits were so flat. I’m sure my handling of the “cut” didn’t help either, but I kneaded the hell out of that dough, so I worked out all the gluten and that’s all she wrote.
So how did they taste? Not so bad surprisingly. I ate 3 or 4 just to get the taste and to see what worked and what didn’t. Overall the taste was pretty good, it was just too dense. I had made bread of some sort, but it certainly wasn’t a biscuit. Holly came downstairs later and said she smelled something good. She guessed that I had cooked biscuits so I suppose that’s a good sign that I got close to the mark. To her credit, Holly also ate one. 🙂
Today I’ll head to Bed Bath & Beyond to get a pastry blender and to the grocery store for buttermilk and then I’ll give it another shot. Since this exercise wasn’t total humiliation like when I tried to make french bread (that’s another story all together), I’ll keep working at it. 🙂
Go get ’em Tiger! I know how you feel – a little research goes a long way, and usually that research involves a call to the sous chef of old – my mother! I have books on how to repair a hole in the wall, step by step, but no books on how to fold or cut or sift or knead… Most recipe books are just that – only recipes. A good cookbook should give the beginner instructions on how to follow the instructions!