I love to cook, and southern food is especially important to me because it is “how” I learned to cook. One could even say southern food truly developed my desire TO cook. My grandmother, Eden, was a gracious lady who believed in God, loved her family, worked hard every day, did not cotton to silliness in any form, and could cook with no recipe at all. In fact, in the 23 years I had her in my life, I don’t believe I ever saw her with a recipe card or cookbook. I know she had them, because I inherited them, but I don’t think she ever used them. Which makes life rather difficult when one is trying to recreate certain things.
I completely understand and love why she didn’t use a recipe. There’s a certain creative process and sense of pride involved. Knowing you are making something that comes completely from your own head is a powerful thing for a cook, especially when it turns out well. Eden’s always did. Mine, on the other hand, did not.
Don’t get me wrong. My own concoctions, from soups to spice rubs to cookies to cocktails, tend to turn out fine. But it has taken me ages to perfect her recipes. After all, I only ever watched her make them; she never let me actually help, except to stir. So trying to recreate the measurements was a challenge, considering I was always just told or shown “a pinch of” or “just enough and then a smidge more.” My measuring cups and spoons don’t have a “smidge” line, though I think they should.
I mastered cornbread early, then hopping john and corn casserole, even dressing for Thanksgiving (through MUCH trial and error), but one thing always kept giving me the same trouble – buttermilk biscuits. All the recipes I found in southern cookbooks rendered these big fluffy biscuits that were delicious, but were simply NOT the small, dense biscuits I loved from my grandmother’s kitchen. When I moved to Colorado, I even tried several of them again, thinking the altitude might make them so. All I ended up with was golden hockey pucks. They didn’t rise at all. So where was the balance? I was looking for the right amount of lift, but with a very solid center, to stand up to sawmill gravy or simmered strawberries. Those were Eden’s biscuits. But try as I might to remember every single step, they never turned out. Until this weekend!
I finally resorted to one of her cookbooks, and then played with the recipe a bit, as I knew she would have (if she had ever read the thing!) A little more of this, a little less of that, and it all worked!! Perfect size, thickness and density:
I think Eden would be so proud of me! True, I used a cookbook, but I made it my own. I made some sawmill gravy and grits while hubbo made some bacon and eggs. Yes, that’s right! We actually sat down to breakfast!
I thought perhaps I should record what actually worked, so the recipe is here. If I move back to Colorado one day, perhaps I’ll have to up the soda, but for now, these work just fine!!
Buttermilk Biscuits (adapted from Martha Meade’s Recipes from the Old South, 1961).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. soda (1/2 if milk is very sour)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. buttermilk (about)
2 tbsp shortening (the recipe calls for lard or animal fat, but this actually contributes to the softness I was trying to minimize. Shortening is a good substitute for added density.)
Sift dry ingredients together and blend with shortening.
Add milk slowly (may not need entire amount) to make a soft dough.
Knead and roll out on a floured surface to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Cut with biscuit cutter (I use a glass dipped in flour like my grandmother did, but be sure to flour it well).
Place in biscuit pan (or baking sheet) and bake in 350-degree oven about 10 minutes.
Brush tops with butter and continue baking until brown but still soft when top pressed.
Now we can all have biscuits any time! Hmmm…maybe I’ll post the gravy recipe next. Enjoy!