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Great Grandma’s Biscuits

January 11, 2010
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As in, a biscuit recipe from one of my great grandmother’s cookbooks.  Her junior high school home economics textbook, to be precise – published in 1915.  It predates modern ovens, and so includes a chapter entitled, “The Heat For Baking,” which offers such advice as, “The heat of the oven for baking is a difficult matter for a beginner to determine.  Testing the heat by a thermometer is not always practicable. Testing by the length of time one can bear the hand in the oven will vary with every hand that tries it.”

Can we, just for a moment, appreciate ovens that don’t require purposely scorching your hand to test for preheating?

Second-degree burns aside, however, these biscuits are kind of amazing.  They’re crispy on top, fluffy in the middle, and they’re practically begging to be split in half and slathered in jam.  I’ve doubled the amount of butter called for (from two tablespoons to four), because I think it makes the biscuits more tender, and because it’s just yummy that way.  The recipe calls for a “hot, but not too hot, oven,” which as far as I can determine means about 400 degrees.

We’ll get to the recipe in a minute, but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you some of the gems of wisdom this little book has to offer.

My personal favorite falls under the heading “How to Use a Bathroom.”  Thankfully, it doesn’t go into the graphic details (which I pride myself on knowing how to do without textbook instruction, thankyouverymuch), but concentrates on being “sure that you have left no trace of your personal use of the bathroom.” For example, “Always wipe the basin even if you have only washed your hands, and if you have been so careless as to slop water all about the marble, wipe it up.” How dare you be so careless!  If you’re not yet properly chastised, try this: “Nothing betrays a lack of home training and of innate refinement so much as untidy personal habits.  Avoid all carelessness in this respect in your daily home life.”

Please excuse me for a moment.  There’s some laundry on the floor I feel suddenly moved to pick up.

Ingredients:

2 cups unbleached flour (The recipe calls for pastry flour, but I use unbleached as it’s most convenient.)

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold salted butter, cut into pieces

Approximately 1 cup of milk

– Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

– Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a fine mesh sieve over a bowl, mix thoroughly, and sift.

– Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

– Pour in about 3/4 of the milk, and mix.  You’re aiming for a stiff dough, so if it’s too dry, add the rest of the milk.  It’s easier to err on the side of caution when adding liquid, as different flours will absorb different amounts of milk.

“Toss it about on a well-floured board, knead it gently, but effectually, until it is smooth and will not stick…. There is a knack about it which comes with practice.” This makes it sound a lot scarier than it is.  You’ll only need to knead it for 30 seconds to a minute, and if it sticks, just scrape it off the board and put a bit more flour down.  Then, all of a sudden, it will become satisfyingly smooth and you can stick your tongue out at the mean book.

– Using your fingers or a rolling pin, pat the dough into a round about 1/2 an inch thick.

– Using a 2-inch(ish) biscuit cutter (or a well-floured glass rim), cut out your biscuits.  “Cut economically, that there may be but few trimmings.”

– Pat your trimmings back into a 1/2 inch-thick round, and repeat previous step.

– Place biscuits on a cookie sheet (lined with foil or parchment paper, if you want to minimize dish-washing) and let them stand for at least 10 minutes.

– Bake for 10-12 minutes, until they just start to brown on top.

– Brush the tops with a little melted butter, if you like.

– Protect your fresh biscuits from the likes of Chris, who will eat 8 of them as soon as your back is turned.

– Makes 12-15ish biscuits, depending on how thickly you cut them.

Final biscuit wisdom: “Now because these biscuits are not two or three inches high when they are done, do not think they are not light or right.  Remember the biscuits were thin when cut, and if they have doubled in height that is sufficient; they are more wholesome when they split into two thin crusts, than when so thick that there is an excess of the softer inside portion, which, while it may be pleasing to some palates, is less digestible than the crusts.”

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol ( Grandma) permalink
    January 13, 2010 8:55 am

    Thank you for a great review of the recipe and book. Sounds like you found the answer to good biscuits and lots of good advice. Enjoy!!

    • Ashley permalink
      January 13, 2010 8:57 am

      Thanks, Grandma! Since the book is technically yours, I should probably give it back one of these days – but it’s such good entertainment! We should pick another recipe from it to try together.

  2. Jeannie permalink
    January 13, 2010 3:02 pm

    Ashley, I just LOVED this little blog…so ‘old world’ with a modern spin. I hope you do another recipe from Carol’s cookbook :-D.

  3. September 29, 2011 1:26 pm

    Thanks for this recipe. Though I was disappointed they didn’t look nearly as good as your photos (mine barely rose), they were delicious!! I used a bit of the dough for apple pizza for my son, baked a few to sample, and put the rest of them in the freezer. Yay! 🙂

    • Ashley permalink*
      October 17, 2011 7:59 pm

      Goodness, Elegraph, somehow your comment got lost in the ether – I just saw it! I’m glad you liked the biscuits, though it’s such a bummer that they didn’t rise. I’ve found that the butter really is key to getting them just right; too little, and they’re kind of like hockey pucks. 🙂 The little resting period before the oven seems to help, too. And sometimes, the baking gods just aren’t on your side. I hope you have better luck next time! In the meantime, apple pizza sounds *incredible.* I can’t wait to try that! Thank you so much for the idea!

  4. October 19, 2011 9:19 am

    I think I figured out what my problem was – I overworked the dough! I made my second batch from another recipe, and they rose but didn’t taste as good… so I tried this recipe again and made sure not to handle it too much… PERFECTO. I think this recipe has just the right amount of baking powder for the best flavor. Thanks again! (PS there are apple pizza recipes all over the ‘net – the best ones use brown sugar. :-))

    • Ashley permalink*
      October 20, 2011 4:22 pm

      Oh, I’m so glad you had luck on the second try! You’re making me crave biscuits – maybe I’ll put them on this week’s menu. 🙂 I’ll tell you a secret: I’m considering upping the amount of butter. Just a little. I think they’ll be flakier that way. If I try it, I’ll let you know how it goes!

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  1. Category: Traditional Biscuit – Week 1 | bickeringbiscuits

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