By Susan M. Thigpen © 1999
Online: January, 1999
When I was a little girl, I watched my grandmother make biscuits many, many times. She would go to her pantry where there was a huge flour bin and her bread making bowl - one of those earthenware big brown bowls with a stripe around the top that cost an arm and a leg in antique stores today. She never measured anything, but would scoop out flour with a big tin scoop into her flour sifter that was painted white with red cherries painted on the side. Then she would sprinkle a little baking soda into the flour and sift it into the bowl.
Then she would go to the spring house and get home churned buttermilk. She would sit these things on her kitchen table that was covered in a red checked oil cloth tablecloth. Then she would get out her bucket of lard and scoop out a hunk about the size of a walnut with her fingers. My grandmother would put this lump of lard in the middle of the flour, having first scooped a hole out in the center of the flour. She poured the buttermilk into this depression in the flour and worked it and the lard into the flour.
I remember my grandmother held the bowl under one arm and mixed the dough with a twisting motion of her fingers. She never used a spoon. When the dough was mixed, she would start pinching off big pieces of dough and rolling them in the palm of her hand. Then she would place the newly formed biscuit in a pan that was blackened from many years of use. the pan would always be full of biscuits, no spaces between and if there was a little dough left, she would make it into a tiny baby biscuit and tuck it away in a small hole between the other biscuits. This would be my special biscuit.
My grandmother made it look so easy. When she was finished, her bowl was clean, her hands were clean, there was no dough or flour on her, the bowl or the table. How she managed that, I have never figured out. It was magic and as far as I'm concerned, it still is! I make a pretty good biscuit, but I've never managed to come out clean as a whistle like she did. She would place the pan in her wood cook stove oven and remove it at just the right time so that the biscuits were golden brown, never burned. Those biscuits were always light, fluffy and huge - that's why they are called cat head biscuits - because they are as big as a cat's head!
Now, how do you reproduce those biscuits today? I will give you a recipe and some pointers.
2 cups self rising flour
1 cup buttermilk
a lump of solid shortening the size of a walnut. This can be real butter, margarine, lard or solid vegetable shortening. This has to be at room temperature to blend smoothly into the dough. Do not, and I repeat, do not use a soft dairy spread - they contain so much water that they won't work for any baking purposes.
In a large mixing bowl, put the flour. Most flours today do not need to be sifted. Push the flour to the sides of the bowl to form a depression in the center. Place the shortening and a little of the milk in the center and start stirring with a big spoon. When the shortening is blended, add the rest of the milk, mixing just until blended and the dough forms a ball. The dough will be a little on the moist side.
Place wax paper on a flat surface like your kitchen table and sprinkle flour on it. Roll the dough out on the wax paper. Do not handle the dough any more than you have to - it makes the biscuits tough. The less you handle it and the more moist the dough, the better your biscuits will be. Just pat the dough gently until it's about an inch and a half thick.
Then cut out the biscuits. Do you know what I use for a biscuit cutter? I use a tin can that I cut both the bottom and top out of and removed the label. A one pound vegetable can is a good size. Cut out your biscuits and place in a greased pan. The pan can be either glass or metal, but be sure it is small enough so that the biscuits are all close together, touching - Remember, you want the biscuits to rise up, not out to the side. Another reason for this is that when the biscuits bake with their sides touching, you can pull them apart easily, but those sides will be very soft and tender, not hard and brown. This is a very important part of making good biscuits.
Bake in a hot oven 400 degrees just until the biscuits are light brown, but you are sure the dough is done through and through. No one likes a biscuit that is still doughy, but neither does anyone like a hard crust either!
You can brush melted butter on the tops of the biscuits when they are done, or before you place them in the oven. This is also a hint to keep the biscuits soft and moist. This recipe will make around 8 to 10 biscuits, depending on the size of your tin can. A variation of this recipe is to use tomato juice instead of milk. the biscuits will be red and you will love the flavor if you eat them with a slice of country ham in them! They do not rise as much as buttermilk biscuits.
At this point, all you will need is to eat the biscuits - hot right out of the oven with butter, honey, home made strawberry jam or molasses. Gourmets - Eat your heart out, country cooking rules!