For some strange reason, I've been thinking lately about making homemade biscuits.
Actually, I know the exact reason I've been thinking about making homemade biscuits. I saw several commercials for fast-food restaurants on television that feature breakfast biscuits, and I found myself wondering, "Where do they get the old women to come to those restaurants and make the biscuits that early in the morning?" Because I'm convinced that biscuit-making is a dying art, and only women of my mother's generation know how to do it. I never learned. Sigh.
Then I realized that someone in every single one of those restaurants knows how to make biscuits, and it can't possibly be that hard if they can do it.
I think of biscuit-making the same way I think of calculus: It's something I never mastered, and I don't want it to think it has permanently kicked my butt. I'm determined to win.
I must have watched my mother make biscuits a jillion times. There was this metal container (5-gallon?) with a lid that held the flour. Inside the tin was also a flour sifter; it lived there. (Does anyone sift flour anymore? I don't. Can that be why my biscuits don't turn out?)
Mom had a wooden bowl in which she made biscuits. She would pour in the (sifted) flour and make a little well in the flour. She would pour an undetermined amount of buttermilk into the well, and then she would add shortening. (I'm pretty sure it was "lard" at some point, before Crisco became the "healthy" alternative.) She would work the shortening into the buttermilk (or the buttermilk into the shortening?) with her fingertips, working out the lumps and slowly incorporating flour from the edges of the well.
The walls of her well never fell down (mine always do), and she never got anything on her hands beyond her fingertips (you should see the unholy mess I can make in the kitchen when I attempt biscuits). She would work the dough around in a circle, then she would begin picking up the edges of the dough ball, turn one to the center, and pat it down. She continued this way until she had a smooth, floury, perfect lump of dough. Then she would pinch off enough for a biscuit, dip the pinched-off end into the remaining flour, and roll the dough into a ball. Then she would pat the ball down into a biscuit shape, and sometimes she would give it one last pat with her knuckles. No rolling out the dough and using a cookie cutter for HER biscuits. Blasphemy.
There was always a little bit of dough left over, and Mom always made me a "baby biscuit." If anyone else dared get the baby biscuit, I pitched an unholy fit (or was it a holy fit?). There are advantages to being the baby.
I know all the steps by heart, and I have the exact same supplies and the same ten fingers. Why, then, is my kitchen covered with flour, two dish towels have bits of dough all over them from where I tried to clean my hands, several biscuits' worth of dough is lodged under my fingernails, and my biscuits turned out nothing like my mother's?
Oh, they TASTE all right. But they aren't fluffy. You could use a fork to gently pry Mom's biscuits open, and there would be this hot steaming fluffiness inside that almost didn't need any butter at all. (But we used it all the same. And lots of jelly.) One of my favorite things to do was take leftover biscuits the next morning (hard to believe we even HAD leftovers), split them, and toast them. When no one was looking, I would first slather butter and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top before toasting them. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
My biscuits were okay in the middle, but they turned out a little crusty. We had to use a knife (at least a butter knife sufficed, and we didn't have to resort to the knife Hubby uses to cut up fresh pineapple) and saw back and forth a little, but the biscuits were tolerable. They just weren't like Mom's.
We interrupt this blog post for a phone call to Mom...
Her suggestion was that I may need to use more shortening next time. I was afraid of using too much, so that may be the key. I'll let you know next time I get up the nerve to try biscuits again.
Mom also says she doesn't make biscuits anymore. She likes the frozen ones, and that's what Hubby and I eat most of the time. I like those because you can cook one, or you can cook 20. (We've so far not needed to cook 20.)
When Mom was first married (at the age of 16), she made homemade biscuits three meals a day. In a wood stove.
I don't think I would have made a very good pioneer.